The Fruits Of Our Labour
Ever since I was a young child I’ve loved raspberry jam.
I’ve always thought it the most special of fruits, perhaps because the only time I ever ate it was in Denmark during the summer holidays. My great-grandmother, who had the green thumb of an Earth Goddess, grew great bushes of them in her garden and made a homemade jam that was so rich and intense I can still taste it when I think about it today.
And then of course there were the forest raspberries. Teeny little nuggets of miniaturized, concentrated fruit so crazy flavorful I’ve carried the secret of their location like a hidden treasure my entire adult life (that, and where all the best wild mushrooms are). Some things are just too good to share….
This time of year I think about all those things, especially as fruit is ripening in our own garden.
You see after a long (and rather unusual) reprieve the HEAT has finally arrived, and together with it all things that are officially part of summer in southwest France, both good and bad. It changes our habits, as such things do, and the fruits of our labor too.
Today’s blog post, in a nut shell…
It’s A Hot, Hazy Time
There’s a haze on the horizon, that simmers like a heavy blanket above the valley.
The Pyrénées are somewhere under there, obscured by low-hanging cloud, their fine peaks dusted of snow, now brown and grey like the underlying rock. Everything seems slower, as if the heat has affected time itself. And everyone is inside, hunkered down behind closed shutters to block out the midday sun, the old stone-walled houses dark and quiet, to conserve the smallest of cool.
This is summertime in SW France, and it’s the beginning of a long, hot set of months where temps regularly hit 30°C (86°F) and may even, if we get a heat-wave or a “canucule”, ramp to 40°C (104°F), as they did last year.
It arrived this week, the first wave of that heat that is, and with it all our habits had to switch too. We walk Polly as early as we can now, to catch the morning cool, and if we need to go out in the garden and do any activities, we squeeze them in then too. By mid-morning it’s already too hot, so we shutter-up, as all French do and keep things closed until the sun has passed us by.
Finally, early evening we get another reprieve.
Perhaps a thunderstorm passes through, lighting up the sky with a firework of flashes, and deep, rolling thunder that echoes through the valley, dropping temps dramatically in its wake. Or sometimes a blissful breeze comes through as the sky cools and the earth releases the heat from the day.
I love both of these, and look forward to them like long-lost loves returning from afar each day.
It’s a Busy Time Too
This is also a busy time in the garden, mostly because everything is ripening at once.
Our cherry tree bore fruit that ripened achingly slowly over several weeks, then suddenly reached sweet perfection in a single day, and subsequently burst and fermented almost immediately after. Argh! We managed to eat quite a large quantity the day of the peak, but didn’t harvest the rest in time, thinking we’d get to it the next day. Alas, it was too late!
Our Mirabelle plums are all ripening at once too. These sweet, little plums grow almost wild here, huge trees of them along the bottom of our property line. Last year we harvested at least 20 lbs, and it looks like we’re well on our way to do the same this year.
I end up making a ton of jam and chutney, much like my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother did, continuing a long line of family tradition. Thankfully I have their recipes, or at least some of them. I’ve got a dog-eared version of the classic Danish pickling book, “Den Grønne Syltebog” which has hand-written notes and recipes from mom hidden inside its pages (I discover new treasures every time open it). And of course I remember watching mom making jam back in her day, the old-fashioned way.
My current preferred jamming method combines traditional Danish steps with a French modern twist, where I macerate the fruit in sugar and lemon for a few hours before I cook it.
For fellow geeks who might be interested, the science of this works a treat. Sugar is hygroscopic, so it draws out the juices and softens up the fruit, while the lemon adds that little bit of extra acidity to enhance flavors and help the natural fruit pectins* bind (the optimal level of acidity for pectin gelation is a pH of ~3.5). This means we only need to cook the final mixture for ~20 minutes or so to get the jam to the right temp (217-222°F (103-106°C)) and consistency for setting. The perfect way to preserve maximum fruity goodness!
All of this takes time, especially if you de-stone beforehand (which mostly we do, although sometimes we get lazy and fish the stones out while cooking), but the results are deliciously worth it.
* Added Pectin? In case you’re wondering I don’t really like to add extra pectin or use “jam sugar” (which has added pectin). There’s enough natural pectin in most of the fruits we harvest to gel up the jam sufficiently, and for the few fruits that are lower in pectin, I prefer to leave the texture a little runnier. I’ve always liked it that way. For more info on pectin, see HERE.
LMB Tucked Away (For Now)
As for LMB, she’s safely tucked away for now.
When we came home from Carcassonne we gave her a good deep clean, both inside and out, including a full wash and wax. She’s a ton easier and faster to clean that our old “beast”, but admittedly doesn’t get quite as fancy shiny afterwards.
As an interesting side-note it’s taken us quite a while to find the right products to do all that here. For whatever reason the French don’t really seem to bother much with car detailing other than a drive-through wash every now and then to take the worst grime off. Dirt, dents and scratches are worn with pride, and waxing is practically unheard of. So I’ve had to scour online to find some good Meguire’s Canuba Wax, as well as some Aerospace 303 for our tires & interior surfaces (it’s just the best UV protectant out there). Both products cost at least twice what we used to pay in the USA, but IMO they are worth it. Nothing but the best for our mini-beast!
So now that LMB is showcase ready, when/where is our next outing? We really don’t know. If the mountains clear up, we’ll take a trip to the Pyrénées again, or we may risk a few days on a remote stretch of beach somewhere, if we can find a spot to hide out. Either way we’re going to stick to shorter outings, staying socially distant and relatively close to home until we see how things pan out with the big re-opening.
Because the big, final opening of France is coming!
The Final Re-Opening Is At Hand
Next week, on July 1st Europe will open up its borders to international travelers for the first time since the lock-down began on 17th March.
It’s going to be a phased opening, where initially only tourists from 14 countries where COVID-19 is considered “under control” will be allowed to come (and yup you guessed it, USA is not on that list). It’s the biggest step since déconfinement began, and I really have no idea how it’ll go.
Right now the numbers in France look pretty good. Thanks to 2 months of hard lockdown, incident rates, death rates and ICU hospitalizations have all come sharply down and all areas of France are now “in the green”. What’s even better is that everything has stayed green, even with the re-opening measures that have happened so far. Restaurants, cafes, businesses and general life are all mostly back to normal, and yet the numbers are holding steady. That is truly encouraging.
The question is what happens when all the international tourists arrive?
As you can imagine, I remain super cautious as I have been throughout this whole ordeal. We will stay vigilant (and continue wearing a mask in public!) until we’re sure the numbers are staying in check. I’m very happy with the results in France so far, and I have hope for the future (especially as treatments and our understanding of this virus improves), but IMO this story is far from over.
So that’s it for this week. Not much going on, except laboring for jam, and of course the big border re-opening. But my dear blog readers, as usual I am interested in YOUR history too. Do you have a favorite summertime food memory from your youth? Something you can taste when you think about it, even today? If so I’d love to hear about it. DO tell and share below!!