Welcome to the good life preservation society

Life is good and, contrary to hearsay, it seems its goodness can indeed be stored away in bottles for the tough times, writes Hannah Durrant

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    Heavenly peaches ready for a slosh of eau de vie
    Heavenly peaches ready for a slosh of eau de vie
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    Jars go into the sterilising pan
    Jars go into the sterilising pan
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    Perfect rose-blush peaches
    Perfect rose-blush peaches
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    'Parfait' jars are filled with the tomato coulis
    'Parfait' jars are filled with the tomato coulis
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    Summer goodness in a jar
    Summer goodness in a jar

From my last two postings from The Barn, you could be forgiven for thinking that Lou and I have spent the whole summer swanning off to cultural festivals and neglecting our newfound rustic lifestyle. The cultural life around here simply explodes in July and August and whereas most of the year any interesting cultural event is a highlight, in the summer we have to choose between them.

Now that the last of our holiday visitors have flown, we are slowly returning to a more tranquil pace of life. It seems that a rhythm is establishing itself whereby the summer will be taken up with visitors from home and a cultural feast, while in autumn and winter we turn to our local friends again and become more in tune with the ‘Perigourdin’ way of life.

As the mornings start to cool off, we all turn our minds to the cold winter months, despite the fact that we are still experiencing temperatures of 30 degrees on hotter days. The race to preserve the summer’s goodness notches up a gear, with intensified zeal for potting, drying and sterilising the harvest.

Throughout the summer, alongside the parties and the festivals, people have been squirrelling away tasty morsels for the winter. This begins around late June and early July, when we preserve fresh cherries, peaches and apricots in ‘eau de vie’ (the local firewater, distilled from these and other fruits, often illicitly). Everyone gets busy making apricot, strawberry and cherry jam. When not occupied with this, all summer our 80-year-old neighbour Alida has been drying white beans (haricots blancs) and their red, mottled and butter-yellow cousins.

Now the tomatoes are dropping off the plants and have to be preserved if it is not too late. I bought 10 kilos of ‘on the turn’ tomatoes that were going very cheap from our ‘Panier Bio’ (a local organic producer-consumer co-operative) and set out to preserve them for the winter. The traditional way to do this around here is to bottle them in ‘Le Parfait’ jars (very similar to Kilner jars).

First, remove the skins after dropping them in boiling water – resulting in tender fingertips if, like me, you are doing 10 kilos in one go. Most people would also de-seed them but I do not as I like the golden seeds and I don’t like to waste so much of the gorgeous fruit. They are next simmered into a ‘coulis’ with garlic and herbs before bottling. I skip the herbs because I want to be able to make spicy dishes with them, too. The tomato gloop is now poured into the ‘Le Parfait’ jars and we are ready for the technical part of the process.

The jars are lowered into a contraption resembling a small dustbin, with a central frame around which they cluster. Clips are assembled – or old tea towels arranged around the bottles – to stop too much jiggling about as they are boiled in water at least half way up the jars. Half an hour at 100 degrees is enough to sterilise them. Then comes the litmus test, as we unclip the jar fastening and hold the lid with one hand to test the seal. If the vacuum seal has worked, the lid will not open and the jar will hold onto the rubber seal. At this point I hold it over a wooden surface, not a tiled floor, in case of any unwelcome surprises…

Last week I also chanced upon some delicious, rosy little peaches. As a winter luxury, these were skinned and poached in a sugar syrup, then preserved in the syrup with eau de vie, cinnamon, cloves and a few shavings of lemon peel. Of course we are hoping that this winter is going to be milder than the last (-15 degrees Celsius at night for ten days) but somehow the knowledge that we have a good stock of summer delicacies stored up in The Barn makes the prospect of the cooler months less daunting.

In October we will have work done on the front wall of The Barn and must put in more insulation to shore up our living space against the cold. In the meantime however, we are blithely enjoying the beautiful month of September, with perfect, crisp mornings and temperatures of 25 to 30 degrees. A few last cultural highlights are lined up, such as the annual ‘Circuit des Remparts’ classic car race around the ramparts of Angoulême and an eco-building festival that we will take our oak ‘cruck’ frame to.

Life is good and, contrary to popular hearsay, it seems that its goodness can indeed be stored away in bottles for the tough times…

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