‘I hate plum jam!’ the heroine of Calendar Girls announces to the Women’s Institute AGM. She had a point. Faced with a surfeit of Nature’s Bounty, my generation reached unquestioningly for the jam pan and the Kilner jars. ‘Waste not, want not’ was the rule; process your fruit and veg and compost the peelings.
Keats wrote in praise of autumn:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…
To bend with apples the mossed cottage trees
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core…He did not live in the Morvan, where in a good year the mellow fruitfulness starts in early June and continues in fits and starts until the last of the walnuts.
By the third week in May 2014 our big cherry tree was bent like a weeping willow.
On June 2 2014 I had made cherry jam, glacé cherries, cherry coulis and several Kilner jars of brandied cherries. John and I invited friends and neighbours with no cherry trees of their own for cherry-picking and apéritifs. By the time the birds had gorged themselves too, the cherries on the tree next to it were ripe.
It all began when John and I emigrated to the Morvan. When we were househunting in summer 2005 we were astonished to see how much ground even the tiniest cottages had. Large plots are the norm here, with fruit trees, soft fruit and a flourishing potager for vegetables, as often as not tended by senior citizens. Longevity is the norm here. So is gardening, and maybe the two are linked.
The house we eventually chose came with Nature’s Bounty as part of the package along with the 8 foot long refectory table and the bats roosting behind the shutters. When asked for a quotation containing ‘ Nature’s Bounty ‘ my search engine came up with numerous advertisements for health-related products (Nature’s Bounty Colon Cleanser anyone?) and several poems previously unknown to me and, I suspect, to almost everyone else.
Georges Delcros spent his boyhood holidays in a cottage at Maré le Bas, and when he retired he and his wife Carmela bought the cottage and had a house built on the site. When they downsized for health reasons, John and I moved in. Carmela, a passionate and knowledgeable gardener, transformed an acre of rough meadow with a few fruit trees into something worthy of Gardener’s World. ‘Vacant possession on completion’ seemed unknown in the Morvan, and the Delcros were still in residence when we arrived. We lived peaceably together for two weeks, with Georges initiating John into the mysteries of the central heating and the septic tank and Carmela showing me round her garden: flowers and shrubs, a flourishing potager and a superb orchard which was home to a family of red squirrels.
You can fill your vases with flowers, but you don’t feel guilty if you don’t pick any. For the ‘Waste not, want not’ generation fruit and vegetables are different; you feel obligated to harvest them. There is, however, a limit to how much of Nature’s Bounty one elderly couple can consume. The French say surabondance; I say glut. Back in Suffolk friends, neighbours and the church produce stall had received our surplus fruit and veg with apparent gladness. Here in the Morvan everyone had gluts.
The first to go was the potager. It seemed pointless to grow vegetables when we were surrounded by people with a disposal problem. Barter rules OK: a basket of dwarf french beans was worth a dozen home made scones. So we harvested the last tomato and potato and sowed grass seed. Composting became optional; the local déchetterie (recycling centre) offered an inexhaustible supply of rich crumbly compost free of charge.
That left red, white and black currant bushes, cherry, plum, apple, quince, pear and peach trees, a grape vine, a fig tree and hazel, sweet chestnut and walnut trees.
My mother-in-law, who made delicious wine from the most unpromising-seeming ingredients, would have reached for her demijohns, but wine is plentiful and cheap in Burgundy. That left jam-making, freezing and bottling. I learned to make jam, jelly and chutney at my grandmother’s knee. Carmela had left behind scores of jam pots and Kilner jars. So I unpacked my grandmother’s big preserving pan and my cookbook collection. Not long after we moved into our new home, John harvested our first bucketful of greengages (known as Reine Claude here, after François I’s beautiful queen) and I set to work.
That was the start of my love-hate relationship with Nature’s Bounty. She is fickle. Some years a late frost kills all the blossom. Other years everything runs riot and I feel as if we live in a jam factory. Fruit preparation is time-consuming. Mozart could have composed a string quartet in the time it takes me to process a basket of cherries. Factor in your time even at minimum rate, and store-bought products suddenly look very attractive. That’s fine, but processing fruit on a sunny patio while listening to Mozart is not an arduous task, and I know what goes into my home made stuff. If something seems short on pectin, I add an apple and some lemon juice rather than reaching for the Certo.
The varieties of fruit here are different from what I was used to in Suffolk. Our peaches are apricot-size and make superb coulis to serve with ice cream in summer or steamed puddings in winter. I had never seen a quince until we came to the Morvan. A neighbour showed me how several hours’ hard labour could transform the knobbly, unyielding yellow fruit into delicious red jelly. Meanwhile I discovered that chutney was unknown here. Friends contributed onions and garlic from their gardens and I supplied the fruit, vinegar and sugar. When a frequent visitor gave us a chest freezer as a Thank You for Having Me present, it changed my life. Fruit compôte was available all year round.
Another life-changer was the web. Type in ‘cherry recipe’ and you are spoilt for choice. Some of the recipes include a video demonstration. Mind you, there is an element of ‘Here’s one I made earlier’ but it is a huge improvement on the tattered old exercise book containing my mother-in-law’s secret recipe for strawberry jam (email me: the address is on the charity cottage website).
Together with husband John, Rosemary Border Rabson emigrated to the Morvan in rural Burgundy in 2005, where few other Brits have ventured. Rosy's chief preoccupation is Charity Cottage, a holiday cottage which she runs in aid of Combat Stress. The holiday cottage, in their garden at Maré le Bas in the Morvan, has its own website, www.charity-cottage.org.uk which has links to Combat Stress. They are taking bookings for 2014. Every penny goes to Combat Stress www.combatstress.org.uk