Spectator: Fruity faux pas

Lucy Baring is plagued by fruity failures.

Halfway through the seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness, I need Keats to rewrite his poem. This is actually the season of fruity errors and I think I’ve just made another one.

I’m looking at jars of pickled pears. Perhaps they’re poached. At any rate, they’ve been cooked in a vat of vinegar, sugar, cloves, lemons, peppercorns and vanilla pods—among other things. I think I misread the recipe and the results don’t look like the picture. They look like specimens in a jar that you don’t want to open. And it mustn’t be opened for at least a month, which is a long time to wait to discover something is inedible.

The smell of vapourising vinegar has seeped into all the floorboards (not through, into—it’s here to stay) and has brought cries of ‘What the hell is that?’ from all corners of the house. Somewhere, at the back of my mind, I admit I thought these jars might make Christmas presents.

The telephone rings while I’m tilting the jars, which seem stubbornly unset. It’s Catherine, who has been watching four quinces ripen on her allotment tree, only to find that they’ve just been stolen. I try to cheer her up by saying four quinces might not have been enough to make membrillo. She replies, ‘I wasn’t going to make a slab of jam’, thereby dismissing this much-loved Spanish delicacy, ‘but I do like a poached quince in aromatic syrup’. She makes this sound so delicious that I stare at my pale specimens in watery jars with a renewed sense of disappointment. She has, instead, made bottled cherries, but says they look like eyeballs, having lost all their colour to the syrup. Nobody, she adds almost crossly, stole her apples.

We don’t have enough of these to press, but when Miranda arrived for supper with a delicious jar of apple-and-chilli jam, I decided to copy her. I deliberately chose the recipe that told me not to peel the apples, ignored the bit about leaving it overnight, improvised the jelly bag with a dishcloth and appear to have made seven jars of flavourless, cloudy water with red floaty bits.

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The chutneys have started to arrive. Kind guests bring these —or, as last week, a yellow jar labelled ‘piccalilli’, which seems an incongruous name for what tastes like marrow and turmeric. I put my finger in and didn’t like it at all. Zam disagrees, so it’s in the cupboard, next to the pears and the enormous of green-tomato chutney that has completed two house moves without ever having been opened. When I speak to my sister-in-law, she tells me she experimented with a chutney that had ‘barely cooked’ in its title, but she burnt it so badly she had to throw the pan away.

The fruitiest of all our errors, however, must be in the jar on the shelf below the pears. Zam returned from the last day of vineyard action with a bucket full of sulphurous-smelling purple lees from the pinot noir fermentation. He planned to distil this foul-smelling slurry (essentially dead yeast), having been told that it makes an excellent marc de Champagne.

The following morning, he went to see a friend who has a makeshift still in a makeshift shed and spent a happy few hours in the middle-aged man’s version of a chemistry lab. The yeast detritus bubbled away, the steam rose into a cooling chamber and then along a copper tube, until it condensed into a liquid that measured 154 degrees proof. Dip your finger in and it’s quite tasty. Sip it and you’d probably die.

Will is very much enjoying working in a warehouse where elegant and luxurious Christmas hampers are packed. Hampers, I think to myself—perhaps I should try my hand at that. I look at the pears, at the jar of alcohol, the chilli water. Alf asks me yet again and, this time, I say ‘yes’, he can blow up the ageing marrow in the vegetable rack with his bangers.

* More from Country Life’s Spectator