Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XXII

Nice, November 10, 1764.

DEAR SIR — I had once thoughts of writing a complete natural history of this town and county: but I found myself altogether unequal to the task. I have neither health, strength, nor opportunity to make proper collections of the mineral, vegetable, and animal productions. I am not much conversant with these branches of natural philosophy. I have no books to direct my inquiries. I can find no person capable of giving me the least information or assistance; and I am strangely puzzled by the barbarous names they give to many different species, the descriptions of which I have read under other appelations; and which, as I have never seen them before, I cannot pretend to distinguish by the eye. You must therefore be contented with such imperfect intelligence as my opportunities can afford.

The useful arts practised at Nice, are these, gardening and agriculture, with their consequences, the making of wine, oil, and cordage; the rearing of silk-worms, with the subsequent management and manufacture of that production; and the fishing, which I have already described.

Nothing can be more unpromising than the natural soil of this territory, except in a very few narrow bottoms, where there is a stiff clay, which when carefully watered, yields tolerable pasturage. In every other part, the soil consists of a light sand mingled with pebbles, which serves well enough for the culture of vines and olives: but the ground laid out for kitchen herbs, as well as for other fruit must be manured with great care and attention. They have no black cattle to afford such compost as our farmers use in England. The dung of mules and asses, which are their only beasts of burthen, is of very little value for this purpose; and the natural sterility of their ground requires something highly impregnated with nitre and volatile salts. They have recourse therefore to pigeons’ dung and ordure, which fully answer their expectations. Every peasant opens, at one corner of his wall, a public house of office for the reception of passengers; and in the town of Nice, every tenement is provided with one of these receptacles, the contents of which are carefully preserved for sale. The peasant comes with his asses and casks to carry it off before day, and pays for it according to its quality, which he examines and investigates, by the taste and flavour. The jakes of a protestant family, who eat gras every day, bears a much higher price than the privy of a good catholic who lives maigre one half of the year. The vaults belonging to the convent of Minims are not worth emptying.

The ground here is not delved with spades as in England, but laboured with a broad, sharp hough, having a short horizontal handle; and the climate is so hot and dry in the summer, that the plants must be watered every morning and evening, especially where it is not shaded by trees. It is surprising to see how the productions of the earth are crouded together. One would imagine they would rob one another of nourishment; and moreover be stifled for want of air; and doubtless this is in some measure the case. Olive and other fruit trees are planted in rows very close to each other. These are connected by vines, and the interstices, between the rows, are filled with corn. The gardens that supply the town with sallad and pot-herbs, lye all on the side of Provence, by the highway. They are surrounded with high stone-walls, or ditches, planted with a kind of cane or large reed, which answers many purposes in this country. The leaves of it afford sustenance to the asses, and the canes not only serve as fences to the inclosures; but are used to prop the vines and pease, and to build habitations for the silkworms: they are formed into arbours, and wore as walking-staves. All these gardens are watered by little rills that come from the mountains, particularly, by the small branches of the two sources which I have described in a former letter, as issuing from the two sides of a mountain, under the names of Fontaine de Muraille, and Fontaine du Temple.

In the neighbourhood of Nice, they raise a considerable quantity of hemp, the largest and strongest I ever saw. Part of this, when dressed, is exported to other countries; and part is manufactured into cordage. However profitable it may be to the grower, it is certainly a great nuisance in the summer. When taken out of the pits, where it has been put to rot, the stench it raises is quite insupportable; and must undoubtedly be unwholesome.

There is such a want of land in this neighbourhood, that terraces are built over one another with loose stones, on the faces of bare rocks, and these being covered with earth and manured, are planted with olives, vines, and corn. The same shift was practised all over Palestine, which was rocky and barren, and much more populous than the county of Nice.

Notwithstanding the small extent of this territory, there are some pleasant meadows in the skirts of Nice, that produce excellent clover; and the corn which is sown in open fields, where it has the full benefit of the soil, sun, and air, grows to a surprizing height. I have seen rye seven or eight feet high. All vegetables have a wonderful growth in this climate. Besides wheat, rye, barley, and oats, this country produces a good deal of Meliga, or Turkish wheat, which is what we call Indian corn. I have, in a former letter, observed that the meal of this grain goes by the name polenta, and makes excellent hasty-pudding, being very nourishing, and counted an admirable pectoral. The pods and stalks are used for fuel: and the leaves are much preferable to common straw, for making paillasses.

The pease and beans in the garden appear in the winter like beautiful plantations of young trees in blossom; and perfume the air. Myrtle, sweet-briar, sweet-marjoram, sage, thyme, lavender, rosemary, with many other aromatic herbs and flowers, which with us require the most careful cultivation, are here found wild in the mountains.

It is not many years since the Nissards learned the culture of silk-worms, of their neighbours the Piedmontese; and hitherto the progress they have made is not very considerable: the whole county of Nice produces about one hundred and thirty-three bales of three hundred pounds each, amounting in value to four hundred thousand livres.

In the beginning of April, when the mulberry-leaves, begin to put forth, the eggs or grains that produce the silk-worm, are hatched. The grains are washed in wine, and those that swim on the top, are thrown away as good for nothing. The rest being deposited in small bags of linen, are worn by women in their bosoms, until the worms begin to appear: then they are placed in shallow wooden boxes, covered with a piece of white paper, cut into little holes, through which the worms ascend as they are hatched, to feed on the young mulberry-leaves, of which there is a layer above the paper. These boxes are kept for warmth between two mattrasses, and visited every day. Fresh leaves are laid in, and the worms that feed are removed successively to the other place prepared for their reception. This is an habitation, consisting of two or three stories, about twenty inches from each other, raised upon four wooden posts. The floors are made of canes, and strewed with fresh mulberry-leaves: the corner posts, and other occasional props, for sustaining the different floors, are covered with a coat of loose heath, which is twisted round the wood. The worms when hatched are laid upon the floors; and here you may see them in all the different stages (if moulting or casting the slough, a change which they undergo three times successively before they begin to work. The silk-worm is an animal of such acute and delicate sensations, that too much care cannot be taken to keep its habitation clean, and to refresh it from time to time with pure air. I have seen them languish and die in scores, in consequence of an accidental bad smell. The soiled leaves, and the filth which they necessarily produce, should be carefully shifted every day; and it would not be amiss to purify the air sometimes with fumes of vinegar, rose, or orange-flower water. These niceties, however, are but little observed. They commonly lie in heaps as thick as shrimps in a plate, some feeding on the leaves, some new hatched, some intranced in the agonies of casting their skin, sonic languishing, and some actually dead, with a litter of half-eaten faded leaves about them, in a close room, crouded with women and children, not at all remarkable for their cleanliness. I am assured by some persons of credit, that if they are touched, or even approached, by a woman in her catamenia, they infallibly expire. This, however, must be understood of those females whose skins have naturally a very rank flavour, which is generally heightened at such periods. The mulberry-leaves used in this country are of the tree which bears a small white fruit not larger than a damascene. They are planted on purpose, and the leaves are sold at so much a pound. By the middle of June all the mulberry-trees are stripped; but new leaves succeed, and in a few weeks, they are cloathed again with fresh verdure. In about ten days after the last moulting, the silk-worm climbs upon the props of his house, and choosing a situation among the heath, begins to spin in a most curious manner, until he is quite inclosed, and the cocon or pod of silk, about the size of a pigeon’s egg, which he has produced remains suspended by several filaments. It is no unusual to see double cocons, spun by two worms included under a common cover. There must be an infinite number of worms to yield any considerable quantity of silk. One ounce of eggs or grains produces, four rup, or one hundred Nice pounds of cocons; and one rup, or twenty-five pounds of cocons, if they are rich, gives three pounds of raw silk; that is, twelve pounds of silk are got from one ounce of grains, which ounce of grains its produced by as many worms as are inclosed in one pound, or twelve ounces of cocons. In preserving the cocons for breed, you must choose an equal number of males and females; and these are very easily distinguished by the shape of the cocons; that which contains the male is sharp, and the other obtuse, at the two ends. In ten or twelve days after the cocon is finished, the worm makes its way through it, in the form of a very ugly, unwieldy, aukward butterfly, and as the different sexes are placed by one another on paper or linen, they immediately engender. The female lays her eggs, which are carefully preserved; but neither she nor her mate takes any nourishment, and in eight or ten days after they quit the cocons, they generally die. The silk of these cocons cannot be wound, because the animals in piercing through them, have destroyed the continuity of the filaments. It is therefore, first boiled, and then picked and carded like wool, and being afterwards spun, is used in the coarser stuffs of the silk manufacture. The other cocons, which yield the best silk, are managed in a different manner. Before the inclosed worm has time to penetrate, the silk is reeled off with equal care and ingenuity. A handful of the cocons are thrown away into a kettle of boiling water, which not only kills the animal, but dissolves the glutinous substance by which the fine filaments of the silk cohere or stick together, so that they are easily wound off, without breaking. Six or seven of these small filaments being joined together are passed over a kind of twisting iron, and fixed to the wheel, which one girl turns, while another, with her hands in the boiling water, disentangles the threads, joins them when they chance to break, and supplies fresh cocons with admirable dexterity and dispatch. There is a manufacture of this kind just without one of the gates of Nice, where forty or fifty of these wheels are worked together, and give employment for some weeks to double the number of young women. Those who manage the pods that float in the boiling water must be very alert, otherwise they will scald their fingers. The smell that comes from the boiling cocons is extremely offensive. Hard by the harbour, there is a very curious mill for twisting the silk, which goes by water. There is in the town of Nice, a well regulated hospital for poor orphans of both sexes, where above one hundred of them are employed in dressing, dyeing, spinning, and weaving the silk. In the villages of Provence, you see the poor women in the streets spinning raw silk upon distaves: but here the same instrument is only used for spinning hemp and flax; which last, however, is not of the growth of Nice — But lest I should spin this letter to a tedious length, I will now wind up my bottom, and bid you heartily farewell.

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