Swan Song from the Orchards
The Fruits of Summer
Figs, lemon, walnuts, aniseed, and bay ready for roasting
While I am cooking and filming classes, throwing parties or swanning around the French countryside, August food continues to roll across my desk. That’s thanks to the archival wizardry that falls on another’s shoulders. Defining the best summer recipes is a chore that Elaine Tin Nyo volunteered for as editor/curator of A Gascon Year monthly ebooks. I am sure she occasionally regrets this role of trawling through 15 years of blog posts and recipes and hundreds, nay, thousands of photographs written on my website since 2005. Season after season rolls around and for each of the 15 Augusts there are tomato recipes by the bushels, odes to summer gatherings, French picnic fare, and multiple mini-travel guides. Of course, there are jars and jars of jams, preserves, and fruit staining the last of Summer pages. There are things that I forgot I made—like the roasted figs and bay leaf above that didn’t make it into the cut. If you haven’t picked up a copy of any of these monthly ebooks or print on demand yet, do it now. There are still some weeks of good late summer foods to be harvested—late tomatoes and melons are joined by the most delicious of plums and the impending arrival of figs, grapes, apples, and quince. You can download the series or current issue here.
Current issue of A Gascon Year: Août
While this year’s harvest was thrown off by that deadly May frost, there is still an abundance of good fruit around to cook. The prune d’ente or prune plums have just been harvested last week in my neighbors orchards and are filling the air around the local farms with sweet jammy perfume. I remember my kitchen godmother, Vétou, made the best plum jam ever. using these deep purple-skinned, yellow-fleshed oblongs. I once asked her for her secret as I always do; yes a vanilla bean; yes, the ripest plums and just the right amount of sugar. But it wasn’t until I stopped by her kitchen unannounced that I discovered the real Housewives of Gascony secret- delicious plum jam cooked in a big copper cauldron over the fireplace scented with oak woodsmoke. Yes, that subtle scent of the hearth was the missing ingredient. I swear I can taste its absence more than I can discern its presence. Oh, and patience. Did I mention patience?
Patience in cooking can be measured in seconds or minutes or even hours long. Slowly stirring jam with a wooden paddle is its own secret ingredient. Not wandering away, not reading emails. Just sitting and talking and stirring. I remember Vétou sitting by the brick fireplace, an arm length away and reaching out to stir, every few seconds, another swoop through the thickening jam to keep the bottom from scorching. It’s a sort of nostalgic memory that dresses everyone in antique linen aprons, working by candlelight, framed by a dim vignette filter not quite Instagram-invented yet. The year was in the electrified (if not digital) ‘90’s, Vétou wore a synthetic dress with a hand-knit sweater, and I was gathering details by the hazy lens of my Canon camera on Ektachrome. Those early photographs are burned in my memory as are the recipes, the smells, and the taste of her singular kitchen. That is Kitchen Nostalgia. Maybe that’s what I will call my book.
Vétou Pompèle in the 1990’s at Lagruère.
My Kitchen at Camont
What does my own kitchen leave imprinted on people? Well, there is a special sort of light at Camont--dim and side lit by the windowed door and a few glass roof tiles. When the first chilled mornings hit, the fire will add a warming glow. But the last of Summer now means the door is still wide open to the rapidly changing light and the lanky acacia trees are starting to drop little flicks of yellow leaves across the grass. The figs and grapes and Reine-Claude plums are begging for cooking now and I make a pot of fruit, with some tart nameless apples thrown in and call it Harvest Jam. It has the sweet acid balance I like with lemon rind and vanilla-ed armagnac making it my own. I macerate the coarsely chopped fruit with sugar, cook, let cool, and cook again. I watch the bottom of the pot so it doesn’t scorch and when it does, I turn it into a barbecue sauce by adding tamarind, peppers, onions, and vinegar.
Harvest Jam ready to cook
Or I take a handful of the firmest plums, the ones we call Prunes d’Agen, and make a tart, a custard or some small hand held pastries. Cream and custard play off of the plums natural sweetness and the buttery pastry adds the textural crunch I love. I video a recipe from this month’s online classes called Delicious Plum Spoon Pudding- a sort of rustic cornmeal clafoutis baked in an earthenware dish. Letting the batter sit a little longer before using, that aforementioned patience demanded, allows the cornmeal and flour to hydrate and create a silkier texture.
Prune d’Ente or Prune d’Agen at harvest time
Delicious Plum Spoon Pudding
Whisk together 6 whole farm fresh eggs, one liter or one quart whole milk.
Add 6 tablespoons each of: fine sugar, unbleached wheat flour, and finely milled corn meal.
Whisk until smooth, adding a slug of armagnac and a dash of vanilla.
Let the batter rest for an hour in the refrigerator.
Tear several large ripe plums into bite sized pieces and scatter in the bottom of a buttered earthenware dish (approx. 3 inches deep).
Pour mixture over plums and bake in a slow oven 325’F or 160’C for 30-40 minutes- until almost firm. Remove, barely let cool and then... eat with a large spoon.