She stood on the doorstep with a carton of blackcurrants, the top decorated with the pungent leaves. English but so long in France that she was a bit like Jane Birkin; she had a way of speaking English that sounded translated. She was an illustrator and had bought the house semi-derelict with her French husband and turned this annexe into a one up one down house for paying guests. I found it hard to warm to her, but I recognise it now as jealousy. The garden was ramshackle but loved and beautiful to me for that reason, with ducks and their ducklings skittering about, while various cats lounged on the vegetable beds. He – the husband – was a fanatical gardener and barely spoke. As if it was all too much, or he’d gone feral here, with the woodland at the bottom of the garden and the stream, and the birds he was protecting. Don’t go near that tree, he said, because they’re nesting. He was French and so his insouciance was more acceptable, don’t ask me why. They were both not exactly host material.
Over the years, I have listened to/read the same story told through various lenses, but the words are the same; rambling, derelict, remote, dusty plain, our hideaway, our tumble-down cottage, our house (well, one of our houses), we couldn’t find the front door for the brambles, didn’t even know there was a swimming pool, it wasn’t on the spec, rotting floorboards.
Often they wonder if it is worth it, because of the upkeep. And travel more difficult now. We are so lucky, they always say. And I think, yes you are. To be in France or elsewhere in the seventies or eighties when property was cheap, and you had a few extra bob. Then you held on to it, improved it, gradually the area became more sought after. These accretions are often slow and subtle.
The pioneer spirit looks different now, more calculated, and documented up the wazoo. I wonder if we could ever return to the relative innocence of Patience Gray in Honey from a Weed (‘I was able to light a fire, start the pot with its contents cooking, plunge into the sea at mid-day and by the time I had swum across the bay and back, lunch was ready and the fire a heap of ashes’.) or Elizabeth David brushing the fish with branches of rosemary dipped in olive oil. My own mother bought a three storey house in southern Spain for £2,000, now long gone. All the walls sloped, and swallows nested in the rafters. We had no glass in the windows only shutters. We would get lifts to places in the back of the post mistress’s van or occasionally the back of a tractor. What I remember was how unrelaxing it was. Hard work. We were dusty, tired, often bored, but our skin shone from the olive oil, sunshine and mountain air. Also: the coffee, the tomatoes, the smell of the bakery with its tough brown loaves. The way bits of wall came off on your clothes.
I suppose my mum’s place too was semi-derelict, or as one guest called it – in the days when strangers responded to an ad in Loot and were sent the keys – ‘your hovel’.
The punnet of blackcurrants are swiftly deployed. And I am left with the tale – that they zoned in on this area of unflashy northern France, their demands were few; a bus stop so their daughter could get to school on her own, relative ease of access to a town, a garden to grow vegetables. Then they got to work, quietly and slowly until they built a life.
The blackcurrants are washed and not dealt with in any way, the ‘beard’ still intact. Then they are gently heated on the hob, with the tiniest splash of water along with the sugar. They are cooked when the skins split, and then you eat them like that with ice cream, yoghurt etc. Or once cooked you can push them through a sieve to get a purée. They still retain their tartness, despite sugar, and always arrive in the same way; offered in an old ice cream carton, from a muddy hand, or a repurposed punnet. Some currants will still be attached to the stalks, leaves will be amongst them, the colour reminiscent of beetles. Or ink. Or soot. They are not glossy. I tend to eat them raw as I work my way round the allotment.
Blackcurrant compote (to add to meringue and cream or rice pudding or ice cream). Adapted from Nigel Slater, Tender Volume 2.
300g blackcurrants, 3 tbs caster sugar (or to taste), a shake of water (2 tbs)
Wash blackcurrants, pull from their stalks if necessary, put them in a stainless steel saucepan, with the sugar, water and bring gently to boil. As soon as they start to burst and the juice turns purple, remove from heat and set aside. Leave to cool, then chill.