- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

BURGUNDY, France - The walled vegetable garden basks placidly in the sun, fruit trees in the background. Near the gate, neat beds of salad greens, leeks, garlic, shallots, tomatoes and cabbages are already planted for the winter.

A similar scene has unfolded for centuries, for the garden is meticulously drawn on the property map dated 1751. In its day, it must have nourished 50 persons or more, but today we are scarcely a dozen to enjoy its bounty.

In one corner, old Mr. Milbert eyes me warily — visitors mean disturbance. At 84, he is both gardener and guardian, his life revolving around the garden seven days a week in a style that has almost disappeared. To call him a peasant is not pejorative. For him, it sums up a lifetime of knowledge, much of it instinctive, of the earth and what it grows.

We have just passed June 25, the feast of St. John, when villagers light bonfires to celebrate the start of harvest. “Eau de St-Jean ote le vin, et ne donne pas de pain” (Rain on St. John takes away wine and brings no bread), Mr. Milbert mutters. Sure enough, it rained this year, so the grape harvest is not promising.

I have known this garden for more than 20 years, and not one year has been like another. Four years ago, the fruit crop was astonishing, with bushels of plums, pears, apples and wild peaches, Mr. Milbert’s specialty.

He grows them from ungrafted cuttings, watering them devotedly in summer and feeding them with potash from his wood fire in the spring. They could never be a commercial crop because they produce fruit intermittently and are subject to blight, but the tiny, intensely perfumed fruit is memorable in my favorite crumble. For an approximation, look for homegrown peaches or apricots on roadside stands. Blemishes are a good sign.

Peach or apricot crumble with ginger

3/4 cup cold butter, cut in pieces

2 cups flour

2/3 cup sugar

2 pounds peaches or apricots

3 to 4 tablespoons chopped candied ginger

Put cold butter in a processor with flour. Work it to fine crumbs using the pulse button. Work in sugar. Halve fresh peaches or apricots (there’s no need to peel them) and discard pits.

Slice large peaches. Stir in chopped candied ginger to taste and spread fruit in a medium baking dish in a 1-inch layer. Cover with flour-and-butter topping and bake in preheated 375-degree oven until the crumble is golden and fruit juice bubbles around edges, 40 to 50 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

• • •

Since 2000, we have been less lucky with our fruit crop. Mr. Milbert shakes his head as each year a late frost nips the blossoms of infant apples and pears. Only the quince seems to survive because it blooms later than the other trees, producing craggy yellow fruit with characteristic velvety cheeks.

You’ll find quince in farmers markets — an ancient, curious fruit that is coming back into fashion after a couple of centuries of neglect. Raw quince is inedibly hard and acid, but when baked slowly in the oven, the white flesh turns a deep, glowing pink with a tang of lemon. Even after an hour or two, the texture remains slightly crunchy. It’s a delicious accompaniment to game, pork and magret of duck.

Compote of quince

1 cup sugar

4 to 6 quinces (about 3 pounds)

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

Place sugar and 1 quart water in a casserole and bring slowly to a boil, stirring often, until sugar dissolves. After it has come to a boil, simmer syrup 2 minutes.

Rub fuzz off quinces with a towel. Peel, quarter and core them, then cut each quarter in 2 to 3 chunks and drop immediately into the syrup so they do not discolor.

Add pared zest and juice of 1 lemon, cover casserole and cook in preheated 350-degree oven 1 to 2 hours, until quince is tender and deep pink. (The cooking time will vary greatly with the fruit.)

It takes time for color to develop, so be patient, adding more water if syrup evaporates too much. At end of cooking, it should be slightly thickened but still cover fruit.

Makes 4 servings.

• • •

I must look ahead. Winter will be here, and we need more than jam to provide a summer memory. Homemade liqueurs are a local specialty, and from Mrs. Milbert I’ve learned to use the garden raspberries and black currants.

Raspberries possess enough natural yeast to ferment simply with sugar to an astonishingly concentrated crimson pick-me-up.

Raspberry liqueur

2 pounds raspberries

2 pounds sugar (about 4 cups)

Pack 2 pounds raspberries (do not wash them) into a quart canning jar, layering them with an equal weight of sugar. Close jar loosely so air can escape, and keep it in a cool place. Sugar and fruit will ferment and bubble; stir it once a week.

After at least 6 months, or when bubbling stops, raspberry liqueur is ready to drink, but it will mellow and improve on keeping. You can strain out raspberries and serve the liquid as a liqueur, or spoon liqueur and fruit over ice cream. Makes 1 quart liqueur.

• • •

My latest concoction, a coffee-spiked orange liqueur, has achieved popular acclaim. I cannot lay claim to growing oranges. We are too far north, but we have a postcard from the 1800s of citrus trees in tubs that were brought indoors in the winter.

This liqueur, quarante quatre, takes its name from the 44 coffee beans and 44 sugar cubes that flavor it. After 44 days, it is ready to drink, or it can be stored, although that is rare in our household.

Orange coffee liqueur (quarante quatre)

1 large orange

44 coffee beans

44 small sugar cubes

1 quart vodka

Thoroughly wash a large orange. With a knitting needle or skewer, pierce the skin 44 times and insert a coffee bean in each hole, pushing it well into the flesh of the orange. Put the orange in a 2-quart preserving jar. Add 44 small sugar cubes and 1 quart vodka and clamp down lid. Shake jar every day for 44 days. Strain the liqueur through a coffee filter and funnel into a quart bottle. Makes 1 quart liqueur.

• • •

In our vegetable garden, sheltered by 7-foot walls, the temperature is up to 10 degrees higher than outside, and the topsoil accumulated over the centuries is twice as deep.

Last year’s searing heat could have been catastrophic, but Mr. Milbert was out morning and evening with the hose. As it was, the raspberries withered and the giant apricot tree suddenly lost its leaves and expired in midseason.

This year promises better, but who knows? Certainly not the French weather forecasters, who do well if they are correct half the time. Mr. Milbert is more reliable: “Ah,” he says. “S’il pleut a la St-Benoit, il pleuvra 37 jours plus tard” (If it rains on St. Benoit, it will rain for 37 days). I’m crossing my fingers.

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