A gift from Maison Auer and the outbreak of WW1 came linked together through a tale of fruits glacés, Provence and a wrongful arrest.
Fruits Glacés – crystallised or candied fruits in English – were first brought to London by two early gourmet adventurers – Matthew Wood of J Petty Wood & Co and James Allen Sharwood of J A Sharwood & Co. The former were based in Southwark SE1 and Sharwood’s in EC1 with his high class grocer’s in Carter Lane, a winding narrow street climbing up from what we now call Queen Victoria Street to St Paul’s Cathedral.
I know less of Matthew Wood than Mr Sharwood, so Sharwood’s tale is the one I share.
James Allen was well educated and destined for a City career as a re-insurance broker. Somehow this appealed less than a life travelling the world in search of food delicacies and exotic ingredients. Few British families in the late 1800’s were without a relative engaged in the Indian Raj.
Mr Sharwood became one of the first, if not the first, to import spice blends, chutneys and other exotica from India for sale through his City grocer’s. By helping a now nameless French chef working for the Marquess of Dufferin, then 8th Viceroy of India, he gained introductions to the Vencatachellum’s, an already esteemed Madrasee family of spice blenders He also was a wine merchant, but of that we know less.
His travels were much helped by being a fluent linguist, but this was to get him into hot water on one buying trip to France in the early days of WW1. Travel in those days was by train and he would spend several weeks away from London. His two main destinations were the Ardèche for marrons glacés and then south to Apt in the hills above Nice and the French Riviera.
It was in Apt that he was mistaken for a spy, his spoken French and German being so good. He was held for some days before diplomatic intervention had him freed with apology to continue on his buying mission for the famous fruits glacés said to have been first made in Apt many centuries before. For the record, Sharwood was first to offer a selection of crystallised fruits in the one box – unimaginatively labelled for one so bright as ‘Jasco’.
The process is both simple and complicated as essentially the fruit’s water is slowly replaced with sugar – sometimes sugar syrup and other times honey.
Maison Auer**, the Florentine interior food boutique in Nice, is a place where fruits glacés rise to another level again. Where some commercial producers will use glucose syrup, Auer stays true to the original recipe of cane sugar. This is immediately manifest in price and taste.
Figs, clementines, oranges, cherries, whole lemons, prunes, pear, Canteloupe melon and more are sold for €15 p/100g – regardless of your choice. Whole fruits can be sliced to order.
Chestnuts, like fresh foie gras, are only correctly sold in the lead up to the Christmas Feast. The Ardèche, once one of the poorest départments in all France, is the home of the marrons glacés – and Privas is the HQ. The Ardèche was richly graced with the edible Châtaigne chestnut trees – a larger nut often grew in pairs and three’s inside the shell. These large chestnuts are most prized for marrons glacés. There in Privas, Mr Sharwood would stay with the Faugier family, enjoy good food, talk prices and quantities for the next shipment and even exchange recipes.
Once, on a mission to learn more about the man Sharwood, I was sitting in his favourite chair on the terrace of the Faugier family house on the outskirts of Privas as guest of the Faugiers. I was handed a piece of paper with a recipe written in a good hand, yet in pencil. It was for ‘Major Grey’s Mango Chutney’ – a classic recipe from an infamous Indian Raj army officer. Mr Sharwood had hand-written it for my host’s father when sitting in this very same chair. I brought it back for the Sharwood’s archive in London which is sadly no more. It was distressing to learn from a former MD of Sharwood’s that a rooky marketeer was asked to clear out some cupboards and disposed of all the lovingly collected ephemera of +100 years onto a waiting skip. So much for take-overs by soul-less industrial food giants.
As recently as last year I was in touch with Mr Sharwood’s grandson – a retired ex-RAF pilot and himself a man with a strong affection for France. His strong memory of the man was his visits for Sunday lunch, when after the meal he would slice delicacies such as crystallised fruits with an ivory handled folding fruit knife. There would have been photographs of Mr Sharwood with the same knife in the archive that went on the skip. History can be so temporary when the uncaring take control.
No such sentiment at Maison Auer, where 5th generation Thierry Auer is the man in charge. His family came across to Nice from Switzerland in 1920. Their shop opposite the Nice Opera House is a delight in the Florentine style.
Soon we look at the genuine Salade Niçoise, a dish of much debate and arguably settled once and for all by Jacques Médecin, Mayor of Nice (1966-1990), in his ‘Cuisine Niçoise: Recipes from a Mediterranean Kitchen’. Médecin was another embroiled in controversy. Unlike Mr Sharwood, he was found guilty and imprisoned, having first been extradited from Uruguay in 1993. Even this can’t take away from a good, authentic recipe that has earned its place in history.
How best to enjoy such fine fruits glacés. The answer is simple – on their own and in the best company you can find, along with a ristretto, iced water and a chilled alcool blanc to suit.