As I read A Year in the Valley I can almost smell the honeyed scent of early summer’s blushing peaches hanging heavily in the air. Sun ripened to a delicate bloom they ooze sweet nectar and their flavour explodes the mouth.
This is a book that traces the passage of year in the Araluen Valley, in the NSW Southern Tablelands, beginning in early spring. It is in the form of a diary interspersed with recipes. There is no particular narrative thread although friends, family and animals reappear over the months. This is a book about day to day matters and the simple pleasures of life. Nature is the largest character in the book and she is certainly the most influential.
Perhaps the most endearing feature of the book is the many animals, particularly the wombats, who march their way across the pages and dig their burrows deep into the mind of the reader. Who could forget poor little rescued Gabby, or majestic Smudge, the wombat who loved moon shadows and Mozart? Or perhaps the bullying Mothball eating the woefully misnamed Bruiser’s dinner? But they are always clearly wild animals, never pets, just fellow creatures who share their world with her. As she says “You can never domesticate a wombat, although a wombat will often successfully tame you.”
The cockatoos, drunk on fermented peach juice, arrive in a raucous flock in early January only to fall one by one off the branches of the large gum tree outside of her study window as they struggle to recover from the effects of their spree. Then there are the wallabies, echidnas, snakes and other wildlife who hop, crawl and slither by.
The garden and its bountiful produce are strong elements and they lead to the many recipes. Some, such as Baked Apples, are simple stalwarts, while others, the Chilli Peach Soup for example, seems to stem from the desperation born of a massive oversupply of produce.
This is a book to delve into and enjoy. The entries are meditative in quality and I found that I got the most out of reading it in shorter bursts rather than in one long binge. It’s a perfect bedside book, practically guaranteeing dreams of a halcyon country lifestyle. The only problem is that it may make you want pack up, leave the city and find your own country idyll.
Jackie French moved to the Araluen Valley in the New South Wales Southern Tablelands in the early 1970s: marriage, a child, a divorce and another marriage followed. Over time she and her husband Bryan have built a stone house and developed a garden of around four hectares with 800 fruit trees. The area is renowned for its natural beauty and for its fruit production; the valley has been home to peach orchards for decades.
To date, the author has written a whopping 132 books on subjects including history, gardening, chooks, adult fiction, children’s fiction and more. She has also been a passionate advocate for wombats and other wildlife – she is director of The Wombat Foundation. She takes an active role in promoting reading to children as well as being involved in a number of further causes.
A Year in the Valley was originally published in 1998 under the title of Seasons of Content. The new edition contains an additional chapter as well as annotations to the original text.
More about the author, her books, her recipes and her musings can be found at http://www.jackiefrench.com/