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.


Oct 29 2010

Just the Doing of It

We arrived in the dark. Not the optimal time to get started at the country house. There was everything to do as dusk turned to night, fumbling with rusty skeleton keys to open the doors, switching on the electricity, venturing out to the yard to uncover the water pump to open its valves, visiting each tap in and around the house to turn off what had been left on to prevent pipes freezing, unpacking the car, stocking the fridge with groceries we purchased at lightening speed at the hypermarket ½-hour away, its closing hour pressing in on us as we raced to the check-out. De-facto set to light the wood stove, which took forever to start burning and once lit, seemed to take forever to heat the room framed by the stone walls that have assumed the outside temperatures that get cooler with each passing day.

We huddled over our dinner, shivering. Without hot water (it takes hours for the heater to deliver) we left the dishes for the mice and the morning and bracing ourselves, headed upstairs to the unheated bedrooms. Quickly stretching the cold, clean sheets over dusty mattresses, we fell into our beds waiting for the warmth and dreams to come. In the morning, frost inside the windows, and a light layer of white on the meadow across the road, but the sky blue and clear and fresh and that feeling of how good it is to be here á la campagne.

I rose and wrapped my icy hands around a warm bowl of café-au-lait and slid into my wellies and out to the yard to inspect my grapes. Take note of the possessive pronoun that has been assigned to these eleven stalks inherited when we purchased the property. I share ownership of this house with De-facto and his brother, but the grapes – they are mine. I’ve assumed the role of vineyard caretaker. Last year’s vendange managed to produce a single, but thrilling, crate of grapes. It took several years of cutting and caressing the abandoned vines, but finally, I’d found the right result. The crop was small, but it informed and inspired my approach for the year to follow: Last winter I cut them back more than ever before. In April, new wires secured the vines. In July, suckering and pruning revealed bunches and bunches of baby grapes, and the promise of a robust harvest.

Only September took us to far away places that made a quick weekend trip to the country house impossible. Our first opportunity comes now, with the school half-term break otherwise known as La Toussaint. A bit late for harvesting, but I held out some hope that at least a portion of the grapes could be salvaged. My inspection grew more discouraging with each vine. The birds had picked them over, they’d fallen to the ground, or a skeletal bunch of grapes remained, scrawny raisins, taunting me.

I came too late to harvest anything significant – anything at all, for that matter.

Today, clippers in hand, a deeply inhaled breath of country air and I started pruning and clearing. The work is not easy. Some vines have crawled up into the trees and require a tug-of-war to pull them down. (I am somewhat lenient with them, otherwise they’d be trimmed and thinned but since I am not here for months at a time, they grow with a wildness that a disciplined viticulturist would not permit.) The long serpentine limbs fall to the ground and I cut them into smaller pieces, one at a time, to be hauled away to the compost. The thicker vines I separate and cut into kindling, taking them to the stable to dry to be burned in future winters. I pull out the thorny weeds and dry grasses that have grown wild at the base of the stalk, raking again and again until all I can see is a soft bed of the terroir. The vines look relieved, freed of the weight of their long branches and leaves. They stand spry and lithe, my knobby, skinny friends, unburdened and smiling at me.

The girls, dressed in a hodgepodge of old clothes and torn fleeces that we keep here – a wardrobe that can get dirty and ripped and who cares – kick their toes upward to the sky, swinging together so hard that I wonder if the old swing set will topple. They run back and forth from house to garden, woods to field, shaking sticks and making up songs and stories. The swing set transforms into a pirate ship or a schoolhouse, whatever they require as a backdrop. Their play is as temporary as anything can be – made-up games in a made-up world that are made-up in the moment. There is no practice for this; no preparation for a final performance, and no expectation of an outcome. This is play in its purest form, just for the doing of it. They play with passion and zeal until a new story is offered up or something else distracts them in that moment, like a neighbor passing by with a sheep dog, or my mother-in-love calling to them from the house, “hot chocolate!” which instantly frees them from this moment, without a measure of its value, and they move on to the next.

Clippers in hand, the rake rested against the thick stone wall of the house, I look around at the lawn cluttered with leaves and cuttings and consider my story with the grapes. It’s futile, really. Given the amount of time I can devote to these vines, given their ill placement with insufficient sunlight, given my real knowledge of anything beyond what I learned as a seasonal worker during school vacations, I will never be a great grape grower. I will never make a fine wine. It is the silliest, most pointless work I do, year-in and year-out, work that will never be successful. And yet I toil for hours, my hands raw despite the protective gloves, my back aching from the bending and scooping and hauling and carrying.

Buddy-roo spies the old wheelbarrow and asks if she can help. During our first year here, we bought a shiny new metal one and its wheel broke off after just a year of use. The old rickety wooden one that we found in the stable has a lot more character and still rolls strong.

“Can I be the horsie?”
“Sure.”
“Tie me in.”
“I don’t have any rope.”
“You can use the imaginary rope I have right here.” She reaches out, as if to hand it to me.

This is my play, I guess, here at the country house, to tend the grapes. Even though it turns out just to be an agricultural exercise, even if there’s no harvest, I find it immensely satisfying. It’s all worth it, to love just the doing of it, regardless of the outcome. I’m pretty sure this is the trick to most things: being present with the doing of it, deliberately enacting the tiny tasks of life, one vine at a time. It’s just not always easy for me to cultivate this attitude of a mindful life. It takes the simplest of tasks and a playful child to remind me how.

I make the motions of harnessing Buddy-roo to the wooden cart. She provides the sound effects: Chtck. Ctchk. I fill the wagon to the brim with vines and leaves. She neighs, kicks the ground, and then gallops toward the compost pile with glee.


Sep 14 2009

The Vendange

We couldn’t get enough of our country house this summer, and even though the September back-to-school routine is a welcome one, we snuck out of town on Friday with hopes for an Indian Summer weekend à la campagne.

The weather cooperated with the gift of flawless blue skies and unhindered sunlight. A constant if somewhat reckless breeze raced through and around the stone house – slamming doors and flapping curtains – announcing the arrival of autumn. The sun was a bit lower as it arced across the sky, but still warm enough to dry our laundry and nourish our garden from which we harvested the last of the carrots and lettuce, and even a few last treats offered from a lone tomato plant.

But the news – the real news – is about the vendange. There were grapes to be harvested! After three years of attending to those stubborn stalks without any reward, this year the vines have produced plentiful bunches of succulent grapes.
white_grapes
“Who’s going to help with the vendange?” I shouted boastfully to the girls.

“We will!” they both shouted back in tandem.

And then, a few moments later, Short-pants asked, “What’s a vendange?”

How to explain the romance of the vendange? I’ve seen grape harvests in Western New York state, when I was a teenager, and in Switzerland where I lived for a year in my early thirties. Driving out to the vineyards in the back of a truck, jumping off with a crate in hand, gliding down each row of vines, filling the crates, bunch by bunch with round, ripe grapes. It’s backbreaking work, but harvesting bushels of fresh grapes for eating and for wine making is somehow so very satisfying. Something about the completion of a seasonal cycle, or else the anticipation of the (finally) well-deserved sampling of the end product.

“Do we have to be barefoot?” Buddy-roo asked.

“No,” I laughed, “that’s for making wine. We’re just picking the grapes.” I racked my brain to figure out where she would have learned about grape stomping. It has to have been a movie, maybe the DVD of Brigadoon has a scene like that? Or has she seen that famous episode of I Love Lucy?
hand_picked
The grape vines – left for us by the previous owner of the house – grow in four different spots on our property; the green grapes on patches of land that get more sun, the purple ones in more shaded areas. After rummaging through the junk in the barn – also left for us by the previous owner – I found a dirty crate and hosed it off and set out to collect my bounty.

“To the harvest!” I called out. Short-pants ran along beside me. She watched, and then followed suit, reaching to grab the stems and pull off the grapes in full bunches. Buddy-roo appeared a few moments later in her pink plastic high-heeled slippers. (I did not buy her
grapes_shoes these come-hither shoes. They are hand-me-downs from the girls who live down the road.) She folded her arms and watched us as we carefully set each bunch of grapes into the crate.

“Dressed for the harvest?” I asked.

She nodded. “In case we need to stomp on them.”

Isn’t it romantic to think that I might make my own wine someday? De-facto keeps asking, and I keep telling him – and everyone else who asks – that I harbor no fantasies of producing a fine wine, or even a modest or mediocre one. I am proud of my little harvest, but I am no oenologist. Besides, the yield of my crop isn’t enough to make but a few bottles, hardly worth the investment or effort. The idea of making wine is a lot more romantic than the actual activity. But if I ever change my mind, I know who will help me stomp on the grapes.