My command of the French language is limited at best, but allows me to haltingly converse when necessary. During my recent travels, I exchanged both pleasantries and high alerts with my Uber driver Florian; “Excusez-moi, Monsieur. Vous avez passé la rue!” Florian turned the car around and ventured down a deeply rutted dirt road, clearly altering the car’s alignment. Conjugating verbs with abandon, I continued avoir-ing and être-ing incorrectly, tossing in un peu passé compose for good measure. Clutching wildly at a string of vocabulary words unearthed from memory, I allowed the A-LM French Level 1 and 2 Textbooks from my past to guide me. This was the very first time I was able to utilize the phrase “Et voilà! La piscine!” followed by, “the directions say to turn here, at the pool. I mean, back there. There! S’il vous plait.” C’était formidable.
My newfound fluency allowed me to banter back and forth with the cashier at the Super U, the local supermarché in Plascassier. The cashiers wore personalized nametags affixed to their Super U regulation green polo shirts. Each time I paid a visit to the market, I had the good fortune to land on Wendy’s check out line. Admittedly skeptical of a French cashier named Wendy, to my surprise she was extremely patient with my fragmented sentences and tolerant of my painfully slow Euro exchange capability. Wendy was in a word, super, ringing up produce items without skipping a beat, ignoring the quantity of chocolate bars I sent cascading down the conveyer belt, never judging. She also turned a blind eye to the number of wine bottles in my shopping cart.
It has been two weeks since my return and culture shock haunts me still. With barely one eye open, I am dreaming of towering cypress trees stretching skyward beneath pastel skies. The visual assault from my neighbor’s front yard destroys my Provençal reverie.
Outfitted in deluxe Party City Halloween décor with a sprinkling of Home Depot mums, the Garden State attempts to erase my memories of Provence. Inflatable ghosts and orange string lights are in blinding contrast to the blues and yellows of the French countryside. I grab my very un-French, very-tired L.L. Bean canvas shopping tote and head to the market.
Approaching the check-out line, I am juggling a quince in one hand and a pair of pears in the other. Setting them on the counter, one would think I am speaking a foreign language. The cashier at the market in South Orange, NJ is clearly befuddled. Despite sharing the same color palate, quince and pear do not share the same scanning and pricing information. Where is Wendy when I need her?
“What kind of pear is this?” Kindly Cashier inquires. Rummaging through a purse filled with extraneous travel receipts, a small bottle of Zicam, a wayward (now melted) McVitie’s chocolate digestive biscuit in a torn cello bag, I barely look up. “That’s not a pear. It’s a quince.” At the very bottom, wedged against sunglasses that haven’t seen light of day since my return, I unearth my wallet. It offers a five pound note, a few Euros and nary a bit of US currency. I offer a credit card.
“Is that a chip?” asks the cashier.
“No, it’s a quince. These are pears.”
“No, the card, does it have a chip?”
“It does. It’s chipped. I mean it has a chip.”
“Oh, well, sorry, our chip reader doesn’t work. So just go ahead and swipe.”
I do. We continue our quince conversation.
“What do you do with a quince? I’ve seen them over there but no one ever buys them. No one. You’re the first.”
The credit card scanner is beeping, indicating my swiping technique is somehow lacking. The cashier assists, continuing her interrogation.
“Can you eat that quince, just like that?”
“No, no, you don’t want to do that,” I assure her. “I’m going to poach it in a sugar syrup before I bake it.”
“That’s interesting. I always wondered, but no one ever buys them so I never asked.”
“So you’ve said.” The credit card authorities deem me low risk and authorize my purchase. Kindly Cashier hands me a pen, indicating my signature is required. For a split second I wonder if I should sign my name, ‘No One.’
How do you keep no one down on the farm, now that they’ve seen Provence? I wish I knew.
The welcome home I receive from the customs official at Newark Liberty Airport’s border control is not terribly welcoming. Raising one eyebrow and thumbing through my passport, he begins his interrogation.
“Anything to declare?”
My head is shaking “no,” but involuntarily, my shoulders shrug. Sequestered in the middle seat of United Airlines’ row 30 for eight plus hours is to blame. My neck and shoulders are one with my ears. Border Patrol takes this as a sign of weakness. Based on his tone, I’m wondering if perhaps I really did do damage to Julia’s kitchen drawer and the authorities have been notified to detain me upon arrival in the states.
“Nothing?” he asks once more with feeling, tilting his head ever so slightly.
“You didn’t buy anything? Any gifts?”
“No, no gifts, “ I assure him summoning my finest acting skills. “Maybe some biscuits… “ I over share, “but I’ve eaten most of them.” Having not looked in a mirror since boarding a plane in Nice two time zones ago, it’s quite possible the dark chocolate smudges of McVitie’s digestive biscuits are a dead give away. I can only hope he is not going to check my teeth for remnants of the fig studded nougatine I bought in Valbonne. Mr. Border Control deigns to allow me re-entry; I wheel my top-heavy suitcase towards the exit, wondering what time it is.
Jet lag descends like a curtain at the end of Act I, forcing me to bed at 8:30 pm only to waken me at 2:00 am. I am equal parts hungry/thirsty/cranky, toying with the idea of starting my day. Coffee wins.
Wedged inside my carry-on is a magazine I purchased at the London airport as a turbulence distraction. There is a detailed recipe for individual game pies which do not call to me. One glossy page over from the game pie is a crunchy lemon loaf recipe from dear Mary Berry of the Great British Bake-Off. More intriguing to a post-Provencal traveler is an article discussing the attributes of one of the world’s favorite puddings, Tarte Tatin. I wouldn’t classify upended caramelized apples and pastry as a pudding, but the Brits have their own way of doing things. Remembering my near miss with the French authorities related to the Julia kitchen drawer incident, it’s probably best to avoid entanglement with Scotland Yard.
Pouring a third cup of coffee, I approach the article with renewed interest. There is a substantial pinch of flaky sea salt in the recipe and a gorgeously styled photograph begging me to bake this pudding. Yes, I want to bake this, but more critically I want to eat this. I explore another version, this one called a tarte.
Julia’s 1994 The Way to Cook goes into great detail as she invites you into the dark caramelized world of tarte tatin. The French approach differs from her neighboring pudding peeps, but there is one constant in both versions; the pan handling and upending is Hades hot. I am unafraid.
A tarte tatin journey is best traveled when one is sufficiently rested. If not, there is the risk of forgetting critically important details. These may include but are not limited to: sugar on top of the stove can and will burn when you turn your back on it. Once loyal All-Clad pans with handles for easy maneuvering are hotter than you remember when they exit a 400 degree oven. Upending a pan filled with bubbling apples results in runaway juices that are quite capable of burning your fingertips. Curb your enthusiasm before plunging your pinky in for a taste.
One more note: tarte tatin sounds so very French, requires so few ingredients, how challenging can this dessert be? More than you think. Your caramel may not be as deep mahogany as instructed in the recipe. The apples may shrug their little apple shoulders and slink down in the pan more than you anticipated. The upending pan/plate flip requires attention and dexterity. These are small deterrents that fade away in light of a crisp pastry bathed in caramel with a generous forkful of autumn.
It is critical to channel your inner Julia when preparing an upside down apple tart. Caramel may require fearlessness but any slight imperfections in the completed dessert do not require an apology. Mastering this tart is akin to a brush with border control; remain calm and focused. Declare nothing.
For a few terrifying moments on Tuesday afternoon it appeared I had caused irreparable damage to Julia’s kitchen. Yes, that Julia.
Play the theme music from The French Chef and I am instantly transported back in time. In the mid 1960s, there were numerous occasions when afternoons spent in the kitchen with my grandmother's housekeeper Jessie, coincided with broadcasts of the groundbreaking cooking show. Against a wallpaper backdrop of bright red geraniums, Jessie prepared dinner while I perched on a chair, eyes glued to a small black and white television set tuned to Channel 13. Occasionally, Jessie would look up from the blue Formica countertop and shake her head.
Bounding out of the television screen, dressed in a sensible button down blouse and sporting a hair-do as pouffy as meringue was Julia Child. I watched in awe as the French Chef brandished pounds of butter, admonishing viewers, “with enough butter, anything is good.” Jessie was far less smitten, her capable hands dusty with flour as she rolled out a Crisco pie crust. Chastising the French chef for “too much fussin,’ Jessie pragmatically filled the Pyrex pie plate with a tower of apple slices while I dreamt of butter rich apple tarts.
Both women contributed to my culinary journey; Jessie by teaching me how to make chocolate pudding and pie filling from scratch in a Farberware double boiler, and Julia by demonstrating the art of Mousseline au Chocolat. It was however, the chocolate mousse that helped me snag the title of French Club president in high school. Merci, Julia.
Fast forward too-many-years-to-count and I am standing in Julia’s kitchen in Provence. La Pitchoune, (dubbed ‘La Peetch’) is the former home of Julia and Paul Child. Built on a small piece of property once owned by Simone ‘Simca’ Beck and her husband Jean Fischbacher, Julia and Simca often tested recipes in the kitchen of La Peche.
The house is nestled amidst elderly olive trees, with a single pomegranate tree flourishing in the front yard and a lone persimmon tree high above the rear of the house. The classic Provençal rooftop in variegated shades of dusty pink mimics ribbon candy. Just beyond the kitchen door, a portly ceramic pig attired in chef wear stands sentinel.
The kitchen is smaller than I imagined, comfortable and orderly. Jessie would have applauded this kitchen, the walls outfitted in yellow pegboard, black outlines indicating the proper place for no-nonsense, functional tools. I like to think that the weighty rolling pin suspended above the thick wooden countertop is one that Julia used. If that is not the case, don’t tell me. Timidly gathering together ingredients for two galettes- one apple, one pear, the floor to ceiling cabinet offers a variety of mixing bowls. Jessie’s voice admonishes me to “use a bigger bowl” but I disregard my mentor’s advice. Preparing a quick round of pâte brisée, I am soon engulfed in a rising tide of sweet French butter cubes and drifts of flour. Damn. I should have used a bigger bowl.
The knives in the kitchen are lethally sharp. My mantra is constant, “don’t cut your finger, don’t cut your finger…” I don’t. Slices of Crispin apples and ridiculously sweet pears sprawl across the butcher block table. Sheepishly, I select a larger vessel to hold the fruit while it is tossed with vanilla bean sugar and lemon zest. Scanning the yellow pegboard and unable to locate a pastry brush, I check the cabinets behind me.
One of the qualities I found most appealing about Julia was that she unashamedly made mistakes, often on live television. Combing through a vast drawer filled with additional paring knives, peelers and silverware, I unearth a pastry brush for egg washing the galettes and close the drawer. Only it doesn’t close.
There is something horribly wrong with the drawer, Julia Child’s drawer! Convinced that I am responsible, I calmy jiggle the heavy wood, less calmly stick my hand in the back of the drawer in hopes of cajoling the obstinate blockage and ultimately panic. It stubbornly refuses to budge and I envision myself imprisoned in a minimal security house of detention somewhere in the hills of Provence. I take comfort in the fact that at the very least, the bread and water should be good.
Beneath my sneakered feet, wayward apple peels grab my attention. Bending down to scoop them up, I can’t locate the trash can. Looking up into the underside of the open drawer, I find the trash can, its lid ajar, preventing the drawer from closing. Crisis blissfully averted.
Following an exquisite meal of Boeuf Daube a la Sara Martinez, (with inspiration from Julia and Patricia Wells,) we turn to dessert. The galettes are still warm, the fruit blistered along the edges. Half listening to the conversation, I am beginning to feel jet lag nipping at my heels. You could say I am a woman on the verge of a boeuf and butter breakdown. I can just imagine what Jessie would have to say about that.
New York City jaywalking skills do not apply in London. It is imperative to remember to look left, then right, then left again and once more for good measure. The wrought iron gates fronting Queens Park are intricately curliqued, reminiscent of royal icing piped through a size zero tip. My right hand twitches in post traumatic bakery syndrome.
The park signage reminds me that certain roadways are pedestrian priority and dogs must be on leads. The chocolate brown Labrador bounding ahead of me ignores the sign prohibiting dogs from swimming in the adjacent pond. Diving in, oversized paws dog paddling with great abandon, he returns to the running path shaking his coat enthusiastically. Thanks, doggie; now I’m awake.
There are many pie miles to log in just a few short days. The British love pie, more savory than sweet. We may have a renewed enthusiasm for lard crust in the states, but the barkeep at the Mall Tavern in Notting Hill assures me that suet laced crust is the norm here. The pie arrives piping hot and oversized. Tucking into the crust, I am relieved to see that it is not filled with two dozen blackbirds.
My pie travels continue along the back streets of Covent Garden and through London’s West End. There are more than enough options and proclamations to satisfy. In an effort to save room for puddings, it is critical to exercise restraint. I also have a dinner date with my scholarly niece Katie, a bonafide Anglophile who now calls the UK home. Katie is impervious to the early autumn chill in her lightweight jacket. I am comfortable in a winter parka and woolen scarf. We queue for a highly coveted table at Dishoom in King’s Cross. The man in front of us is applauding the work efforts of his girlfriend, punctuated with a hearty “Good job, you!” Brilliant.
On Friday, I have an important date with one of London’s foremost pie artists, Jo Harrington. We agree to meet at a popular London cake spot, Porschen’s in Chelsea. I am proud to say I can still navigate the London tube system, remembering to mind the gap.
Good job, me.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm