Many years ago I read a story about a wombat called Smudge. One of my grandmothers was Australian, and so our childhood was peppered with stories she bought for us from her homeland. Smudge was one of my favourites. Smudge is a wombat who comes a-visiting a farmhouse somewhere rural. The owner and Smudge strike up a kind of friendship. Smudge becomes a regular feature at the farmhouse, appearing in the evening to listen to music on the porch (the owner learns to just leave the screen door shut so Smudge can perch outside), or wandering about in the garden.
One summer, the owner dries apricots in large trays in the sun. Unbeknownst to him, Smudge discovers the apricots and eats the lot, gorging himself on their sweet, orange flesh. The image of the apricots and Smudge has always stayed with me. The narrator explains that Smudge disappears for a few days after the apricot incident, having made himself ill. The book was one of the first I read that dealt with the death of an animal in frank and real terms. Smudge fades, as we all do, into old age and eventually dies. I remember finding it both upsetting and revelatory that that is what happens. When I read Smudge I had yet to encounter death in my own life.
I was reminded of the apricot-loving wombat while in Spain recently. The market was full to bursting with soft stone fruits – apricots, nectarines, cherries – early summer strawberries (grown in the next town) and watermelons. The apricots were glorious – various shades of orange, yellow, red – soft and yielding. Sweet. After lunch every afternoon, my mother-in-law would produce a bowl of fruit to share. Apricots, strawberries, cherries, medlars. We sat around the table, continuing our conversations in Spanish, English, Italian, while the juices ran down our hands and our chins. The best kind of summer fruit eating.
I wanted to claim that flavour and sweetness, the memory of these warm days, in a jar. One day at the market we bought 500 grams of ruby apricots, blushed with red streaks like an artist was changing their colour at the last minute but never finished. We even managed to find a vanilla pod (and not totally exorbitantly priced). Later in the evening I switched the oven on and halved and stoned the fruits. I shook sugar over them and split the vanilla pod, scraping the black flecks from it’s interior. Everything went into a very low oven, ignored except for the occasional stir and scrape. Eventually the apricot skins had softened, the fruit easily mashing to pulp. I scraped every last drop into a waiting jar. There was a little left over which I put out for people to try with cheese. A few days later I spread the jam over my croissant, relishing the vanilla hints combining with the sweet, sometimes tart apricots. Summer caught in a jar.
500g ripe apricots
approximately 80g caster sugar
1/2 vanilla pod
Heat the oven to 160C. Halve the apricots and remove the stones. Keep three stones to one side. In an oven tray with sides, place the apricots cut side up. Add in the stones. Shake the sugar over the apricots, if the apricots are not particularly sweet, you can go up to 125g. Slice the vanilla pod in half and scrape the seeds from one half, add the seeds and half the pod to the pan. Keep the other half to use another time. Put the pan in the oven and let everything cook down slowly, stirring occasionally until you have a pulpy, caramelly mess. Pour into a sterilised jar and seal.
PS: The illustrations in Smudge are what makes the book. If you can manage to find a copy, hold on to it. My mother still has ours.