Greengages are for the rich – or the scavenger. A little punnet at the market was priced at the equivalent of E 4.90 per kilo – by far the most expensive fruit on the stalls. They were large and green, and I really wanted to try one – but at that price I hesitated at picking one out and popping it in my mouth (the customary thing on market day). They looked like big green plums – and not a patch on the little golden globes that I’ve been picking this last week.
I’ve just gorged on greengages, and picked nearly 30 kilos of them, and made jam and chutney and crumble and cobbler and compôtes – and I can swear that I’ve never tasted such a thing in fifty years. It’s honey in a golden globe. With a tang around the edge.
In France we know them as Reine Claude, brought back from Asia when discovered as a green-fruited wild plum (Ganerik) in the early 1500’s and named after Francois the First’s wife, Good Queen Claude. Then Sir William Gage spotted them in France and brought them back to England – only he ‘lost the label’ on the channel-crossing, and had to give his own name to the subsequent exportation around the world. It is commonplace that history and fortunes can be made on the high seas. But doing it on the cross-channel ferry seems particularly cheap.
It’s an unreliable commercial crop at the best of times – and I suspect that there are graftings and meddlings going on in the commercial world that are muddying the status of the real gage.
Michael Karp’s article in the New York Times is journalism at its best – a personal and perceptive piece on A Finicky Fruit. He went to France to find this green queen of fruits, but never discovered the golden glory that appeared this summer in our village.
What happened was this: a dull tree that had never produced anything in our 8 years of living here, suddenly burst out in golden-yellow fruit. Whether it was the short-sharp frost of winter, or the good long rains of spring, or the benign warm spells of summer – it’s unknown. The golden jewels, pendent from this most anonymous of trees, was a revelation. And once up upon the long ladder I could see, in my neighbour’s garden, an even more pendulously-hung tree. And beyond that, a third.
I visited Monsieur et Madame Chalret in their vast and rambling domaine to ask permission to pick their trees. They are both well over 90 and were as surprised as I was that such a crop had appeared in the old abandoned kitchen-garden. They know nothing about the trees and assured me that they hadn’t planted them. If this type of plum has a life-span of 40 years, and grows to a maximum of 40 feet then they must be nearing their term – though from the evidence of the fruit there’s life in the old wood yet! They thought that the cultivar might be ‘Reine Claude d’Oullins’ also called ‘mirabelles’ – a name that seems entirely appropriate – and that some birds must have deposited the seeds in both our gardens. My theory is that the gardeners in both these Big Houses had horticultural ideas of their own.
So ladders and hooks, and bags and buckets were summoned – and the kilos were picked, and the good neighbour recompensed, and the freezer filled. Jam was made, crumble was made, jars were filled and stored or given away.
This was a Greengage Summer.
It’s not an expression, apparently, or a common phrase – tho’ it should be. It is however a film made in the early ’60’s from a book by Rumer Godden.
The Greengage Summer (called The Loss of Innocence in the US) is a 1961 British film directed by Lewis Gilbert and starring Kenneth More and Susannah York (in her first leading role). It was based on the novel, Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden. Set in Epernay, in the Champagne region of France, it is the story of the transition of a teenage girl into womanhood.
More later named it as his favourite film, stating, “She [Susannah York] was just twenty-one and an adorable creature…it was one of the happiest films on which I have ever worked.”
And I have to say that these days spent swaying perilously up among the bendy branches, with the Montagnes Noires over my shoulder and the Tramontane wind making this climb a struggle to gain the crow’s nest on a heaving ship and the taste of honey in my mouth as the reward for my daring, were the most happy hours I’ve spent in a long time.
But the worm of knowledge was present too. I am up this ladder because life for us here may depend on these sudden bestowels of bounty. What today is a joyful game may be tomorrow’s serious survival.
. . . an allusion to the film’s theme . . .