You've got to laugh, though I doubt Marcel Proust would have, when a platter of madeleines, lovingly prepped for some posh Long Island ladies lunching in a good cause, is handed round with a 'mandolin, anyone?'. Three cheers for The Food Network, my transatlantic tele-sport du moment, pending the availability of Mad Men on Freeview.
I'm not particularly prone to Proustian moments, but the two I do recall both involve not mandolins, but figs. One took place on a beach in a wild, beautiful Sardinian beach which we shared daily with an extended Italian family, two of whom were Motoguzzi-riding aunts of a certain age, and, very occasionally, with stampeding but essentially friendly cows. On one afternoon, we arrived to find the family already installed, but instead of reclining on their loungers, or, in the aunts' case, doing wheelies along the strand, they were gathered excitedly in one corner of the beach. Models of British restraint, we nodded an indulgent buon giorno, instead of responding to enthusiastic urgings to come and look. Later, when they had piked off for lunch - no sand-seasoned pannini for this lot - we crept forward cautiously to see what all the fuss was about the source of the excitement. It was a wild, or certainly feral fig tree which had obviously just burst into ripe fruit, all of it plundered. We inhaled the fading, but still intoxicating aroma which was all that remained, and kicked ourselves.
At least on the second occasion, this time on the Coriscan side of the straits of Bonifacio, I did manage to enjoy the peerless experience of a fig still warm from a Mediterranean tree. Just in from London, which was certainly not in the grip of an Indian summer that September, and finding things not that much better in Ajaccio, we set off down the back-roads of the Cuttoli plain to find solace in a lunch that ultimately inspired an early Food for Thought piece called Look Back in Hunger. We have returned to Corsica many times, and, indeed, to that very restaurant, but nothing will ever come close to that first lunch, especially the final touch - a basket of greengages and figs, perfectly ripe, memorably sweet and only just picked.
Still, September at home has some consolation in the shape of a plentiful supply of figs, from green-tinged lavender to purple-black. Like asparagus, they inspire in me a short, but focused feeding-frenzy, whether wolfed as they are, quartered with really good, salty cured ham or poached with honey and sometimes a sprinkle of orange-flower water. This last option, with its combination of lingering warmth and the elusive, spicy scents of a sun-dappled piece of fruit, does for me what a really rather boring cake did for Marcel Proust. If that makes him sound undemanding, I'm sure anyone who has managed to digest even a modicum of A La Récherche du Temps Perdu will know how much easier I am to please than him. Especially in September.
MUSCAT-POACHED FIGS WITH HONEY AND ALMONDS
I first shared this recipe with members in Island Wine, an online feature on the food and wines of selected various off-shore paradises. Its soulmate was muscat from Samos, and wine-wise, the clue really is in the name.
Wash and dry eight fresh purple figs and make an X-shaped incision at the blossom end. Pull the 'petals' apart slightly. In a saucepan on a gentle heat, combine a tablespoon of fragrant honey (acacia or lavender are winners), a generous pinch of ground cinnamon and 150ml dessert muscat, along with an optional drop of orange-flower water. Stir until the honey has dissolved in the wine, and bring to a simmer. Lift the figs carefully into the pan and poach for 8-10 minutes, basting with the juices until the figs are tender and the juices syrupy. Serve with a dollop of Greek yoghurt and a sprinkling of flaked almonds, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan.
Samos Anthemis is the obvious choice of dessert wine here but find your perfect match among our current selection of sweet muscats.