All human plans [are] subject to ruthless revision by Nature, or Fate, or whatever one preferred to call the powers behind the Universe. – Arthur C. Clarke, 2010: Odyssey Two
Spring had sprung, or so we thought. Gentle sunshine, mild afternoons, the temperature inching upwards and memories of laundry flapping in the fresh air come flooding back to me. Seasonal nostalgia.
Spring had definitely arrived. We shed our coats and climbed the hill, basking in the warmth, to dig in the dirt, carve out new beds in the grassy landscape, checking on the progress of our plantings, delighted that spring had come, the harbinger of hotel high season and a thriving garden.
Until spring was pushed away by storm clouds, gray and menacing, the rain finally retrieving the last vestiges of winter to lay at our doorstep. Winter. Ugh. Rain, even worse. Scuttling through the streets of Chinon, shoulders hunched against the chilly wind and smattering of that ugly kind of misty rain, praying that our plants weren’t drowning up there on the hillside.
Lamb or lion, lion or lamb, we just cannot come to any kind of conclusion. It is, after all, only March, which could mean anything, but we were so ready for the gorgeous temperate springtime, the blooming of the roses, the sun on the terrace.
Back and forth it goes, this springtime dance like Dr. Dolitle’s Pushmi-Pullyu.
The daffodils are in bloom and bob joyfully in the breeze. The first sprigs of mint, the hint of the first stalks of angelica, the tiny blooms of lavender appear. The magnolia tree is flowering, deep fuchsia bulbs cover bare branches and begin to unfurl, urging the green leaves to follow suit. The sun once more appears and we decide that it’s time to climb back up the hill (it seems to get just a little easier each time) and check out the garden. I was away for a long weekend and Jean-Pierre is eager for me to discover the changes, the progress.
He’s cleared and marked 4 new beds, ready for rhubarb, zucchini, and pumpkin. The lettuce leaves are now tinged red and larger than when I left, and only one has succumbed to the hunger of some beast we have as yet identified. The fava beans, those shriveled and dried brown nuggets given to us by Mr. B, who now delights in contributing to our garden adventure, have begin to show green and delicate above the earth, only a few days behind the beans (or peas, we aren’t sure). Lovely white flowers now grace the strawberry plants and the silly looking stalks sticking willy-nilly from the ground across the garden are now covered in buds from which, one day, raspberries will hang like ornaments. I’m so excited about the garden’s progress, the onions and shallots we’ve pressed into the dirt between strawberry and gooseberry plants, the promise of raspberries and lavender for jam, the stunning bright green leaves of the rosemary bush thriving next to the gate. He scoops up water, dragging the big plastic watering can across the murky surface of the rainwater collected in the old bathtub that’s been pushed up against the fence years ago and gives a lusty drink to each plant, the water pooling in the dirt as I snap pictures on my phone for posterity’s sake.
The sun’s been good to us this afternoon, warm again, yet I suggest we leave as the sun begins to sink below the horizon; the air is cooler, chillier, and I shiver, feeling the dampness set in. Tiny, invisible toads begin their mating ritual and the evening is graced with their music, chirps like sweet, melodic bubbles, like a finger caressing the rim of a glass half-filled with water. We search out the toads among the rocks and grassy weeds that line the path from the garden down towards the hotel but to no avail. We pass the two local witches, huddled together and gossiping, no doubt, we pass them with a quick nod of the head and a quiet “bonne soirée” for we’ve been yelled at by one of them before. And I don’t know what kind of hex can be thrown by simply meeting her eyes. And we head home, tickled pick with the progress of our garden after so little time, so early in the season.
We spot Raymonde on the road that leads to the hotel and she dashes by, promising us a collection of seedlings, fragrant herbs for the garden. I’m on cloud nine and will definitely set aside one jar of the jam that I’m making tomorrow, a heady blend of blueberries, blackberries, and black currents, midnight blue.
The weekend in Louisville at the IACP Conference and, I’m not ashamed to say, winning an award for Life’s a Feast, has energized me. My editor at Gibbs Smith has been sending me chapters of Orange Appeal to correct and I’ve been racing through them, sending them back, only having to retest 3 or 4 (along with my marvelous testers) – and more Blood Orange Hummus Salad Dressing and Chocolate Orange Sponge Cake and Poached Prunes in Spiced Wine Syrup in the house has never been a bad thing. One more chapter to edit and then they finish the layout and the book gets sent to the printer, only a few days behind schedule. I’ve also been writing, working on a story for a magazine’s website, not food, rather a story about love and acceptance. I’ve written a rather indepth proposal for a food magazine feature and am hoping that another is accepted. I’ve got more stories in the works, not all of them about food, so I’ve been feeling rather electrified. One son has moved to Munich where he is doing his last internship before obtaining his Master’s Degree and starting real life; the other will soon be returning to Europe from Africa, for how long I can’t say but he will be closer.
At the hotel, we prepare for the kickoff of high season, the next two weekends back-to-back filled, the first, as happens every year, with the guest illustrators for BD en Chinonais, the annual comic strip festival. The rooms are ready, the floors newly waxed, the coffee pots polished, and the jam cupboard filled with this year’s flavors.
I go away for five days and feel like I’ve been gone for months. I’ve lost the reflexes, the habits of hotel life, checking the rooms, doing the shopping, setting up for the following morning’s breakfast. I wander the halls feeling oddly like an imposter, a mere visitor, like I did at the beginning, but I know it will pass quickly enough. And we’re all abustle preparing for high season and Jean-Pierre and I watch with barely contained excitement the renovation of the Annex, the small house next door where 3 rooms overlook the garden on the hill. We have forbid any of our team to peek as we want them to be surprised when the finished common space and rooms are unveiled, revealed.
And I’m preparing for my next food writing workshop at the hotel with my friend, talented and prolific writer and cookbook author Domenica Marchetti! To be announced…. April 1!
The gardeners are below in the hotel courtyard adding a new grouping of plants to the raised beds, soon to be wider, fronting the terrace offering a flowering veil between clients – sipping drinks on the patio – and the cars. Now all we need is the sun and warm weather to return. And to stay.
Most of us associate lemon anything with summer. Lemon treats, whether savory or sweet, are bold, vibrant and tangy, what we all need to jazz up a sizzling summer afternoon, to cool down a sultry summer evening. Revivify and refresh. But citrus is most definitely a winter fruit, along with oranges, grapefruit and tangerines. I only think of citrus in the winter; we have a long and beautiful history together going back to my youth in Florida, a childhood a mere stone’s throw from the famed Indian River orchards. Winters meant piling in the old station wagon and heading over the bridge to pick up sacks of navels, tangerines, grapefruits pink and white, sweet and bitter. Winters meant dashing out into the chilly garage to grab armloads of fruit, rifling through the brown paper grocery bags bursting with citrus lined up on dad’s workbench. Summers were reserved for peaches, plums, nectarines and watermelon; citrus most definitely belonged to winter.
I turned instead to an old family favorite, a tart that both my older son and I have been making for years. I added ground almonds to my best sweet pastry crust and topped the tart with mascarpone whipped cream to fancy it up a bit, the delicate cream tempering the sharp lemony tang just a tad, to make a marvelously wonderful and very addictive pie. Simple and tasty as an every day snack or dessert, sensational for a party or special occasion.
Maybe next time, when Orange Appeal comes out, I’ll try it dressed in orange.
- 1¼ cups (170 grams) flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ cup (0.9 ounces / 25 grams finely ground almonds
- ¼ cup (50 grams) sugar
- 7 tablespoons (100 grams) unsalted butter, cubed
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 4 large eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 9.7 ounces / about 1½ cups + 2 teaspoons (275 grams) sugar
- ¾ cup (190 ml) fromage frais 0% fat-free, quark or thick fresh cream
- 1 cup (250 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice from about 6 lemons
- Finely grated zest of 3 lemons
- 1 cup (250 ml) heavy whipping cream, well chilled
- 4.4 to 8.8 ounces (125 to 250 grams) fresh mascarpone cheese, well chilled
- Confectioner's/icing sugar to taste
- Lightly toasted slivered almonds and fine lemon zest to decorate
- Combine flour, baking powder, ground almonds, and sugar in a mixing bowl or on a work surface.
- Using only your thumbs and fingertips, rub the butter into the flour until the consistency of damp sand and there are no more large chunks of butter.
- With a fork, vigorously stir in the lightly beaten egg until all the dry ingredients are moistened and a dough starts to form.
- Gather the dough together into a ball and place on a lightly floured surface. Using the heel of one hand, smear the dough little by little away from you in quick, hard strokes in order to make sure that all of the butter is blended in well.
- Scrape up the dough together, re-flour the surface lightly and work/knead very briefly and quickly until you have a smooth, homogenous dough. Refrigerate the dough wrapped in plastic for about 10 or 15 minutes until firm enough to roll out and lift into the pie dish.
- Once chilled, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and line a lightly buttered 10-inch wide, 1½-inch deep (or deeper) pie dish. Refrigerate until ready to bake, about 15 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).
- Once the dough has chilled, place a large piece of oven-safe parchment paper or aluminum foil into the lined pie dish, fill with uncooked beans or pastry weights and bake for 8 minutes. Carefully remove the tart shell from the oven to a rack and remove the paper or foil with the beans. Prick the tart shell all over with a fork, return to the hot oven and continue baking for another 8 - 10 minutes until set and golden.
- Remove from the oven to the rack and allow to cool while the filling is prepared.
- Lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C).
- Beat the eggs together with the egg yolks and the sugar with a whisk or an electric beater until slightly thickened.
- Continue beating as you pour in the cream, then the lemon juice and zest, just until well blended.
- It’s as simple as that (I should say Easy as Pie, but I won’t).
- Carefully pour the filling into the pre-baked pastry crust. It will come up to the top edge of the crust. If you want to avoid sloshing the filling over the top and onto the floor as you carry it to the oven, simply pour about half of the filling into the crust, place the pie dish/plate on the oven rack and then carefully pour the rest of the filling into the dish.
- Bake the tart 35 to 40 minutes in the 300 degrees F (150 degrees C) oven or until the center is just set - it took closer to an hour in my very slow oven.
- Remove from the oven to a rack and allow to cool completely before chilling.
- Once the tart has cooled to room temperature, cover it in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill and firm.
- Beat the whipped cream in a bowl until thick.
- Beat in powdered sugar until lightly sweetened, a tablespoon or two.
- Beat in half the mascarpone and continue adding until desired thickness; taste and add more powdered sugar to taste.
- Spread or pipe the mascarpone whipped cream evenly over the top of the chilled lemon tart. Decorate with fine lemon zest and lightly toasted slivered almonds.