July 2017: Peaches in Peach wine
July 2017: Peaches in Peach wine
One thousand and seventy-one kilometres and a ten hour drive lay between me and my old bakery in the Languedoc. 1, rue Jean Jacques Rousseau, Cazouls les Béziers. A working bakery only fifteen years before I had bought it in 2010, was charming, thick-walled and dry – still smelling slightly of flour - said my imagination. The original bakery shop window with panelled, sliding glass doors and marble shelf had, in another life, made me dream of lining it with sugar-crusted brioches and flouncy, chantilly filled St Honorés. Its heavy, wooden shutters, with solid locks, curls of Occitane ironwork and fading celadon paint absorbed the heat and the street’s chit-chat- and made the house feel cool, and safe, inside. I had bought it after my divorce as a promise of a roof over my head, “no matter what”. Now it was gone too.
Despite the house’s state of disrepair, and no central heating, for a few years I had adapted to my spare and simple southern life, spending hours walking in the red-hued Languedoc garrigue, pinching figs and grapes first thing for breakfast and chasing sunsets with my dog Jack in the evening. Now this old French house was sold, and a few days before my fifty-third birthday, I had six high-summer weeks to pack everything and dispatch twenty-five years of belongings, cutting myself adrift into the uncharted waters of the rest of my life, with no anchor, no compass.
By 1am, made groggy by the heat and the hum of the car, I was pushing back the branches of my cherry tree in the moonlight to get to my door. For a nervy second I thought the key did not want to turn for me but the heavy shutters dutifully screeched open and soon the cool calm of the high kitchen enveloped me. The long, narrow, white-painted table de monastère I had owned since the children were small, looked so welcoming. And all the white shells and starfish and grey pebbles and candles on low ledges around the walls & behind the glass in the bakery double window, each with its own little story, winked hello as I fumbled for the corner lamps one by one.
Covered in snail tracks and puckered by damp, the large pile of envelopes in the outside post box contained nothing too unexpected. Gathering up an armful of cushions, I poured a glass of vin de pêche grabbed from a Vendee motorway stop and went up the stone stairs onto the terrasse where the neighbour’s trumpet vine was clinging delicately to the entire curve of the terrace wall, dripping orange bell-flowers over on to my side.
I laid back and looked up at the stars and flitting bats, soundtracked by cicadas and the comforting, late night shreds of other people’s intimacy which had so often been my only company. Splashes, laughs and music from neighbours’ poolsides, open windows and roof terraces floated up through the village like feathers caught in the summer air. The sweet wine was going to my head, the ache leaving my neck and shoulders, and I hoped my first night’s sleep in the old house would be sound. The next day, zombie-like from the drive and the heat, I picked out melons, garlic and tomatoes, fragrant and splitting apart in the midday sun, from the roadside stand in the village and from the excellent little épicerie-charcuterie a hundred paces away, at the end of the street, all the things I had been missing most.
“So you’re leaving us?” asked Julie, the young patronne. Her back was turned to me. She sounded cold, looked betrayed, “I hope someone nice has bought your house.”
She sliced and wrapped my purchases carefully - jambon de parme, thin as tissue paper, a marbled pork chop cut to order thick as a ribeye and a tiny sliver of delicate fromage de tete aux pistaches. From the other counter I bought anchovies marinated in lemon zest, fresh sheep’s fromage de brousse, local honey, olives, olive oil, nectarines, peaches. But no butter. They sold only unsalted, sitting in great hunks ready to be carved. It simply didn’t suit this food. Besides, life here had other temptations, and rosé assisted siestas behind closed shutters had often been the most delicious way to let many summer days slip by. This year, the crushing heat and longing for turned pages meant I had little desire for bread, butter and chocolate, my usual comfort foods. My imminent withdrawal from French home ownership meant that I could have no internet or TV for this, my final month in Cazouls. Without Jack ,who was holidaying elsewhere, it was to be a solitary time, even by the standards of the misanthrope I seemed to have become.
But like faithful old friends, my cookbooks were there. And there were hundreds of them, congregated from all the apartments and houses through the years, stacked on bookshelves and piled high on tables around the house. They would be all the company I needed. I pulled out my very first cookbook from 2001, ‘Petits Plats Entre Amis’, stained and dog-eared, full of happy memories of food cooked with love.
I poached the peaches with the rest of the peach wine. It was a good way, I thought, to say hello to my old house for the last time, filling its rooms with the sweet scent of fruit and vanilla as I had done so often in this and other homes through the years.
I removed the skins and let the peaches chill and infuse with the liquor until the next day. But this time at dinner there was no table set and no one watching. Scooping one out of the saucepan, it barely held its shape in my hand as I sucked the soft, grainy, icy-but-not-quite-frozen flesh from around the stone. Then I quickly rinsed the peach juice from my hands and mouth, and had another.
Pêches au vin de pêche
When I first started cooking for my French dinner guests in the early 90s, I often used one of Raymond Blanc’s so called ‘home cooking’ books. They seemed surprised by the recipes, and I was puzzled by this, but soon realised that Blanc’s recipes - all terribly Provencal, with quantities of basil and garlic and lavender - were what he thought English people were expecting from French cuisine.
Anyway, Raymond’s recipe used a sticky dessert wine from Frontignan, but here I make it with inferior Vin de Peche from Vendee, which didn’t taste like peaches at all but, even more pleasingly, an alcoholised version of the delicious red cough syrup we had as children.
Poaching the peaches with skin-on citrus fruit gives the light syrup a welcome hint of bitterness and weighs down the slices to make an extra seal when it is barely simmering - but you will still need a pan with a lid. It is a striking dessert, with dreamy colours, for the peach skins stain the cooking juice, and best served very chilled in the highest, grandest glass bowl you can find. You could have langues de chat or other thin crispy biscuits with it, but the peaches take on that pleasing texture that tinned pears also have and don’t really benefit much from sidekicks.
25 minutes cooking
4 ripe but not overripe peaches, (I prefer white ones for the colour)
1 vanilla pod
1 star anis (optional)
500ml sweet white wine
Water to top up
1 large untreated orange
3or 4 tablespoons sugar (optional)
Fit the peaches snugly into a medium sized saucepan (with a lid). Pour the wine in until just covered, top up with water.
Split the vanilla pod and add to the saucepan with the star anis if using.
Slice the orange and lemon and lay the slices over the tops of the peaches.
Bring to the boil then reduce the heat immediately to a very low simmer. Put the lid on the pan and leave to simmer for about 20 minutes, until the peaches are poached but still slightly firm.
Take the pan off the heat and let it cool down completely before putting it in the fridge for at least 3 or 4 hours – overnight is even better.
The next day, drain the poaching liquid from the fruit, remove the vanilla and bring the juice back to the boil to reduce volume and intensify the flavour. Add sugar if you feel it needs some. Leave to cool and then chill again, this time with the peeled peaches, their skin will slide off easily.