Aug 29 2015

Plum Pickins

Two greengage trees, on the edge of our property, produce the sweetest plum-like fruit. Last month, the trees were flush with little round green plums, promising a bountiful harvest when they’d ripen, at the end of August. Knowing we’d return to the country house for the last week of summer, I envisioned the pies, tarts and marmalade that would result from such a robust yield.

I didn’t even know the trees produced fruit until the Pastry Ace paid us a visit and with her keen culinary eye, pointing out all sorts of fruit growing on or around our property that I’d never noticed. Since then, I’ve watched these plum trees fill out with little round fruit, but I don’t always get to harvest them because often we’re gone when they ripen. Last year our cross-America tour pulled us away for the last half of the summer. Who knows what it was the year before; we were moving to Barcelona and otherwise occupied. We tend to use the country house in July, and do other things in August, sometimes returning for the last week, sometimes not.

~ ~ ~

After my annual escape to Pamplona in early July, I returned to our country house just in time to make the neuron-cake that Short-pants requested for her birthday. (Try that with a hangover after a week-long party.) Soon after, neuron_cakeDe-facto and I flew to the states for work – a neighbor stayed here with the girls – returning to the country house for a week or so before a wedding in Italy called us to the Adriatic coast. We crawled back to Barcelona in heavy traffic, wanting only to stay put, quietly, which we did for a week or so before a return to the country house for the last week of summer, our last hurrah, and maybe finally some time to relax, before submerging again into the routine of work and school.

August is the height of the vacation period in Europe. The cities turn quiet – both Paris and Barcelona, like other European capitals, seem to lose half of their local population. Streets clear out and the energy of vacation covers the city like a heavy beach blanket. It’s still full-on summertime, warm and sunny and relaxed, but the moment the calendar clicks from July 31 to August 1, there’s a sense of melancholy. July is bright and bouncy with the youthful energy of summer fun. August comes with a big sigh, signaling that all good things must end, that summer is rolling by, rapidly, and fall is just a few footsteps away.

~ ~ ~

But I had the greengages to temper my August melancholy. On our drive north from Barcelona to the country house, I pictured those trees covered with juicy, yellow-green plums, and I promised Short-pants and Buddy-roo I’d make pies with top crusts bulging with fruit. Maybe I’d even freeze one and leave it for our return in October.

Minutes after our arrival, I sprinted out to the corner of our land where the two trees stand, ready to pluck a plum off a branch and savor its sweetness. The next day I’d fill up a big bowl and move the fruit directly from tree to pie, but I was impatient to appreciate the inventory. Winston galloped after me, not knowing why, but sensing my anticipation.

I ran down the road and jumped over the ditch and found my two trees, thick with green leaves fluttering in the late afternoon breeze – and not one single plum. tree_sin_mas

Gone. They were all gone.

I recall, now, a few summers ago, going out to inspect the trees in August to find them empty. But it had been a very wet spring and summer. I hadn’t gotten any grapes that season either. It was weird, but it was an anomaly, so I thought. But given that just a few weeks ago I’d seen both trees covered in fruit, something was very wrong.

I looked closer. This couldn’t be the work of birds. The tree had been cleaned, top to bottom. Not even one stray plum hung from any of the branches.

I’m bewildered that someone would clear out all the fruit from both of the trees. Though near the road, they are not obviously visible to a passing car. Somebody knows that the trees are there and possibly they’ve come every year – except the years we happened to be here in August – to help themselves. They must see our house locked tight without a car in front, and they stop and clear out our plum supply. But seriously, they must have had a ladder! There were plums all the way to the tops of those trees. This was a deliberate harvest. Not just let’s grab a few fruit while passing by. They took everything.

Grudgingly, I bought greengages (known as Reine-Claude in French) at the market. They are a precious fruit, coveted (apparently). I had my heart set on a plum pie. Buy it’s not the same, not the same as pruning the tree, weeding around it, watching the little beans turn into berries and into plump little plums, picking them yourself and knowing they came from your own land and your good effort. There’s that, plus the sheer cheekiness of the perpetrators and the feeling of violation that accompanies the loss of something you believed to be yours.

They must have been yummy. This summer has been hot and dry, and this is good for all the fruit on our property. The grapes that get morning sun are already ripe; I picked them yesterday and served them with our luncheon cheese plate. The grapes that see sun only in the afternoon are not quite ready for harvesting, but there have never been so many grapes hanging from my vines, in all the seasons I’ve been tending them.

The endrina (a.k.a. sloe berry) tree on our property is also bountiful. And another one at the end of the road, on our neighbor’s land, is covered in little blue fruit and far easier to reach. I’d been eyeballing it, thinking about the next batch of patxaran. I might not have thought much about helping myself to a few of those blue berries, until now. Yesterday, I walked down and private_propertychatted with the neighbor, asking if she minded if I took a few bowls of those berries before I left.

“Take them all,” she said, waving me off. “We can’t use them.”

I am reminded that my children and my man – and my mother-in-love, who is with us now – are all safe and healthy. And the fruit poachers did not break into our home and damage or remove anything. Not that our purposefully rustic country house contains any possessions of great value, but such theft or vandalism would disrupt the peaceful rhythm of our stay here. Still, it smarts, that somebody stole my plums and dashed my dreams of the perfect pie. Of course, there’s always next year’s crop. We’ll just have to come up with a strategy to keep those plum thieves away.


Jun 18 2013

High Tea, Sloe Berry

Some mothers are really good at birthday parties. They effortlessly host a dozen screeching kids and don’t seem to mind the pack of them running around and trashing the house. They make props and invent games that fill an entire afternoon. They bake elaborate cakes with towers and flags and multi-colors of frosting topped with decorative elements you can eat. They seem to enjoy the party as much as the birthday boy or girl.
balloons_in_air
I’m not one of those mothers.

I still make a big fuss all day long, and there are cards and presents and colored streamers hanging from the ceiling. A cake gets baked and decorated. But it’s usually just a family affair, with maybe a friend or a neighbor included. I’m not a complete grinch: we’ve thrown the occasional gang-of-kids party, but we’ve successfully minimized that sort of hullabaloo, generally keeping birthdays small and quiet.

Inventiveness is still required. Last fall, I tracked down Buddy-roo’s favorite busker, and invited him over for our family party. She was entirely surprised. He gave a little concert, including a live acoustic guitar version of happy birthday as she blew out the candles. He stayed for cake. She was over the moon.

When one of my sweetest friend, the Pastry Ace, was hired to start up the new Rose Bakery Tea Room at the Bon Marché department store, it clicked that this could be the perfect place to pay homage to Short-pants’ birthday this year, once again avoiding an elaborate in-house production. I presented to her the idea of high tea at a chic address, and she bit. We did an advance trip in early May. All the pieces fit.

~ ~ ~

When I weaned Short-pants, just after her first birthday, I left town to make it easier on the both of us. I escaped with my girlfriends to the hills of Navarra, the culture of the Basques and their local drink, patxaran. Because I was no longer breast feeding, I imbibed with abandon, and fell in love with the deep red liqueur. It’s reminiscent of cough syrup, but without the medicinal aftertaste. A little bit of fire water, patxaran is an elixir that aides digestion, revs up your libido and leaves you with a syrupy smile.
the_elixir
That trip turned out to be an amuse-bouche for the north of Spain. Soon after, a pilgrimage to Pamplona was incorporated into my every-summer routine. Each year, I replenish my patxaran supply, bringing several bottles home to Paris to last until the following July. I mentioned to the Fiesta Nazi that I really wanted to get my own endrina bush – this is the Spanish name for the berries that produce patxaran – so I could brew my own. All the lovely Basque men I’ve met brag about their mother-in-law’s home-made patxaran. I see myself as the kind of woman who makes hooch for her beloved son-in-law. But I need some practice before the girls come of marrying age.

We asked every respectable (and frankly, non-respectable) Spanish person we knew in Pamplona about where might I get my hands on an endrina bush. It became apparent that it’s not something you go and buy at a nursery and plant in your garden. It was impossible to get a specific answer about where to find it or even what it looked like. The response was always something like, “It’s just…you find it…around.” Then I realized the endrina is a weed.

Last summer, the Pastry Ace visited us at the country house. It was the end of August and a string of warm, sunny, dry days inspired us to pull our mattresses out to the back terrace so we could sleep out – all of us together – under the stars. She made us cakes and pies and one night cooked up a mean ratatouille; her talents stretch beyond things pastry and chocolate. We’d go for long morning walks and she’d point out the different trees and herbs and organic goodies that a chef perpetually looking for ingredients can’t help but see and that I had missed altogether, though I walk these same roads and trails every summer. She discovered a mirabelle tree, covered with fruit, on the other side of our barn. We’ve owned this house for seven years, and we’d never harvested its fruit. We didn’t even know it existed.
endrina_landscape
One afternoon, Pastry Ace walked into the kitchen with a smug smile on her face and some blueish berries in her hand. She knew of my hunt for endrinas, and was even able to help me name them in English: sloe berries. She’d found them growing wild by the side of a nearby dirt road. She’s also found some growing in a hedge, on the edge of our property. Can you imagine my bliss? Endrina bushes growing on my land.

The berries were immediately harvested and transported back to Paris, where I scoured the Internet for tips on making patxaran, and wrote to my Spanish Facebook friends for advice. I once visited a patxaran factory, I remembered this detail from that tour: mix the berries with good alcohol, don’t use the cheap stuff. I stocked up on some quality anís to mix with my precious endrinas, which means my home-made brew has nothing to do with saving money by making it yourself, but everything to do with the craft of distillation and the pride of its provenance.

~ ~ ~

Every July I rush back from the fiesta in time for Short-pants’ birthday party, though I’m not necessarily in the best of shape, usually recovering from many consecutive days of patxaran consumption. This year, she asked if we could have an early party in June, too, so she could include a few school mates. Last Saturday we made another excursion to the Rose Bakery Tea Room, this time with friends, and her sister, in tow.
tea_service
Because we were VIP guests of the chef, we were received like royalty, seated at the best table, coddled and catered to. The girls ordered white hot chocolate and it came with an extra pot of whipped cream on the side. Short-pants licked the little bowl clean. The tea service trays were presented with aplomb, stacked with savory finger sandwiches, bite-sized scones with clotted cream, tasty cakes, pastries and custards. Everyone started with wide eyes and finished with sticky fingers.

Short-pants beamed the entire time. She’s always a good sport about the the fact that her birthday parties are rather modest, and perhaps because of that, she appreciated the fuss of this tea party that much more. I enjoyed it too, especially when the elaborately ornamented chocolate birthday cake was placed in front of her, and I hadn’t been required to bake it.

~ ~ ~

The collection of hermetically sealed glass jars were wrapped in opaque plastic bags and stowed in the back of my closet. I’d learned that when endrinas are transforming into patxaran, light is an inhibitor, so I kept them stashed in the dark. Every week, I’d pull the jars out and turn them upside down for a minute, re-mixing the contents gently, before setting them upright back in their dark corner. Some people talk to their plants; I’d talk to my berries, encouraging them through their cocoon phase.

The distilling was sufficiently completed in March, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I found the right moment to filter and bottle my home brew. bottling_patxaran Short-pants was reading on the couch when I stripped the black plastic from around the jars, revealing the rose-colored liquid. Maneuvering the 3-liter glass container over the sieve required more than two hands, so I called her over.

“Honey, can you help your mama make her hooch over here?”

She sprang up and ran to help. I gave her the metal strainer and she held it steady, catching the berries as I poured the liquid through it. The smell of the alcohol was strong; the aroma of fermented berries filled the kitchen. There we stood, mother and daughter together, stirring up a concoction that in any other kitchen would have been a batch of cookies, or a birthday cake. Instead, I was teaching my daughter how to make moonshine, because, well, I’m one of those kinds of mothers.