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