Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pinching Post-Harvest Fruit in Provence

A friend called this week and asked if I wanted to go over to her place and steal apples.

Well, not steal exactly, but snaffle the fruit that remain hanging about on trees after the recent harvest. This gathering of fruit for free, post-harvest, is common practice in France and is called "grappillage". My petit Larousse describes grappillage like this:

"faire de petits gains secrets, souvents peu licites." (Making small secret gains, often illicit.)

Grappillage is also described as collecting grapes that remain on the vine after the vendange.

Joelle scoffed when I asked if it was illegal. The agriculteur who owns the orchard couldn't care less what happens to the left over apples, she said. The harvest's over as far as he's concerned and the apples are away to market. Either we collected the apples left on the trees or they'd fall and rot.

I duly dawdled over to Le Thor with a large straw panier and we went into the orchard. There were hundreds of apple trees and thousands of leftover apples. Large, small, ripe, unripe, red, green.

We wondered in and out of the ranges picking apples as we went, leaning into the espaliered trees or reaching up into the higher branches. The first week of October has been very hot in Provence (I was lucky enough to swim in the blissfully warm Med on the 2nd October) and the sun was beating down cheerfully as we worked. The orchard is bordered by a typical Provencal irrigation ditch and the sound of the clear running water was punctuated every few minutes by a frog leaping in to cool himself off.

I wondered along to look onto the ground adjoining the orchard. It belongs to two friends, Richard and Denise, who keep sheep, geese, various different brands of chicken, dogs, doves, ducks, cats, kittens, donkeys and horses. They were away, but Richard's handsome son was out feeding this lot, who were all milling around in a cacophany of excited communal noise. There were a few lambs gambolling. The turtle doves were wheeling around the barn and then swooping to land in a willow tree. The geese were striding. The ducks were waddling. It was a lovely late summer scene.

I threw apples over to the horses and donkeys who were highly appreciative and came over demanding more.

We went off to pick late figs from one of Joelle's fig trees that hangs into the orchard. Huge frelons, the oversized wasps of Provence, had got there before us so we had to work carefully alongside them. Butterflies were delicately feeding on fallen figs. They flew in wobbly flightpaths so I suspect the figs were partly fermented and alcoholic.

At the end of the grappillage session I had a basket straining under the weight of apples and figs. The apples were so numerous that I'll have to store them in a cool dark room over the coming weeks. There's no way I can eat them all in a week or two. Before eating I'll peel them, as is standard in Provence. We see how many treatments, preventive and curative, are sprayed on the apple trees.

I've already started on the figs, baking them with almonds and sloshing light créme fraiche onto them. Some weeks ago we had some of the summer figs baked with lamb and sweet simiane onions. Completely aphrodisiac, I'd say.

There is something wonderful about eating food you've grown yourself - grapes, tomatoes, figs, melons, spinach, olives.

But there's something great about food you've collected for free too. It really does feel like a small illicit gain. I notice the local harvest of pumpkins is drawing to a close so the large orange courges may be next on my grappillage list. In fact, I was out walking at the weekend and saw hunters had been up to a spot of pumpkin grappillage. In a small woody clearing they'd smashed a dozen pumpkins hoping to attract sangliers - wild boar - and shoot them.

I hope the sangliers don't fall for it. I like their presence around here. If they have any sense they'll avoid the pumpkin trap, get into the fields and scavenge their own meal of courges. That's what I'll probably do. October and November are great months for pumpkin stuffed with farce and wild mushrooms.

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