We decided ages ago that we wanted some more Japonicas, to go under the pine trees, in amongst the hydrangeas, so that there would be something going on in that part of the garden during the winter months, when the hydrangeas are resolutely dormant. Already, we'd put in a row of camellia japonicas - half a dozen different kinds, but all with predominantly white flowers - between the entrance pergola and the pine trees, and the idea was to plant more, disappearing off into the distance, towards the South Lawn beyond the pine trees - but to have them gradually going through whites, to light pinks, to that kind of strong, deep pink that Camellias are so good at. It's the perfect time of year to go and buy the things, as they're just now properly coming into bloom, so you can actually know what it is you're getting. (All the japonicas we put in a year ago are now absolutely dripping with either blooms or buds, and look splendid).
I researched suppliers, and narrowed the choice of possibles down to two: somebody in Cappanori, near Pistoia, who looked as though they operated a pretty straightforward commercial nursery, and an intriguingly eccentric outfit up towards the Garfagnana, with a website (www.camelieantiche.com
) which seemed all about re-discovering camellias from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which had somehow got 'lost' in the passage of time. There wasn't really a website for the business itself, but digging around I managed to find an address and a phone number, which at least allowed us to confirm that yes, they were going to be open that afternoon. Based in Borgo a Mozzano, which looked interestingly pretty and historic, we decided to make an outing of it, and piled into the car.
Borgo a Mozzano, we found - pretty, it isn't - and after that we got conclusively lost for half an hour or so. Eventually, we located some broken-down old greenhouses, and a front door (by which stage, I was thinking wistfully of Cappanori), which was answered by the daughter of the camellia grower. No, Mamma wasn't here...she was at the nursery which is actually in Piana della Rocca...another village, about five minutes drive further up the valley. Time was marching on, tempers getting frayed, and we risked not getting to the place before it closed. However...
And it was amazing. Thousand upon thousands of Camellias, all looking beautifully healthy and jostling for attention...and even more thousands (upon thousands) of azaleas, which it turns out is the speciality of Signora Garibaldi (the Camellia grower)'s husband. Like a chlorophyll version of the 101 dalmations, every time a door was opened or a curtain raised, there were yet more massed ranks of the things...everywhere. And, indeed, Signora G's speciality is all the old varieties, many of which she has 'recovered' from the gardens and parks of the huge old villas in the hills around Lucca - two that we bought, were from cuttings that came from the gardens of the Villa Reale, and all of them could be traced back to some aristocratic garden or other from the neighbourhood. They described themselves as 'appasionati' of camellias - which I think must be an enormous understatement; completely, but wonderfully, obsessed would be more like it. She showed us her working lists of the camellias she'd re-discovered, and when and where, and their overall provenance, and where she had gaps she was looking to fill...and her level of enthusiasm was contagious.
In the end...after an hour or so...we just about managed to load into the back of the car six large camellias, four medium white azaleas, and an enormous blood-red azalea, which is now in the large copper pot near the garden gate. It was as much as we could fit in, in one go.....but we'll be back, for more!
Deep Fried Pork and Prawn Won Ton.
Osso Bucco; Celeriac and Potato purée.