Wild Fruit Harvest

Wild Fruit Harvest

The last few weeks of summer are lazy. The mercury is boiling in a thousand thermometers and nobody feels inclined to move.
Vignerons prowl slowly round the vines, squinting anxiously at distant clouds. Holidaymakers prowl round the little villages, cameras at the ready, squinting curiously through ancient stone doorways and posing in front of the old chapel; the rest of us do as little as possible in the heat of the day, and wait until the cool of the evening to conduct any serious business. Eating, drinking, flirting and partying are the most serious, naturally, but even the more sober pursuits, such as harvesting – the combine-harvesters work all night – and of course shopping, are done in the evening.
I just about manage to summon up the energy to go for a walk round the village each day. The heat bubbles up through my flip-flops and beats relentlessly down on my straw hat, stepping into the shade is a blessed, blessed relief. And one of the most delicious forms of shade is a fig tree. There are a great number of them in these parts, some are wild and quite small and some are a bit exotic and bear very large fruit early in the season. But the great majority are large, wonderfully sprawling trees bearing the middle-sized plum-purple fruit we’ve come to associate with the name; and in late summer they are laden. The voluptuous scent is almost overpowering, hot, heady and sticky-sweet. It’s accompanied by a symphony of wasps, which fortunately have absolutely no interest in humans; they’re obsessed with the dew of sugary syrup on the over-ripe fruit, gorging themselves until they can barely fly. When the wasps have finished with it, the fig will fall, dark purple and squashy, and the ground below will be stained that colour. If the tree happens to be on a roadside, there will be a carpet of squashed figs, and if it’s on a slope it’ll be very slippery indeed.
One of the trees on my walk is in just that sort of location; it’s also particularly bountiful. Ripe figs, freshly picked, with a trickle of lavender honey and a nice dollop of Greek yogurt are the very thing for breakfast on a steaming summer day.
I set out one exquisite morning with a fairly dilapidated rush bowl and a walking stick. Very useful for knocking off bloated wasps and bending a just-out-of-reach branch to within grasp. The full heat of the day was still to come; the air was soft and warm, and it felt marvellous just to be alive. It was mid-august but the village was surprisingly deserted, the only soul I encountered was old Monsieur Robert, at his ease on the venerable stone bench in the shade of the high convent walls. He could see the whole place from there, and all the twisty little roads in and out of it.
Ancient streets in tiny villages, lined with old stone houses, are the television of rural France. Children play there in happy little knots. Teenagers hang out, eying up the competition, honing their courting skills and brewing outrageous amounts of surplus testosterone. The old men play their endless games of boules – seniority dictates the location naturally – in the thankful shade of pollarded catalpa or crumbling stone walls. From there they can see it all and keep an eye on the predatory antics of a group of young black-leathered bikers who are plainly after their granddaughters. Each group watches the others, living their own lives and absorbing the lives of every other soul in the community through every quivering sense.
M. Robert had little to see, it was enough to be out in the warmth of the summer’s morning. He called out
“’Jour Madame” and heaved himself to his feet.
I went over to receive my due. He attacked my cheeks dutifully then sank gratefully back down to his cool seat. We made some desultory conversation about the heat and the plum crop, and then I excused myself and slipped round the corner of the convent and down the hill.
The tree I had in mind is rooted on the very edge of a garden, and most of the branches spread over the road. By this time on a hot summer morning the tarmac was a shimmering violet, exuding the sweet aroma of baked figs.
I lowered one branch to pick a couple of beautiful, fat, ripe specimens and used my stick to grab the next sprig. And at that moment there was an almighty roar from somewhere round the top of the tree. I gasped in fright, slipped on the mat of fruit and for one wild second could be seen dangling from the branch with my walking stick, tracing concentric circles in the fig puree with my feet. As I regained balance – and equilibrium – I realised that it wasn’t a panther at all; it was a fighter plane, just visible now in the far distance. The French Air Force is allowed to practice in the Lot valley because of its low population density, and a low-flying visit from a budding Tom Cruise in the quiet of the morning is startling enough to blow yours ears off.
I smoothed down my rumpled cotton dress, picked off a few dry twigs, ejected an inquisitive wasp and glanced anxiously round. I was quite alone; so I picked up my fig basket and strolled nonchalantly back up the hill – nodding to a completely unheeding M. Robert – to a delicious, peaceful breakfast.

© Amanda Lawrence 2008

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Figs for Breakfast from French Vie

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