The amount of free food that hangs off the trees and hedgerows in France is quite astonishing. In England, foraging has become cool. Books like the Thrifty Forager and the antics of Hugh Fearnley-Doodah have made it socially acceptable for the man (or woman) on the Clapham omnibus to don their Hunter wellies and head for the local park to grub about in the bushes searching for blackberries.
In our local park, the centuries-old mulberry never gets the chance to ripen its berries. Fathers hoist their children on shoulders and encourage them to pick the fruit at whatever stage of ripeness, just in case some other father passes by later with outstretched offspring. No sooner has the child put the fruit in its mouth than it is spat out unceremoniously because it’s too tart. Such a shame since a ripe mulberry is, in my opinion, well worth risking a broken leg to reach it.
In France, it’s different. There are so many fruit trees and berry bushes that everyone is rather complacent.
Johnny and I were (and still are) so excited to find that we have eight quince, two fig and innumerable wild plum trees littered about our property. One year, I picked a basket of figs, thinking that if we didn’t eat them, we could give them to our French friends as a gift. But Monsieur Pioche said, “J’en ai en pagaille.” – “I’m up to my ears in them.”
Then we took 10 kilos of plums to the owners of the winery-cum-B&B, the chatelaine declared that wild plums were “sans intérêt” and that they buy the plums they use for jam-making at the local shop! Talk about coals to Newcastle.
We haven’t yet got to grips with the niceties of French law when it comes to picking fruit by the wayside. In England, it’s quite simple – you can pick any fruit which hangs over from private property onto the public highway. I’m not sure that French law would be quite so public-spirited.
I did once see a man screech to a halt on a very windy hill and dash about in a somewhat suicidal manner, picking up sweet chestnuts. And we spotted an enterprising chap standing on the roof of his car to pick the cherries from a tree which I’m pretty certain belonged to the vineyard it was standing in. Still, if he hadn’t liberated them, the birds most certainly would because I have never seen anyone else pick them in the nine years we have been driving past. The only way I knew that our cherry trees produced fruit was because the birds had gobbled them up and sat on the porch by our front door to poop out the stones.
Even the squirrels have so much to eat that they don’t bother raiding the hazelnut or walnut trees in Bournac. This means that there are always plenty of nuts for us in September. I even bought a mechanical press to make walnut oil which I found at the equivalent of a car boot sale, but of course the French have a much more charming name: vide grenier or “empty your attic”. It was less than half the price I would have paid for a new one and was a tremendous bargain for about half an hour. But then, with the press was blocking the view out of the rear window, I reversed our hire car into a telephone pole and was charged 400 euros to repair the damage.
What else will you find hanging off trees in the French countryside?
- Squidgy, sweet and sour rosehips, bursting with vitamin C – although you have to be careful not to swallow the hairs in the core. They are apparently what itching powder is made from.
- Kaki fruit – also known as persimmon – which are only edible once there has been a frost, otherwise the tannins will make the inside of your mouth shrivel up like the baddie in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
- Blackberries – ok so perhaps not hugely exciting, except that French BBs are much mellower than ours and need to be eaten raw. I find the flavour completely disappears when they are cooked – the complete reverse of our berries.
- Mirabelles – golden cherry plums which have a honey-sweet smell and flavour. They are prized for making tarts, but Johnny made a fabulous mirabelle wine, using just fruit and sugar. Our chateau-owning French friends even said we could “tutoie” them (use the familiar form of “you”) after drinking a couple of glasses!
Of course, apples, pears and plums all abound and figs are almost as common. Last year, our figs were so sweet and fragrant that even Johnny started eating them. I’m going to try distilling them down to a syrup to use as a sugar substitute and to avoid having to resort to Dulcolax. That will be this year’s challenge, along with learning how to bottle plums. We carted 20 kilos back to London in the Landy last September, but I can’t see myself getting quite the same amount back in my hand luggage on easyJet!