I was sent a small pack of quite the most exotic glace cherries recently – they were from Provence and a variety described as purple – this year’s production so as good as better than fresh – the only way to eat crystallised fruits in my view. Crystalising preserves the fruit and carries them through the winter – next year there will be more. Their life should be one winter only – just as it should be for dried pulses like lentils, haricots, chickpeas, etc. If such foods were stamped with date of production, my goodness you’d be shocked at some foods on sale.
Let’s start with some home truths. What is called a glace cherry in England is among my top 10 worst things to place near my mouth, let alone inside it. They belong on top of cup cakes – another pet hate as trends go. Fruits Glaces from Provence - cherries included - are an altogether different option. They are a food of the angels.
The town of Apt in Provence is the centre of the art of preserving fruit by replacing the water with sugar syrup. The colours become exagerated as well as the flavour – each fruit becomes a jewel. Sicily has its Moorish inspired candied fruits, but French glace fruits are top of my tree – although I admit to swaying.
City Man enters Trade
To divert for a moment. One of the first importers of glace fruits from Provence was an ex-insurance broker turned food purveyor – the language of the late 1900s when young James Allen Sharwood set up in business in Carter Lane, a winding street which connects Blackfriars to St Paul’s cathedral in London. How disappointed his middle-class parents must have been when young James Allen threw in his safe insurance broking career to go into trade – many steps down the social ladder in those strictured times.
Travels in the Raj
These are times when all communication were by hand written letter. James Allen made a point of visiting in person his suppliers. His travels took him to India where a chance meeting with some high-up in the British Raj - I think the Aide-de-Camp to the Viceroy himsel had him introduced to the inner circle of Indian cooking. Soon after he began importing curry powders, chutneys, pickles, hand-made and sun-dried puppodums and even Bombay ducks ( a vile construct of a deep fried and dried stinking small bommaloe fish which afficianadoes and old colonel’s would crush over their curries). When he began importing Indian provisions he had a ready made market for it’s reckoned that more than a third of the population had some link with India, be that army or diplomatic service.
He loved France specially. He was first to import the magnificent Chataigne variety chestnuts from Privas in the Ardeche – whole and as puree. He traded with the Faugier family and became quite a family friend.
Me in Mr Sharwood’s actual footsteps
I was lucky enough to visit one of the grandson’s and be shown around the plant which had changed none too much since Mr Sharwood’s day. I was even given a hand-written recipe, in Mr Sharwood’s elegant script, for an Indian chutney which he had given to the family on one of his visits – sitting as I was in the same chair on the terrace, in the same house with much the same view Mr Sharwood had relished in the early 1900s.
One thing led to another and Mr Sharwood discovered glace fruits in Apt – no doubt directed there by the Faugiers. These were dangerous times as WW1 was approaching and Mr Sharwood – an elegant linguist, fluent in French and German – was arrested on grounds he was a spy. His business was to source and make trade with the makers of the famed glace fruits. His time in custody wasn’t expected. Eventually he convinced the authorities he was an innocent – indeed a man to be treated well for it was he that pioneered the sale of Les Fleurons d’Apt in England through his City shop under the less than exciting brand name of Jasco (J A Sharwood & Co).
My delivery of purple cherries from the same region brought all these happy memories flooding back, as did a birthday present of marrons glace – actually from Italy, not the Ardeche.
The Italian marrons are smaller than the Chataigne and the edible chestnut we collect in England to roast in the hearth if you are so lucky as to own one. Greenwich Park even posts signs in Polish and Chinese to ask foragers not to harvest the chestnuts by throwing damaging sticks up into the trees. Mostly the signs are ignored and the valued chestnut bounty carted away by the kilo.
Lyons was a staging post for all glace fruits – even laying claim to marrons glace which actually came from across the Rhone in the Ardeche department. My last visit to the Ardeche was 30 or more years ago – it was then one of France’s poorest regions. My memory is the sheer abundance of chestnut trees in blossom. I was there in March when I visited the Faugiers.
So my purple cherries needed special treament – the pot was small, so they couldn’t be squandered. The answer was to merge the two – a classic chocolate and chestnut cake from the Lyonnais, elegantly punctuated with a gem-like glace cherry at the edge of each rich portion.
The recipe as adapted the splendid ‘French Regional Cooking’ (ISBN 0 09 146210 X) - published when Anne Willan ran the La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris. This recipe would surely have been made failsafe by my friend and ‘Varenniste’ Linda Collister who today has many books to her name about everything from bread to chocolate.
The urge to eat them with cold eau-de-vie and a bitter espresso must be arrested. These magnificent samples are destined to bejewel the dish, not be eaten like a Grecian spoon fruit – of which another story on another day if I can source some in London’s Cypriot shops.
Mr Sharwood lived on into the 1930s and his business flourished long after his passing. I spent 10 or more happy years helping it grow until it was swallowed by a financial animal and retreated from its master position as a supplier of fine foods and, as importantly, fresh ideas to the British kitchen to inspire more exotic cooking – something we now take for granted, and is credited to new kids on the block, the ‘sleb chefs.
Merci bien to those specialists to still crystalise their summer fruits. Long may they continue and hold the industrial processes of food production at bay. Sadly, like King Canute, industrial food will win out, but with the likes of Slow Food, Blue Collar Gastronomy, conscientious food writers across the world and caring, no-compromise cooks, some will survive – they just must be guaranteed your custom. Note bene.
NB: I since checked on Amazon and there’s a range on offer of French Regional Cooking by Anne Willan – even a used copy in paperback for just 0.1p