Eat and A Lot Less Dust

A Basket of Plums

A Basket of Plums

Every July, when the Delhi heat has rendered us senseless and my kitchen a no-go area, we pack up and head for the hills.  With the promise of a month’s sweat-free cooking in Himachal Pradesh, our old Ambassador is stuffed to the gills with everything from cherry-stoners and muffin trays to pasta machine and oven.  Our convoy (one car for us, one for the contents of the kitchen) left Delhi at dawn last  Sunday:  16 hours, 3 dhaba stops, 25 podcasts and one puncture later, we arrived at our summer home, a tiny cottage nestling in an apple orchard in the village of Batahar.

A Traditional Kathkuni House

A Traditional Kathkuni House

Life in Batahar and most of the surrounding villages goes on pretty much as it has for hundreds of years. Despite the arrival of electricity and satellite TV in the traditional Kathkuni houses, villagers with chiselled, weather-beaten features dressed in tweed pinafores and headscarves still trudge up and down the lane with baskets of animal feed strapped to their backs,  wheat is ground at the water mill,  and clothes  scrubbed in mountain streams. One of my favourite sights when we walk our dogs in the morning is village women settling down to a few hours’ quality knitting while their cows graze in the mountain pastures.

We’ll be here for the next month, counting our blessings every day as we wake up to birdsong, blue skies and distant snow-capped peaks. And yes, from our verandah, we can reach out and pick apples and pears.  When we leave in August, the apple harvest will be in full swing but right now it’s peak soft fruit season, the orchards groaning with  luscious peaches, apricots and plums. These are the fruits of imagination – they taste, gloriously, of themselves, not that watery approximation we get in supermarkets at home.

Roadside Fruit Stall

Roadside Fruit Stall

On Monday morning our first stop was the local village of Patlikul, reached by means of a perilous bridge,

Green Plums

Greengages, Mirabelles.........or Raspberries?

on which our Amby has about one millimetre to spare on each side, to stock up on essentials. Stopping at a roadside fruit stall on the way, a man rushed out and urged us to try his ‘raspberries’.  These turned out to be small green plums, a type of greengage or Mirabelle perhaps, but with a sweetness verging on, well, raspberry-ness.  We took away a box each of red plums, pears and the disputed green fruit at assuredly ‘no-tourist prices’.  I wasn’t even paying attention to the price, I was already mentally flicking through Jane Grigson’s ‘Fruit Book’ trying to decide on how best to use my bounty.

No sooner had we got back  to the house than Chaman, our endlessly resourceful landlord (the other day he found an Ambassador inner tube in a Hindustan Motors-free state) popped in with a huge basket of plums  and pounds of peaches from his own orchard.  Suddenly I’m starting to panic about using  up this  abundance before it turns to compost.

Apples in the Morning

Apples in the Morning

But where to look for inspiration? Surely there must be hundreds of local recipes to track down?  Jane Austen once said ‘Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness’.  Not in Himachal Pradesh though – here, the only place you find pies is in the Hippy hangouts in Old Manali – and I’m not recommending that as a culinary treat.  Elsewhere, in local restaurants and homes,  I’ve yet to find a single other use for the local summer bounty apart from the (admittedly fabulous) juice. My guess is that the reason for this is two-fold: firstly, the fruit is not native to India, it was brought here by the British.   Secondly, there is no local tradition of home baking.

In Europe, apples are put into pies, puddings, jams, soups and sauces;they accompany pork and pheasant and are laid down for the winter as pickles and preserves.  And so it is to  Jane Grigson’s master work that I turn(I always bring it to Kullu, along with the companion  vegetable volume, partly because much of the book was written during Grigson family holidays at their similarly  local produce-abundant summer home in France).  To my delight there are 22 pages and 21 recipes devoted to plums alone.

So far, I’ve made a wonderfully tart Plum Crumble, which disappeared before I could take a picture;  I’m planning Grigson’s ‘Mirabelle and Almond Tart’ and I’’m stockpiling  sugar and jars for a jam-making spree.  Any other suggestions gratefully received.

Plum Crumble Recipe

750g plum, halved and stoned

90g butter

110g flour

3tbs caster sugar (preferably vanilla)

3tbs light muscovado sugar

Preheat oven to 180 degrees

Place plum halves, cut side up in an oven proof dish.  Sprinkle with butter and sugar according to the sourness of the fruit.  Pop into the oven for about 15 minutes until the jiuce starts to run from the plums.

In a bowl rub the butter into the flour until mixture resembles  breadcrumbs.  Stir in the sugar then sprinkle over the plums.  Return to the oven for about 25 minutes until the topping is light brown with bright red  juices bursting through.  Serve with fridge-cold cream.

Close up Plums


13 thoughts on “Eat and A Lot Less Dust

  1. ohh…you are in an exotic place…these plums look luscious and the crumble i can imagine…..
    the locals usually slice the apples and dry them as i have seen it being sold in the hills….that can be used in a nice recipe i am sure …but never tried.
    they make some preserves and pickles too….with apples and apricots..

    those raspberry or mirabelles are new to me…have never seen them.

  2. What a heavenly place!! You know,you must put up a snap of the ambassador car-people outside of India have never seen/heard of one. It’s such a perfect car for rural India 🙂

  3. Plum clafoutis? or grilled and served with kebobs? My grandfather always drove an ambassador; they are so classic india that there was a photographer’s exhibition of ambassadors at the Freer Sackler in DC maybe 7 years ago.

  4. Hi Sangeet
    Yes I’ve seen the dried apple – forgot to mention that but still wonder why there aren’t whole compendiums of recipes devoted to the wonderful fruit of this region!

  5. We love our Ambassador but it gives us a few grey hairs! Yesterday we had to bump start it on the vertical winding lane outside the cottage! Will put up a pic!

  6. hey Pamela try the Plum Sorbet if you carried an icecream maker in the kitchen equipment as well!

    Plum Sorbet Recipe

    While the alcohol in this is optional, a small amount will help keep the sorbet from getting icy if you plan to store it in the freezer.

    2 1/2 cups of sliced plums, pits removed
    1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons of sugar
    1 teaspoon of lemon juice
    Pinch of salt
    1 tablespoon of Grand Marnier (optional)
    1 Place the sliced plums, sugar, lemon juice, and salt in a blender and purée until very smooth. Push the plum puree through a fine mesh sieve to catch and large pieces of skin and discard them.

    2 Mix the Grand Marnier to the purée just before churning. Place the purée in an ice cream machine and churn according to instructions, for approximately 25 minutes. Serve immediately or place in an air tight container and put in the freezer for two hours to firm up.

    Makes a little less than one quart or sorbet.

  7. Thanks so much – the plums are now at that awkward squishy stage – sorbet might well be the answer!

  8. Sorry, this is off topic, but I came across your delicious blog when searching online desperately for summer cottages in Kullu/Manali for a months stay in summer. Can I ask where you stayed? The place you describe sounds idyllic in the middle of apple orchards…

  9. My husband and I lived in Batahar for 5 years, right across the road from Chaman’s! Filled my heart with such joy to find your blog and after reading your post about HP I am so bowled over. Great work!

  10. Kiwi – how extraordinary! Unfortunately we won’t be going to Batahar this year for the first time since we’ve been in India

  11. Hi Pamela, am a regular reader of yr column. I made the pound cake since as per yr recipe and it was fantastic but unfortunately I have lost the recipe. Could you pls email me the recipe.
    With regards and thanks

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