We got the call on Sunday, it was from one of our neighbours (JP) saying that they needed help eating their figs. We gleefully got in the car and headed over. Not knowing how many figs there would be we took only one small plastic basket. On arrival JP welcomed us, but upon catching sight of our basket shook his head, turned round and headed in the direction of his garage, muttering as he went “tu apporté un seule panier?” (you brought only one basket?). Unsure what to do we headed in the direction of the fig tree, JP quickly caught us up carrying two wooden crates and it became clear why – the tree was absolutely laden with fruit. Some of the figs were so ripe they disintegrated in your hand as you pulled them from the tree, which meant of course you had to eat them – a burden that of course I took on. Within 10 minutes we had filled not only our (wholly inadequate) basket but the two wooden crates as well.
The only slight snag with figs, when they are “that” ripe, is that you have to use them incredibly quickly. Unfortunately we didn’t have any sugar in the house on Sunday and the earliest we could buy some was on Monday afternoon, which meant we lost a fair few. However, those that we were able to save/use have been incorporated in: a tart, a jam, a chutney, dried figs and several light meals. The chutney was made with a “throw it in and see what happens approach” – the reason being was that I had some quinces and apples that needed using up and I wasn’t sure what spices would work well. The end result was surprisingly good and we now have 7 jars stored away though I doubt I will ever be able to replicate the taste again as I didn’t measure anything.
What I found worked best with the figs was creating a simple starter with some cured ham (no cooking involved). Here is the end result:
Figs with Cured Ham
Ingredients: (per serving)
2 figs (quartered)
1 slice of cured ham
small piece of red onion (finely sliced)
1 tsp runny honey
Olive oil (for drizzling)
balsamic vinegar or balsamic glaze (for drizzling)
Place the pieces of fig on the plate, scatter over the onion and drape over the cured ham.
Drizzle over the honey, a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
It was an early start yesterday morning to ensure all the animals were fed and watered before we headed off to a nearby hamlet at the top of a steep hill (jokingly referred to locally as the mountain). We went armed with secateurs ready to help with the grape harvest. On arrival we were given a ‘petit café’ to steady us for the morning ahead and then it was into the cars for the short drive down a dirt track to the vines.
It was a gloriously cool autumnal morning with a low level mist and as the sun came up it turned into a lovely warm day, perfect for grape picking. I think there were about 20 of us in total involved in the grape harvest, we were handed large plastic crates to fill as we gradually made our way down the vines. An aged tractor narrow enough to fit between the vines accompanied us as we slowly worked our way down collecting the filled crates that were then transferred into a small lorry. It was a slow process, but everyone was in good spirits, nattering as they went catching up on local gossip.
Everyone stopped around 10.30 for another ‘petit café’ and slice of cake. It was a well-deserved break, allowing everyone the opportunity to stretch their backs and get the feeling back in their legs. Then it was the last big push before everybody stopped for lunch. You can set your watch to a Frenchman’s lunch – as soon as the clock strikes 12 everyone downs tools and heads either home or to a local restaurant. Yesterday, lunch was provided by those who lived on the mountain in return for our help. A five course meal comprising of: soup, egg salad, pork and bean stew, cheese and last but by no means least poached pear with a chocolate sauce, had been beautifully prepared ready for the arrival of the workers. Needless to say there was a healthy amount of homebrewed ratafia and vin de peche as well as wine laid out to ‘refresh’ everyone. Lunch lasted a good 2 hours, giving us all enough time to gear ourselves up for the next stage of the harvest – the crushing of the grapes.
An old manual grape crusher was brought out, dusted off and placed on the top of a huge container (that could hold roughly 100 litres) that had been filled with a layer of fresh juniper branches to act as a primary sieve. Over the course of an hour, crate upon crate of the grapes were passed through the crusher until 3 containers were filled to the brim. Then the juice of the grapes (known locally as ‘mout’ – meaning the juice from the first pressing of the grape) was drained off and taken away to be made into a regional drink – Ratafia.
We were lucky enough to be given some of the mout so that we could make some Ratafia ourselves. It is a very simple drink to make requiring only two ingredients, eau de vie and mout. Yesterday I watched and listened as a great debate arose about what is the perfect mix as it would seem that everyone has their own theory about this. All I could deduced was too little eau de vie and you run the risk that the Ratafia ferments and becomes undrinkable, too much eau de vie the drink is too alcoholic and is like drinking paint stripper. What I concluded as we drove home is that making Ratafia is more of an art than a science. So with that in mind, the Old Man got out his 25l demijohn and measured out what he felt was best and I guess we will find out the end result when we get to try it in mid-December.
c. 6.5 litres eau de vie
c. 18.5 litres mout
(Working on the principal of 3 parts mout: 1 part eau de vie)
Combine ingredients in a large barrel.
Allow the demijohn to breath for a week (so don’t seal it straight away).
Turn the demijohn as often as you remember (if possible once a day).
After about 2-3 months, transfer the liquid into bottles and store ready for drinking.
Earlier this summer my brothers and I were talking about what we could do with the eau de vie stocks that we have at home. Eau de vie is an acquired taste – I personally don’t mind the apricot variety that we have a bottle of, but I am not the biggest fan of plum of which we have literally litres upon litres in the barn. As a result, my brothers and I have been thinking of ways to mask the raw taste of the plum by adding a variety of other fruits and herbs.
My eldest brother introduced me a couple of years ago to the delights of Sloe Gin when we were out on a shoot. A sip of the drink was given to everyone to warm them up on a bitterly cold and wet winter’s day. The sloe gin had a syrupy consistency which warmed your throat as you drank it and ever since I had it I have wanted to try and make it though I have struggled to come to terms of wasting perfectly good gin if it didn’t work out. A solution presented itself this summer – substitute the gin with eau de vie and if it doesn’t work out it I won’t feel as though I am wasting anything other than some sugar, given that the sloes are free and we have so much eau de vie we just don’t know what to do with it.
Some other ‘infusions’ that are being tried out by my brothers and I include: Raspberry de Vie which my younger brother is giving a go in a 1.5 litre water bottle in London(doubtless to be shared amongst his friends at a house party later this year regardless as to whether it tastes nice or not); Damson de Vie which my eldest brother is trying out this time in a fancy 5 litre glass demijohn; and lastly Rosemary de Vie (as this is going to be used for cooking with in stews during the winter months I have not added any sugar).
After a lot of research on the internet looking at recipes for Sloe Gin I decided that perhaps precision was not the best approach for Sloe de Vie. Subsequently, I settled on the idea of a bit of guess work and using rough estimation for the ingredients, concluding that I can always add more sugar in 2 months’ time when I try it for the first time. I made 4 bottles in total, three 75cl bottles for the boys and one 1 litre bottle for me, all using the same principles. After 14 days of maturing my Sloe de Vie looks like this:
Sloe de Vie
Ingredients needed to make 1 bottle:
Sloes (enough to fill half of the bottle you are using to mature the Sloe de Vie in – c.350-500g)
Sugar (a small tumblers worth of sugar – c.175-200g)
3 Juniper berries
Eau de Vie (enough to fill the bottle after the fruit and sugar have been added – c.300-400ml)
Wash the sloes thoroughly then, using a sterilized needle, pierce each sloe through to the stone.
Place the 3 juniper berries and the sloes in the bottle that you are using to store the sloe de vie in until the bottle is roughly ½ full.
Measure out your sugar in a tumbler then using a funnel – pour the sugar into the bottle.
Finally pour the eau de vie into the bottle until it is full (i.e stop when the liquid reaches just below the neck of the bottle).
Tightly screw on the lid and shake vigorously. For the next couple of days shake the bottles every so often until the sugar has dissolved.
Leave for 2 months turning/shaking occasionally, before straining and tasting.
Note: I have added juniper berries on the basis that they should add a slight gin flavour to the mix – however this could turn out to be a rookie error. As I mentioned before, this drink is usually made using gin. Therefore, if you prefer to try that instead simply don’t add the juniper berries (the same goes for vodka).