Saturday, April 23, 2011

Queen of plums

This year has been the best year ever in our orchard. Trees that had produced only sporadically if at all in the last decade suddenly overwhelmed us with bounty. It wasn't just that we'd netted the trees for the first time ever, frustrating feathered thieves; we only netted them because this was the first year it was worth spending the extra money, as the trees happily celebrated the astonishing amount of rain we'd received over the year by sprouting baby produce as far as the eye could see. Starting from peaches and nectarines and Morello cherries to plums, nashis, pears, apples, and figs, those few trees have kept us oversupplied with massive amounts of fruit, so much that we haven't bought in fruit for months. The prize for productivity was taken by the Beurre Bosc pear tree which despite its modest size proudly bore about a hundred and fifty kilos of the brown-robed, juicy fruit. My husband David, preserve wizard of the family, has been kept frantically busy bottling, jamming, drying, and juicing so that now the pantry looks like we could withstand a siege or a European winter: from nashi wine and pear cider to gleaming bottled peaches and cherries to jams of all sorts to a treasure trove of gorgeous, syrupy dried fruit. And we've eaten such mountains of fresh and cooked fruit 'a toutes les sauces' every single meal till it feels there's fruit juice in our very veins and that soon we'll soon be turning into one of those Arcimboldo seasonal paintings!

If all this fruit harvest has been a great delight the one that's most thrilled me are the plums: two beautiful dark red French varieties, the Robe de Sergent and the famous Prune d'Agen which, dried, is luscious with rich, tangy, syrupy flesh; those funny little sour plums called damsons in English and prune de Damas in French(as it originates from Damascus) which make the best pickle ever to have with cheese; and the queen of them all, some people say even the queen of all fruit, the greengage or Reine Claude as it's called in France. First developed centuries ago in Moissac in southern France from a wild Asia Minor cultivar, it was named in honour of the beloved 16th century Queen Claude, Duchess of Brittany, who married the French king Francis I, and was imported to Britain in the eighteenth century by a certain Sir William Gage, who gave his name as the suffix for the English version of the plum's name. Though the fruit is hugely popular there too, for some reason it isn't well-known in Australia, where you have to hunt high and low to find it. It took us quite a while not only to find a grengage tree but then to get it to do anything, for they are whimsical things that may or may not cross-pollinate as they ought with other plum varieties. In the end it was the humble damson which finally persuaded the shy queen of plums to reveal her sweet golden-fleshed, green-skinned glory, and we finally had our reine claude harvest, feasting on the delicious fresh fruit, the glorious dried variety with its concentrated sweetness, and the jam which is like clotted bottled sunshine.

But it was more than present sensual delight that thrilled me as we brought in our first reine claude harvest. When I was a child, we lived in Australia most of the time but went back every couple of years to our house, La Nouvelle Terrebonne, in rural south-western France. Its huge back garden, which we called 'le parc' was dotted with ancient trees, amongst which were some old orchard trees that grew crooked and scaly but still produced glorious fruit. and the reine claude was the best of them all, better even than the cherry which we would sit in to scoff handfuls of fruit. You weren't allowed to scoff handfuls of reines claudes; they had to be picked reverently and taken in state to the kitchen. They were special fruit, treated with respect. And to me they tasted of the last of the summer and the golden tones of the beginning of autumn, the sweetness and tanginess together on the palate in a distinctive mixture that is like nothing else. I've never forgotten it. And like Proust with his madeleine, the simple act of biting into the queen of plums this year brought more than just sheer pleasure. It also brought those past moments back with clarity and love.

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