Life is sometimes sad and often dull, but there are currants in the cake, and here is one of them. – Nancy Mitford
I sit next to Jane comfortably and convivially at the white plastic picnic table in the shade of the overhang, a tangle of branches heaped upon the table. We each have a plastic bowl wedged between our knees. I flick off hard, tiny black currants, which fall tickety-tack into the bowl. I pick out the unwanted stray leaf or bit of dirt, flick away the occasional bug clinging to the fruit. They scurry willy-nilly across the plastic table in and out among the leaves and branches. It’s quick, easy work and we’ve finished with the pile much faster than I had anticipated, much more quickly than I would have liked, as pleasant as it is to sit next to Jane, side by side, and chat on the shady porch on a hot, sunny day. The expanse of her lawn spreads out in front of us and she points out the fruit trees and the gooseberry bushes and I know that I will be the happy recipient of this summer fruit.
I’ve said it before and it bears repeating, the hotel has created the most unlikely of friendships. Jane and Glyn walked into the hotel lobby an afternoon in early summer to introduce themselves. Jane co-wrote a small jam book with Laurent, the former owner of the hotel, and Glyn did the book design. The two have had a long and close relationship with Laurent and thus with the hotel and now that relationship, that friendship, has been transferred to me and Jean-Pierre, another one of the hotel’s traditions that we have slipped into, maintain and perpetuate.
Jane and Glyn are oh so very British from their casual dress to their wry sense of humor. Spending an afternoon with the two or sharing a glass of something chilled for apératif and I listen to their stories, stories told in slowly and steadily-paced words, stories of their neighbors in Chinon (who I absolutely must meet) or a restaurant that they have tried or their working lives in London before retiring. And what led them to buy a house in Chinon.
Jane supplies some of the fruit that is used to make Hôtel Diderot jams. Black currants, yes, but plums both green and purple, and rhubarb, which is gathering in my freezer one kilo at a time. There are a few remaining jars of a deep, dark blue jam in the cupboard labeled Le Péché de Jane Phillips, which can be translated as Jane Phillip’s Sin or Jane Phillip’s Weakness, as you please, a heady and unusual blend of apricots and black currants. And I am down to the last two jars.
So when she asked me if I would like to come over to her house to pick black currants, of course I said yes! And we sat side by side and talked about our kids and she told me about their decision to buy a house in Chinon where they come to spend summers. And she explained that the black currants and the gooseberries are both transplants from England and typical to her home country and not to France.
I receive random emails from Jane, out of the blue:
Quetches sauvages – I saw some today when out walking. They are small and purple. If you want to pick some, they are half way up the Radegonde steps on the right hand side overhanging the steps.
I have prepared and frozen and surplus to my needs:
500g wild plums – these I picked on the Radegund Way up the hill behind our house. They are small, orange coloured and acid. I’ve used half a kilo in my 3 plum jam with reine claude and the purple plums. I’m all jammed out now! They are all ready to use. Do you want them?
We have lots of reines claudes ready now and the purple plums will be ready in the week – these will be super for jam – they have a bit of bite and the stones come out easily (such a bonus!) Do you want them?
Have you tried plum and juniper? A few crushed dried juniper berries in with the plums enhance the flavour – about 4 berries per finished pot. I have some if you want to try this.
I will have perhaps 5 kilos of yellow plums by the end of next week. They are dessert plums so need quetches or similar to balance them. Do you want them?
We go to England on Monday 20th for 2 weeks. I think there will be Reine Claude and some purple plums ready while we are away. You are more than welcome to come and pick them. I’ll alert the neighbours that a strange lady might be picking our fruit!
See you soon
I love when an email from Jane pops up into my box.
A fruitful friendship. I am reminded often of our friendship with our neighbors in Italy when we lived in that big, rambling house in the middle of nowhere just twenty minutes outside the bustling city of Milan. We had moved into one of three houses shared by three elderly brothers, smart, cultivated, cultured, kind. The relationship that bloomed was so very neighborly in the old fashioned sense that seems to be so rare these days. We visited, chatted, shared news. We brought each other food, treats from our gardens, did more than just share the occasional meal, your house, then my house, then back to yours. Jane and Glyn pop by to say hello when they walk into Chinon, or drop of fruit. I go out there and spend an hour picking fruit with Jane and chatting companionably. As I do with Mme. Lainel, dropping by, bringing her croissants, she bringing me fresh produce from her garden and chatting companionably about this and that. This is what a move to a small town, to Chinon, has brought us.
On that first visit, Jane, Glyn, and I shared a cup of tea followed by a crisp white Chinon wine chilled to ward off the summer heat. And Glyn’s lemon cake. Stupendous. So simple yet brilliant and tart with lemons! He generously gave me the recipe and the following week I made it as well. Mine was less dense than his, most likely because he simply put all the ingredients in a blender, blended and baked, while I beat butter with sugar, then beat in the eggs, etc etc like a classic cake recipe. His was better. So don’t over do it, don’t overthink it. This is absolutely the best little tea cake for the lemon lover, for the summer. With friends.
- 4 oz (115 grams) butter
- 6 oz (170 grams) sugar
- 6 oz (170 grams) self-rising flour
- 2 Tbs milk
- Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
- 2 large eggs
- 4 Tbs icing/powdered/confectioner’s sugar
- 6 Tbs lemon juice, 2 or 3 lemons
- Preheat the oven to 325.F (170°C/gas mark 3).
- Butter an average loaf pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper.
- Blend all cake ingredients together in a blender or in a bowl with electric beaters just until smooth; do not overbeat. Pour into the prepared loaf pan.
- Bake the cake for 50 minutes or until set in the center.
- Prepare the syrup by heating the icing sugar and the lemon juice in a small saucepan just to the boil.
- When the cake is done and out of the oven, leave it in the loaf pan and pierce the cake several times with a skewer then pour the syrup all over the cake, making sure that it soaks in all the way to and around the edges and sides of the cake.
- Allow the cake to cool in the pan before turning it out and placing upright on a cake platter.