Dried Acorns and Mirabelle Vodka

Of all the things dropping to the ground this summer, rain was particularly scarce.

The area of eastern France where we live is always hot in August. This year, though, after a rainy spring, June started heating up. And then July was hotter. As hot as August, but weeks early.

#wheat #wildcarrot #summer #sunshine #flowers #countryside #running #France

Wild carrot blooms along the verge of a wheat field just before harvest.
Photo: PKR

The minimal amounts of rain we got weren’t enough to keep the fields irrigated, so like other farmers around Europe in this hot season, our local farmers brought in the crop early to salvage what they could.

#harvest #summer #rain #countryside #running #France

The dry running path beneath gathering clouds.
Photo: PKR

The sunny mirabelle plums on our garden tree ripened weeks ahead of time, as did the wild blackberries all around the area. Tasty and delightful, but almost unseasonable in their timing.

#vodka #plums #mirabelles #garden

The last two mirabelle plums picked from the tree, and a bottle of some plums from earlier in the season. They’ll steep in vodka with a sprig of garden thyme and some sugar for a few months.
Photo: PKR

Acorns, too, carpet my running path – they should be hitting the ground in late summer. Hopefully the squirrels and other animals have noticed the weird clockwork of this year, and are taking a cue from the farmers by harvesting early.

Out on runs, I sometimes hear the boom of thunder somewhere in the mountains, and I watch for signs of relief. Often, the skies cloud over, and I’ll see rain falling somewhere nearby – but only for a few moments, and only over a limited area.

Of course, it’s not that there haven’t been heatwaves in the past. But even in the twenty-odd years since we moved here, the heatwaves have gotten more frequent, hotter, and longer.

This week, the heatwave finally broke and we’ve gotten a few evenings of rain and wind. It’s a welcome change to listen to rainfall rather than the constant thrum of fans, because of course an old place like ours doesn’t have central air conditioning.

The stone walls were usually enough to take a few weeks of August heat and still stay cool inside. We used to be able to lean against them, bare skin on stone as a quick refreshment. Not anymore – the stones of our house are heated through and radiate inward.

#harvest #summer #rain #countryside #running #France

A rain cloud brings a bit of relief.
Photo: PKR

Of course, we aren’t alone with our heatwave – it’s a phenomenon shared around the world this year. With any kind of luck, the slow climb of temperatures will come in fits and starts. With any kind of luck, we’ll have some time to take action, to adapt, to correct. With any kind of luck, a bit of luck will be on our side.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep using the luscious mirabelles for making plum vodka cordial, something to keep the winter nights warm once the heat has left the stones again.

#summer #acorns #oak

Acorns picked up during a run.
Photos: PKR

Dog Days

We’re in the middle of a significant heat wave here in eastern France – the French call it la canicule, a word which has at its root a reference to a celestial body other than the sun.

Between July 3 and August 11, the star Sirius rises almost in conjunction with the sun – and Sirius is the brightest star in the Canis Major, the Greater Dog constellation. Actually, the term goes all the way back to the Egyptians, who began their New Year with the return of Sirius.

For centuries it was thought that the star brought with it the heat of summer.

Hence, the ‘dog days’ of summer.

Sirius in Canis Major Source: Space.com

Sirius in Canis Major
Source: Space.com

I was out early this morning – as I am every morning these days – trying to save some of the garden plants from withering under the blazing sun.

We lost some beautiful trees in the deadly canicule of 2003. While I can’t save all the leafy friends, I have been trying to keep a couple of the more fragile ones from drying out, including a gnarled apple tree and a small Japanese maple.

Our garden is an old one – it’s been worked in one form or another for hundreds of years. When we arrived here twenty years ago, the small enclosed space was home to twelve flower beds and nine fruit trees scattered across a mosaic lawn. photo 1(4)

We re-planted the garden a few years ago to be much less water dependent and pollinator-friendly. We reduced the size of the lawn by around half, laid pebble paths through the shady areas, built raised beds,  put in lavender rows and planted grasses that fend well for themselves.

One of the trees that doesn’t seem to need much help is our mirabelle tree – sure, the harvest will be a fraction of what it was last year, but the tree is flourishing and content.photo 1(5)

We have large trays of water out for birds and insects.

The lawn – which I just reseeded this spring – is a loss. It crunches underfoot, but I don’t see the point in watering it. I’ll take the long view and replant in autumn for next year.

photo 3(3)

As I was watering a small fig tree I planted against a stone wall, a small bird emerged from beneath the hosta leaves that line one of the paths. It was looking at me, and looking at the spray of water, then back at me – so I inched the water a bit closer to the bird, and before I knew it, another bird had joined the first and they were chirping like mad as they enjoyed the short shower.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

If this is the shape of summers to come, I guess I’ll be reducing the lawn even further, and gardening for heat resistance.

In the meantime, with no end to the heat in sight, I’ll just do what humans have been doing in this situation for the entire length of history – try to take it easy, and pray for rain. If I can rely on the tradition of dog days and Sirius setting in early August, I shouldn’t have much longer to wait.

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France. Source: France Pittoresque

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France.
Source: France Pittoresque

A Few Beginnings and a Couple of Ends

The weather turned cold this week, grey skies and a chill wind after two weeks of balmy temperatures. Two steps forward, one step back. No excuse not to get some garden work done, though.

Last week was all bumblebees and sunshine, this week I found this fellow, a little black cricket, taking shelter from the cold in our garden shed.photo 1-4


And I found this hideaway when I uncovered all the herb garden pots. When we moved here almost eighteen years ago, the garden – more wild back then, but also far less organic – was rampant with large land snails, the brown kind. I used to find specimens larger than my palm. Rather than destroy them, the greedy mouths that ate my fledgling plants, I’d take them to the farm next door.photo 2-4

If I showed up with a yellow snail like the one above, it was quickly destroyed by my elderly neighbor Maurice. The big brown ones, though – those he used to eye hungrily (if the season was right) and pop them into his snail house for feeding on garden scraps – until feast time came and the snails themselves were on the menu. We’re in rural France, after all.

Both neighbor and snails are now long gone, and if I miss one more than the other, the lack of snails is still a sign of how developed the village has become since we arrived. Dozens of new apartments and houses, the fields, hedgerows and orchards gobbled up by streets and fresh suburbs.

The mirabelle tree has hundreds of buds, but just a couple of them are showing any coy petal.photo 4-4

I planted a magnolia tree a couple of years ago, but it hasn’t had much in the way of blossoms until this year – this season, the tree is heavy with velvety green pods ready to bloom.

Just down the road a mile or so, the magnolia trees are in full bloom already, but we are a little bit higher in altitude, and it makes all the difference.photo 3-3

I was weeding around the roses, a large yew hedge at my back, when a large chorus built up around me, a rowdiness of different birdsong. Loud and distracting. Breeding season, I thought, not wanting to get up and look.

It continued, louder, riotous. I stood up, looked around. The bird feeders were empty. It’s gotten cold enough that the insects for which they’d abandoned the feeders are gone. Fine, I told the birds. Pipe down.

I filled the feeders and the song changed.

Finally, this witch hazel has it all – the dry winter remains of blooms ready to drop, a single blossom still holding its shape, and a green leaf budding out.

Everything about spring on a single twig.Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.23.49 PM

Simple, Slow, Good

We harvested the last of the mirabelles today under heavy skies and to the sound of rolling thunder, the first raindrops already falling as we packed away the ladder and hurried inside with the last couple of kilos of yellow plums.

There’s something so simple and satisfying about making old-fashioned jams and cordials, a word that has a distinctly Victorian ring to my ears. Or at least, it’s simple and satisfying once the pots have all been put away and the kitchen is clean.

We were in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and I was talking to one of the fellows behind the bar at The Library in the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.

A vodka cocktail from The Library.

A vodka cocktail from The Library.

It’s a dimly lit place of deep leather seats and candles, with thick stacks of books piled up as table supports. The kind of place that invites spending more time than foreseen, and maybe a few unplanned confessions

After we’d tried the first couple of surprising cocktails, I had to go over and see what this guy was up to. I’ve never had such a bright pomegranate vodka martini; the margarita was spiked with unexpected cilantro and green chili.

As it turned out, the countertop looked more like a salad bar than a standard bar for booze. Fresh fruits, everything from pears and pomegranates to bell peppers and chills. Not to mention a wide variety of fresh herbs in bunches. Any juice for a drink is crushed or squeezed on the spot, the herbs mashed with a mortar and pestle.

A not-so-great picture, taken in very low light, of a small part of the bar counter.

A not-so-great picture, taken in very low light, of a small part of the bar counter.


What I liked even more was the time taken to really pay attention to each concoction, including the strawberry/balsamic vinegar/vodka creation I had (top picture), topped with a foam of elderflower St. Germain liqueur.

Sure, it all takes longer, just like cooking up and straining mirabelles for a couple of liters of sunny golden cordial. Still, so satisfying, a real pleasure.


Golden Bounty

I went for a run in a solid summer rain this afternoon, and returned home to the refreshment of some ripe mirabelle plums, straight off the tree. But the next couple of days will be devoted, at least in part, to picking and processing the plum bounty before the rain ruins them all.DSC02370

The mirabelle plum tree in our garden is small miracle. When we moved here almost 20 years ago, it was a stubby, dead stump. The previous owners told us the ‘peach’ tree that had been on that spot had long since succumbed to old age, they had just never gotten around to pulling up the roots. It was in a quiet corner of the garden, they had planted flowers all around, so the stump was left untended and unnoticed.

The pear tree, the green gage plum tree, the apple trees, the cherry trees, all the redcurrant bushes and raspberry canes: These got all the attention for many years. Then pear tree died one hot summer; the green gage plum tree started dropping large branches like leaves, and the raspberries were too shaded by a large cherry tree to produce. All are gone now.

But the dry stump? It sprouted after a couple of years, and we were curious to see what would happen. What happened was a mirabelle plum tree, the discreet bearer of a few tart, golden plums every year. Until this year, when the tree suddenly thrust out 10 kgs of delicious plums.DSC02378

The mirabelle plum (Prunus domestica subsp. syriaca) is thought to have been introduced to Europe from Asia Minor and was established in France by the 16th century.

The Lorraine region of the country produces 15,000 tonnes of the fruit annually, 90% of which is made into jam or eau-de-vie. A non-native crop that has, like many other favorite European fruits, thrived in its adopted home.images-PICASA9

My first batch of mirabelle jam, a simple concoction of plum halves macerated overnight in sugar, cooked up into a fine treat.

Today’s jam version will include a few sprigs of fresh thyme from the garden. Tomorrow’s mirabelles will go into making a few batches of different liquors: vodka, brandy, eau-de-vie. All to be aged and served up in winter.

A reminder of the rewards of patience when it comes to small miracles, and of time spent under a golden tree during a warm summer rain.DSC02369