My uncle Yves, or tonton Yves as we all call him, lives in the house my great grandparents once owned, and where my grandad was born. It’s a residential townhouse on a busy road in a smallish Northern French town. Nothing much to look at from the front, but walk through to the back and you’ll find the most beautiful garden. It stretches as far as 500 metres in length, full of fruit trees, tomato plants and vegetable patches that bear squash and beets, potatoes and artichokes, and a lot of garlic. Before Yves lived there, it was my grandad who looked after the garden (he lives next door), and before him it was my great-grandfather, Léon. Supposedly, Léon kept rabbits, which he’d periodically slaughter and roast. These days it’s chickens, kept only for their eggs, and the noisy cock, so loud the neighbours complain. My uncle, like the cock, stubbornly ignores them.
Yves’ cooking reminds me of how my grandmère used to cook, and really, how most northerners (in France) cook too – with a lot of good, farmyard butter and cream. “Your grandmother would never use oil”, Yves tells me, “or only to dress a salad”. Sea salt-flecked butter spread on doughy baguette and topped with sweet jam, creamy sauces surrounding a hot pan of sizzling meat, the scent of hot, garlicky butter still heavy in the kitchen, silky soups finished with crème fraîche, greens braised in butter. My own mother has inherited the same liberal hand in the kitchen and I have never tasted meat as good as when she, or Yves, or my grandmother cook it.
When Yves cooks, aside from all the fat, there is always something from the garden that will appear, even in the most sparse of winter and early spring months. Puzzling perhaps, until you see his cellar. Rows upon rows of preserves line the walls, with another wall of empty jars and containers waiting to be filled. Nothing goes to waste. Green beans in brine, peaches in syrup, stewed squash and apple compotes, and batches of ratatouille sealed in jars. Cupboards full of sickly sweet jams – strawberry, raspberry, blackberry and red currant – freezers full of more fruit, already stoned and chopped for whatever fate awaits it.
There is always something to be made and prepared, and always something that requires a trip to the cellar. On Sundays, a container of syrupy or frozen plums will emerge for Yves’ weekend standard: tarte aux prunes.
It was Father’s Day last Sunday, so he made three – the defrosted plums dotted into sweet pastry cases, ladened with sugar and finished with little dollops of crème fraîche. It’ll go into the oven to caramelise, bubble and rise into tart that is as sweet as it is moreish. You can swap the fruit for whatever you have available (peaches, apples, pears, berries…), or not use fruit at all – tarte au sucre literally translates as sugar tart, that avoids fruit and uses brown sugar for a deep caramelly flavour. Northern French and Belgian bakeries are full of them.
Yves gave me the recipe to make three tarts, and I’ve kept it like that. The pastry you don’t use can be kept in the fridge for a few days or frozen until you have more fruit that need somewhere to go. And the next time you have a glut of fruit that you know you won’t use, freeze them. Here are some of my tips and ideas on Jamie Oliver’s website (casual self-plug, but genuinely useful, I hope!).
Tonton Yves’ tarte aux prunes
Uncle Yves’ plum tart
Makes 3 tarts
15 plums (defrosted or fresh)
For the pastry
450g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
50g caster sugar
To make the pastry, melt the butter, then combine it with the flour, baking powder and sugar until you get a rough dough. Add just enough milk to bring it together, then divide into three portions. Roughly roll each portion out, then divide between three 20cm tart tins (alternatively, freeze the remaining portions for another day), spreading the dough out so it covers the base of the tin. Cover with a tea towel and set aside at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours.
Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF. Halve and destone the plums, then place cut-side up in the tart cases. Sprinkle the sugar liberally on top – when you think you’ve added enough, add some more again! Add little dollops of crème fraîche in between the plums, then place in the hot oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden and risen. Eat hot or cold with another dollop of crème fraîche, if you have any leftover.