19 August 2009

Country Living

Green Acres, nous y sommes!

As I write this, Beynes is undergoing a drought, which I find curious: we had such a cool, damp spring! And rain again just yesterday! Where does it all go? Real country folk would know the answer to that, I suspect, and it’s just one of many reminders, the past several days, that I am not cut out for country living.

I thought I’d do myself a favor, and pull myself out of country competition when I gave up vegetable gardening a few years ago: the despair of watching my tomatoes rot on the vine year after year was more than I could handle, yet very much a part of the country experience, after all.

To the casual or urban observer, gardening may seem a peaceful, rewarding sideline, yet making things grow is a full-time job, in awkward postures, seven days a week, even when there is probably something good on TV. Your typical kidney bean is a proud, disdainful creature that really doesn’t care to sprout, particularly not in your vegetable patch, which obviously is fit only for weeds. It would prefer to sprout in your pantry, ideally in a plastic bag with all the other beans you bought and keep but never cook. You may try arguing with a kidney bean, but you will not persuade it; you must force it to submit to your will. And then, the rain will come, or else it won’t, and in either case, your bean plant will die before its time.

Mirabelles, fresh-picked

But in the garden here at Beynes we have perennials, currant bushes, raspberry vines, an old Canada apple tree, and hazelnuts. In defiance of all reason, they continue to produce, no matter what you do. You are required to do something about the fruits and nuts, then, or else suffer from a guilty conscience (how can you let so much edible material go to waste when so many people are hungry?), not to mention stepping in goo wherever you go for the rest of the year.

Lately, I’ve been gathering the mirabelle plums that are falling in profusion this August from the old tree we thought dead. Bernard had the bright idea to prune the tree, with the result that its yield has jumped from zero last year to a zillion this year. I honestly don’t know what to do with all the fruit. There is only so much jam that one person can make — and even less that one person can eat.

Each plum must be washed, sorted, and cut up individually. Ugly bits must be trimmed away. (This year, I note with interest, the birds have hardly touched the mirabelles. They must have forgotten, over the previous summers, that the tree bore fruit at all — because it didn’t.) Then one throws them into a pot and stews them in sugar, water, and a little lemon juice, on the hottest day of the year, in an un-air-conditioned kitchen. Then one puts the gooey mess into jars, and hopes the jam will set. For the first five kilos we made this summer, the jam did not set: this means the whole batch must be cooked a second time, adding a little pectin. The price of a jar of preserves at the supermarket — around $2.50 — begins to seem not just reasonable but charitable, as if they’re giving the stuff away.

Mirabelles, fresh-cooked
(Now just multiply this image by about 10 kilos.)

I have also dumped mirabelles into compote, a tart, and a clafoutis (my first), and eaten them raw. There are still several baskets of fresh mirabelles awaiting my attention, and the tree shows no sign of stopping. Real country folk would know what to do about that.

When I was a boy, I actually wanted to be a farmer. The appeal lay primarily in raising lots of animals. I liked animals, or thought I did. In reality, I liked looking at pictures of animals, and impressing grownups by correctly identifying the species. Put me in any close contact with an animal other than a dog (and a small, amiable, rather weary one at that), and I was forced to confront issues at either end (teeth, crap) to which I responded badly (terror, nausea). It took me a long while to appreciate that raising animals would mean that my home might smell as bad as the Hermann Park Zoo, a place I loved to visit — and to leave.

Because we travel so much, we don’t have pets in Beynes. This will come as news to the stray cat and its savage, adorable kitten that take up residence in the garden (and sometimes wander into the house) for a few hours each day. Nevertheless, country living does sometimes bring us into close proximity with animals, whether we like it or not. This weekend brought a turtledove, which came to the front yard and nested in the grass. And it soon became apparent that this wasn’t a mourning dove, but one ready to be mourned by others. It was dying.

Not the first time that a dying bird has landed on my doorstep. A dying pigeon is meant to be a bad omen — or signal of a Mafia hit — yet I’m perfectly capable of supplying the creature with a powerful significance and my own foreboding, regardless of traditional connotations. My dying New York pigeon marked my departure from New York, five years ago; the dying dove marks what is likely my departure from France.

The dove was frightened, and struggled to scoot away whenever anyone came near, but it couldn’t go very far. So I avoided the doorway and allowed him to die quietly and, I hope, with dignity. The next day, I scooped him up in a shovel and disposed of him.

Such things may happen to a city-dweller — they happened to me in New York. (In worse ways, too, since my neighbors in Beynes don’t practice santeria and didn’t cut out the dove’s heart.) Yet I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not really meant to be here.

Does anybody have a recipe for Hosscakes aux Mirabelles?
Thank you, dahlinks.

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