Had summer been normal this year, the compost heap would have been quietly hiccuping as rejected fruits fermented in the warmth of the sun. Niffle the Rabbit once got drunk on rotten fruit, his eyes were crossed and he could not move; made him easier to catch.
Only July and August have not been normal, they have behaved rather like obnoxious drunks, at one moment warm and jolly, even over-exuberant with temperatures above 30 C. Then cold and suspicious, snarling with torrential rain and a ten degree drop in temperature. The spring warmth was good for grapes but has not been good for our apples, pears or peaches. There are great quantities of these fruits – so great that many branches have crutches - but they are small. In fact the peaches are more the size of golf balls and every burst of rain knocks more to the grass. Fortunately the trees are in the orchard, not on the La Chaise golf course.
The yellow peaches are finished, leaving me with a few pots of peach marmelade (add orange zest, juice and some cloves...) and the rest went to a friend. Now it is the turn of the pêche sanguine, a white fleshed, red veined fruit that turns the most wonderful deep, velvety red when processed. It is also known as the pêche de vigne because it is often planted at the end of vine rows. Like the canary in the mine, it gets sick first.
These, too, this year, are very small but so far seem wonderfully disease resistant. I expect I shall conserve them some way, their colour makes it almost obligatory, irrestible. In our early years at La Chaise, I used to bottle them, either in eau de vie, neat fruit alcohol distilled by a local farmer from his own grapes, or in red wine. The alcoholic peaches made a wonderful dessert, two or three peach halves on plain vanilla ice-cream and the alcohol served in small glasses as accompanient. The yellow peaches were ideal for a 'Belle Hélène' style dessert, peach halves on plain vanilla ice cream, keep chilled, then pour over melted bitter chocolate. But desserts have rather gone by the board with age, as have the stronger alcohols. There is a limit to the number of times one can eat peach crumble, of whatever colour.
In his London flat my son has a 2 litre bottle of peaches in eau de vie that I made in the 1990's, I think. No-one dares open it. As we were renovating our house, thirty years ago now, we discovered under the floor boards some roughly corked wine bottles with peach slices in them; conserves to get the then owners through the war. Inedible when opened – alcohol preserves for a while but not forever, neither peaches, nor people.
Fruit is the first of the autumn bullies, demanding 'eat me', 'pot me'. One late summer visitor came haggard to breakfast, claiming he could not sleep 'for the sound of peaches falling from the trees'.
The advent of the freezer, now that we have a reliable electricity supply, has made life a little easier. It takes less time to make a puree and freeze it than to make jam or fruits in eau de vie. However, it does not have the same visual appeal, the same moral satisfaction as jars and jars of conserved fruit, whether in alcohol or in sugar, neatly labelled and lined up.
The difficulty for the novice country housewife is to get it into her head that these pretty jars are not just for admiring, or giving as modest gifts, but for consumption by the household through the coming winter. Another space has to be made for clean and empty jars, ready to be refilled next autumn.