Many summers ago, our mature greengage tree fell to the ground just minutes after the children had come in from the garden. Branches blotted out the light in the sitting room as the tree lurched towards the windows, its bulk landing just short of the back wall of the house with an almighty thud.
As the years passed, we missed the shade it cast on a hot summer’s day although greengages are not particularly attractive trees with their dusty, spotted leaves and twiggy branches. You have to look hard to see the fruit too, camouflaged as it is amid the foliage until you finally spot one green globe, then another, and one by one the rest shyly reveal themselves.
When it is a greengage summer it is tempting to work your way through an entire paper bag of fruits, bought from market stalls or picked from trees as the children in Rumer Godden’s famous novel once did. Her greengage eaters made themselves ill from a surfeit of fruit but the gage’s glut is fleeting after all; they’re with us for such a short time and over-indulgence is understandable.
Godden’s story is set in France. Narrow, dusty streets are lined with houses where lunch tables are set with fine linen and silver and inside the air is cool and dark and shuttered against the August heat. It is to France that my recipe takes us, and specifically to the Limousin, my father’s former home where chestnut-red cattle graze on the lowlands and oak forests thickly clad the hills. Flaugnarde (from the Old French for ‘soft’ and sometimes called Flognarde although I can find equally compelling arguments for both names) is a fruit-studded batter pudding, baked in the oven until puffed and golden whilst its middle remains a softly-set custard. It is a cousin to the clafoutis which, I am told, should be made with black cherries only. A clafoutis made with any other fruit is properly called a Flaugnarde, although I also have it on good advice that semantic debates such as this might not trouble the locals as much as we think.
As we cross into autumn and the green of the hedgerows and woods become stippled with golds and oranges, I want to bake puddings which reflect the gentle drawing to a close of a summer which has, this year, given us wonderfully hot and languid days. I’m not quite ready to let go though of the sun though and this is where the greengage sits so well, their sweet juice reminding us of warmer times whilst the burnished crust of the flaugnarde, with its scattering of cobnuts, hints at what is to come. It’s not as heavy and filling as a winter pudding, lightened as it is by the St Germain liqueur the gages are macerated in, yet comforting enough still to satiate an appetite sharpened by autumnal walking, when the drawing in of the nights and a soft damp chill in the air makes us want something more.
1 tablespoon caster sugar to coat the baking dish
300g greengages (halved & stoned; use small, ripe plums if you cannot find gages)
3 tbsp St Germain liqueur (optional)
icing sugar , for dusting
5 good size fresh cobnuts, peeled and crushed into fine pieces
60 g plain flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
3 large eggs
60 g caster sugar
300 ml full fat milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch sea salt
butter for greasing
Place the prepared fruit in a deep bowl and sprinkle over the St Germain. Stir, then cover tightly and leave to marinate for at least three hours or overnight if possible.
Preheat the oven to 180ºC/gas mark 4.
Measure out the ingredients for the batter into a food processor or blender and process until smooth and bubbly. Set aside for 30 minutes.
While the batter is resting, grease a 25cm round baking dish with the butter, then sprinkle the sugar over its base and sides.
Drain the gages of any remaining liqueur then dot them over the base of the dish.
Pour the batter over the fruit until they are covered, sprinkle over the crushed cobnuts then place the baking dish into the oven to bake for around 30 to 35 minutes, or until the pudding is puffy and golden around its top and edges.
Dust with icing sugar and serve with lots of double cream.