Summertime, and the tourists have come, the water supply has dried up, garden plants have shrivelled, the forest is getting ready to go up in flames -- as every year. But the roadside bushes are loaded with raspberries and purpling blackberries and our bird cherries have turned red.
The good thing about the hills is that most people share their fruit. The other day a complete stranger offered me a handful of pine nuts -- she had been collecting them from under the trees -- and they take ages to find, so it was almost as noble of her as sharing ... water. Would she share water? Probably not. Water makes blood flow here.
We've no apricot trees but an ancient carpenter, Kunwar Ram, who has been part of our life for years, came from his village with a couple of kilos; our nearby taxi driver friend Harish, whose house burnt down in last year's forest fires, also sent across apricots from his tree (it didn't perish in the fires). Harish, incidentally, is the most wonderful of drivers, the best in the Kumaon, booked months ahead for long road holidays by people who want him to drive them in the hills again and again. He turns down prospective customers, though, on the basis of their personality: if he detects what he terms the lack of a "loving nature" he refuses to drive those people a second time. Because most of his customers happen to be Bengali he has a stash of mournful Bengali pop song CDs in his Tavera, which he plays again and again if he's driving around a Bengali (eg me). Harish is a foodie: rajma only from Munsiyari, mung dal pakoras only from a particular shop in Kainchi etc -- so if he thinks his apricots are good enough to give his friends, they're guarenteed top class.
Peaches and greengages arrived from other neighbours. Fresh fruit for breakfast, in-betweens and dessert. But soft fruit spoils quickly. Tarts were obviously asking to be made, and jam. Sensing overwork, my sixteen-year-old oven died one quiet evening, without drama, abandoning the two loafs of bread inside it to their flopped destiny. The thing is that you can't buy new ovens in Ranikhet, nor can you repair old ones: nobody knows how to. We knew this from experience.
Gappu-da, the harassed gentleman who runs the electrical goods shop in the bazaar, made phone calls to suppliers in the larger foothill towns and reported that we were behind the times: nobody used conventional ovens now, it was a microwave or nothing. The apricots turned yellower, the peaches began rot, despair was in the air. And then a supplier who had one -- but only one -- oven in stock was located in Kashipur. There was no question of deliberating over the right brand or size. It was to be that one or nothing.
The delivery was fraught with tension because the supplier in Kashipur had to go to the bus stop at midnight and load it on the overnight bus to Haldwani, from where it was to make its journey to Ranikhet by taxi. Would it reached unscathed? Would it reach at all? Would the box actually contain an oven? It was a blind date.And then at last it arrived. I agree that tarts don't look like much, but that's because I'm a lousy food photographer and I don't have nice enough plates. They were buttery. They were tart and sweet and soft and crisp all at once. They tasted fabulous.
As does the jam.