The last of the season’s fêtes drew to a close at the weekend. The early morning light revealed a Coke can rolling casually down the street and tattered streamers flapping gently in the warm breeze. The tourists have gone and the lazy, hazy, crazy days are over, but the hot southern summer lingers on. The famous vineyards of the region are heavy with fruit, we have had no significant rain for three months and the grapes are cooking in the searing heat. They cannot be artificially watered if they are to produce an AOC wine and there is no likelihood of any rain on the horizon. No other crop could stand the pace.
Out in the hedgerows figs ooze their honey scented juice, luring a hundred-thousand wasps. Some of the younger trees are looking pretty woebegone; their fruit shrivelled and brown where the hot, dry summer has taken its toll. But the ancient specimens, whose deep, dark roots twist far down into the rocky soil of the Quercy Blanc, are in splendid form, bearing the sweetest, ripest figs I can remember. Half-ripe walnuts cling desperately to the dry trees, they need another month yet, and on the outskirts of Albas the lone quince tree looks enticingly full. Meanwhile I’ve been frantically preserving the summer’s bounty causing a few raised eyebrows among my inquisitive neighbours. The French don’t understand chutney, it’s an Indian concept, anglicized in the nineteenth century to become the glut-of-the-garden condiment we all know and love. I was up to my elbows in the annual marathon the other day, doors and windows wide open, attracting every fruit-fly from here to Bordeaux. Because apart from hedgerow crops the magnificent market peaches need preserving for winter consumption, the smaller, more ancient and deeply furred peches de vigne also need dealing with – and so of course do the tomatoes. In England the best known tomato chutney recipes are for end-of-season green tomatoes, but here, with vast and almost indescribably delicious crimson cannonballs a daily treat, I decided to try a red tomato and chilli variety, with stunning results. So moreish that we finished half a jar at a sitting and I was obliged to make another vast batch to see us through the freezing winter months when market-tomatoes are merely a memory.
At my favourite vegetable stall the old campaigner who runs it greeted me with a shake of his empurpled hand and rooted round happily in some old boxes to find me half a dozen enormous individuals. He regarded them dubiously with lips pursed, then peered up at me from under his eyebrows.
‘They are much too ripe for a salad, Madame, what did you want them for?’ Ah. ‘Well I’m making a chutney, a pickle you know, like cornichons.’ ‘Like cornichons? He asked, a puzzled frown disturbing the contours of his cheery round face. ‘Well more like confiture I suppose,’ I ventured helpfully, thoroughly confusing the issue. ‘Confiture?’ He gazed at me in disbelief. Oh dear, I was back with the old trouble. The French really do not understand chutney. ‘They’re absolutely fine,’ I assured him, ‘I don’t mind them over-ripe, but I do need them as large as possible.’ ‘Beh,’ he replied, and up-ended himself to continue the search. A regular customer who not only turns up every week, but seems willing to purchase wholly unsaleable produce, is a gift from the gods. His offerings were generous. In addition to the dozen large tomatoes that I fairly bought and paid for, he threw in another half dozen, two giant red onions and a head of garlic. I handed over a ten euro note, received a good handful of change, thanked him profusely and wished him a bonne journée. ‘Beh,’ he replied happily.