This month life revolves around harvesting berries and currants. A fenced rectangle in the south corner of the garden contains red, white and black currants, gooseberries, tayberries, raspberries (not many) and blackberries. We have also added a couple of kiwis, but they are not yet mature enough to fruit, and we have several table grape vines. The berries and the currants are known as soft fruit - as opposed to peaches, apples, cherries etc, which are known as "top fruit". At this time of year there is an absolute glut as everything ripens in quick succession and the challenge is not wasting any of it. This is basically what we do:
Redcurrants - usually the first to ripen. They do very well in SW France and we have found that they are largely ignored by birds. We pick them in bunches and use almost all of them to make redcurrant jelly which, apart from being perfect with lamb, is marvellous for glazing fruit tarts (especially raspberry or strawberry).
Buy or make a crisp, buttery pastry crust, pile the fruit into it (you can initially fill the shell with a bed of mascarpone based custard if you have the time) and paint the top with melted redcurrant jelly. I also use redcurrant jelly as an addition to some sauces for meat dishes - it is especially good with calves' or lambs' liver.
Making redcurrant jelly - 1.5 kg of redcurrants in a jam pan with enough water to almost cover them.
Next up this year are the gooseberries - with horrible prickly stems they are unpleasant to pick and you then have to top and tail each one (i.e. remove the bits of stem/residual flower from either end of the berries). However, when you have finished they make marvellous jam and also freeze well for cooking with over the next few months.
Gooseberries do not do particularly well where we live - they prefer a cooler climate and a more acidic soil, but we (and the gooseberry bushes) struggle on and from the four bushes we have we get enough to make about half a dozen jars of jam plus have plenty of bags of berries over for eating throughout the year. I think they remind us of home.
In this photo you can see that as we top and tail them we are sorting them, using the less ripe (green) ones for jam and the rest for eating.
At about the same time our blackcurrants ripen. I LOVE blackcurrants and we can never get enough of them They are a bit fiddly to pick and I tail them but don't top them (i.e. just remove the stems) and then either freeze them raw for future use, make jam or add them to a compote - see the recipe at the bottom of the page. Blackcurrants are greedy plants so you need deep, rich soil and plenty of organic matter to add as a mulch around the base of the plant every winter.
Jams and jellies on the kitchen table.
Also in the race to ripen about now are the white currants. These also make delicious jelly - although it is never as popular as redcurrant jelly, so I turn most of these into a fruit syrup which we bottle and pasteurise and then store for use during the year, either diluted as a drink or as an addition to puddings.
Now for the climbers - we have tayberries and blackberries which we train up the soft fruit garden fencing. Tayberries are a sort of cross between a raspberry and a blackberry and they have several close relatives - boysenberries and loganberries, for example, which can be confusing. They love our climate and a clay soil and do extremely well. Not that many make it to the freezer as we eat them almost immediately and they don't freeze brilliantly unless in a compote. As we move into July and August our blackberries come on line, these are Richard's pièce de resistance. He grows a thornless variety which loves the soil and the climate - not surprisingly given that most people around where we live are plagued by wild brambles. Our blackberries are a cultivated variety called Oregon Thornless and the fruit are enormous and full of juice. Again - they are frozen so we can eat them throughout the year or I make jam or jelly with them. Blackberry jelly is particularly good with meat patés as their gentle acidity balances the fat content of the paté well.
I haven't mentioned strawberries or raspberries. We don't grow strawberries. The area we live in has many, expert strawberry growers and we bow to their experience. Our favourite supplier is a man who spends his spring and summer Tuesdays on the corner of the square in Sauveterre-de-Guyenne market. All he does is grow and sell strawberries, starting with the sharp flavoured Gariguette in March and April and moving on to numerous other summer varieties including my absolute favourite - Mara de Bois. Mara de Bois is a cross between fraise de bois - the wild, woodland strawberry and a cultivated one. It has the beautiful, perfumed flavour of a wild strawberry but is bigger - with the juicy texture of a cultivated fruit. I buy Gariguette misshapes from him early each year to make into jam. Mara de Bois are lucky to make it home from the market without having been ingested by me.
Raspberries, on the other hand, do not grow easily here. They like plenty of water and cold climates - Scotland is the great raspberry growing area and, years ago, when we had a fruit farm in Northumberland, raspberries were our main crop. We grew acres of traditional raspberries which fruit on the previous year's canes and have to be pruned, managed and harvested in an intensive manner similar to grape vines. I empathise with our neighbouring vignerons as they prune their vines in February each year. In France we grown autumn fruiting raspberries which fruit on the same year's canes and will keep flowering and fruiting for several months - given the right conditions. These conditions do not come easily to the warmer parts of France and so we have few of them, preferring to devote the space to the more successful tayberry.
Inevitably, there are points at which we have some of everything ripening at the same time, but not enough for a few jars of jam or to be worth freezing on their own - so I combine these to make fruit compotes. I freeze the compote in plastic boxes and we have them during the year with muesli in the morning or with ice cream, meringues, almond cakes and crème fraiche as an easy and reliable pudding. This is what you do.
Currant, cherry and berry compote:
Using a wide, shallow oven-proof dish assemble a mixture of gooseberries and currants - whatever you have available. The best combination is blackcurrants and gooseberries as red and white currants tend to have too many hard little pips which can stick in your teeth - so use them in smaller quantities.
Rinse the fruit in cold water using a sieve and then spread them over the bottom of the dish and sprinkle with sugar to taste. I use white sugar, and not too much as all you want to do is encourage the fruit to release their juice as they soften in the heat of the oven. Cover with foil and bake at about 150C for around 20 minutes.
Keep an eye on them as the length of cooking time does vary, depending on which fruit you are using and how ripe they are. Do not stir them during cooking as you may break them up. Gently shake the dish from time to time during the cooking process to move the fruit and sugar around while keeping the fruit whole.
Once you are happy that they are soft enough for your liking then remove them from the oven and add the softer fruit to the mixture. This can be strawberries, raspberries, tayberries or stoned cherries. Shake and stir gently if you need to to mix them with the warm, cooked fruit and their juice.
That is it - decant into a serving bowl when cool enough to do so or into rigid tubs for the freezer. Simples - as the meercat said.
There are blueberries in the photo above. They don't grow well here as they need a very acidic soil - but if you can grow them, then they would make a marvellous addition.