ISN’T IT A LOVELY DAY…
He calls me a princess, accustomed only to the best, demanding the glitter and comfort of luxury, the subtle hint of privilege. This reputation trails after me, wraps its gilded arms around me, drawing me into her soft embrace, leaving her tarnished stain all over my innocent face. Yet one wonders how I fell headlong into this princess status, how it clings to me like mud and won’t let me go. Nothing, absolutely nothing in my past can account for this, nothing at all. A humble childhood spent in cheap catalogue clothing running barefoot on hard, scorching cement and tip-toeing through sticker-laden yards, a box full of hand-me-down Barbies and one single bagful of Lego’s, tossing hoops in the driveway or playing board games with my brothers for entertainment. No horseback riding lessons, expensive designer labels, no days spent hanging out at the Clubhouse or maids cleaning up after me. Just a simple childhood full of laughter and sun, fresh air and books.
He maligns me with his accusations. After all, it is he who has spoiled me. Yes, we have had our fair share of gîtes ruraux, country rentals, and not the top-of-the-line either. Ramshackle, run-down country cottages, rooms on farms closer to the cows than the family, apartments with sunken fold-out sofas and sandy floors that no amount of sweeping can rid, even an old Tuscan tower, cold and damp, fitted up with kitchenette and bathroom. But I went along for the ride, barely complaining, suffered along as if I was back at Girl Scout Camp, nary a sidelong recriminatory glance. We’ve roughed it far and wide, I’ve slept in a puddle on a too-small-for-four penichette (houseboat) on the Maine and the Oudon, we’ve slogged through knee-deep mud and waist-high reeds and brambles all in the name of adventure, we squish into economy seats on airplanes and, well, been there done that. But he has taken me to enough Michelin-starred restaurants, pampered me in Palace hotels, treated me to better and better vacations bordering on luxury that I now shake my head in scorn when he even suggests something that hints at thin walls or questionable quality. “Spoiled you are!” he wails. Well, maybe I am. Now. Thanks to him.
Snuggled up in our cozy mountain inn with the promise of yet another luxurious, gourmet meal that evening, he pokes me awake as the sun streams through the crack in the curtains and it looks like another beautiful day, sunny and warm, perfect for another hike. Much to his joy, I slide into my jeans and hop into my big shoes, I grab my camera and we decide to head in another direction, not up into the mountain towards the distant peaks of snow but rather circle around the farms into the trees then around through another village or two. A mere 2-hour trek. Okay, I’m game. After all, he gave me the beautiful country inn and gastronomic delights, I’ll offer this to him in return.
While yesterday’s walk was up mountain paths bordered on each side by open fields and pastures, the bright sun highlighting the shades of greens and browns of the flora and bouncing off the backs of beasties large and small, this morning we suddenly find ourselves in shaded forest lanes, cool and eerily quiet, the romantic rustle of leaves and the sun shimmering through the thick filter above. Up and down, weaving in and out of the trees, stepping over branches, it is calm and relaxing, pure forest tranquility. The greens are richer, the browns deeper, birds flit through the leaves and we can peak down over the path edge and see quiet streams and rustic wells in all of their picturesque beauty below. We eventually wend our way out of this lush haven and find ourselves once again on the road leading back to the hotel. But the tiny pamphlet we had picked up at the local Tourist Office before heading off for adventure instructed us to cross the road and pick up the trail on the other side. We glance across the street and se a farmhouse and cows contentedly ruminating, calm and gentle. Inviting. Off we go.
And then we began our ascent. Blacktop road now but still bordering green forest broken only by the occasional glare from a curious, insolent cow or two. And up and up. “Just remember,” he cajoled, “if it goes up, it eventually comes back down so just keeping walking and be patient.” And walk we did, chatting happily about this and that. And walking. Up. And up. Finally when I thought that I could go no further, feared that my lungs would burst, biting back the complaints that threatened to tumble from my lips and upset him, we stumbled upon an old buron, a cow shed, and I decided that it was time for a sit, a rest and a cookie or two.
“Onward and upward! It’s not much further, but we must get back to the hotel if you want lunch.” Now, as cruel fate would have it, the road only continued to climb, steeper and steeper with less and less trees offering us shade. How much time had passed? Am I really this out of shape? Slip off the coat. Soon followed by the sweater. Bare armed and chest pounding I trudge along too many steps behind him. He stops every now and then to wait for me to catch up, making a joke, pointing out anything even remotely interesting to take my mind off of my suffering, teasing and making me laugh when he can. We pass one sorry excuse for a village, merely a house or two, a tractor inches its way up the path and eventually overtakes us and continues on the farmer’s merry way never thinking to stop and offer us bedraggled city folk a lift. Occasionally JP glances down at the map and stabs at the page. “See? We’re just here. Not much further. Come on, you can do it! This is real exercise, not a DVD in the living room!”
Well, all’s well that ends well and no need to drag it out any longer than it was. How we managed to only climb up, never down, like caught in some bizarre Escher drawing always winding up and up and up I’ll never understand, but we finally were welcomed back into the cool darkness of the hotel lobby and, strangely enough, we decided to climb in the car and drive down to the nearest city and treat ourselves to a MacDonald’s lunch. Yes, I am embarrassed to admit it, but once in a while, every far and between blue moon, one needs the comfort of a fattening, greasy fast food meal, popping fries in one’s mouth and sucking soda through a bendy straw. Happy, sated and ready for more.
That evening, our last in Pailherols, we were treated to Le Menu Découverte, The Discovery Menu; foie gras and scallops, fish and lamb all perfectly cooked, all delightfully flavored.
… AND EVERYTHING’S OKAY!
Using your favorite mix of either fresh or frozen berries, this is the perfect pie for anytime of the year, sweet and tart, light and refreshing, bursting with flavor. I use my all-time favorite Sweet Pastry Pie Crust, but you can use whatever recipe you like. The pie is absolutely gorgeous, its deep, rich, jewel-like color of fruit filling oozing out between the flaky, pale golden lattice crust; the filling was perfectly set, no sticky, cloying texture and all of the fruit, the frozen and the fresh, were wonderfully cooked, each tender and juicy, without any being either too hard and undercooked or overcooked and mushy. This may be the best fruit tart to come out of my kitchen yet!
MIXED BERRY PIE WITH SWEET PASTRY LATTICE CRUST
One Double-Crust Sweet Pastry Pie Crust
5 cups (I filled glass measuring cups) mixed berries, fresh or frozen *
½ cup (100 g) granulated sugar
1/3 cup (40 g) flour
¼ to ½ tsp ground cinnamon
Grated zest of 1 lemon (optional)
* Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, currents or strawberries, for example. I used 2 cups fresh, seasonal strawberries, 2 cups frozen blueberries and 1 cup frozen raspberries
Toss the sugar, flour, cinnamon and zest together in a small bowl and stir to combine. Place all of the fruit in a large bowl and, using your hands, toss with the flour/sugar mixture until all of the fruit is coated with the dry ingredients.
Prepare the Sweet Pastry Pie Crust:
2 ½ cups (315 g) cake flour
½ cup (or slightly less) (100 g) granulated sugar
14 Tbs (200 g) unsalted butter slightly softened and cubed **
2 large eggs, beaten
** most pie crust recipes call for the butter to be chilled. I have found that butter at room temperature is easier and quicker to work into the flour and the dough seems to be fluffier. If the dough is too sticky to roll out right away, several minutes in the fridge should do the trick.
Combine flour 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 sand and there are no more large chunks of butter.
With a fork, vigorously stir in the lightly beaten eggs until all the dry ingredients are moistened and a dough starts to pull together and form a ball.
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 (see here for a picture of how this is done).
Scrape up the dough together, re-flour the surface lightly and work very briefly and quickly until you have a smooth, homogenous dough. If the dough is a bit too soft or sticky for you, refrigerate it for 10 or 15 minutes until it can be easily rolled out without sticking to your rolling pin.
Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a 10-inch (25-cm) pie plate or dish (I use pyrex). Cut the dough in two pieces, one half slightly larger than the other (this larger part will be the bottom crust). On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough for the bottom crust until you have a circle about an inch (2 cm) wider all around than the bottom of the pie plate. Carefully roll up the dough around the rolling pin and lift and transfer to your pie dish, unrolling into the dish. Gently lift up the dough all around, sliding and pressing the dough down into the dish so as avoid stretching or breaking the dough. If the dough splits, no worry, it can simply be stuck and pressed together again. Using a knife or your rolling pin lying flat on top of the pie dish, cut off all excess dough hanging over the edges. Repress the sides of the dough back into the (crimped) sides of the pie dish.
Pour the prepared fruit filling into the pie dish and push the fruit around until evenly distributed and filling any gaps.
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
On your floured work surface, roll out the remaining dough into a circle the size of your pie plate or slightly larger. Cut into even strips of any width. Form a lattice over the fruit filling:
Using every other strip from the cut circle of dough, space them evenly across the top of the pie, leaving the edges hanging loosely over the edge of the pie.
Start the latticework in the center, working your way out. Pull back every other strip and, using the longest of the remaining cut strips (the center one) lay it across the center of the pie.
Lower the upturned strips over the perpendicular (cross) strip. Lift up the alternating strips that are now underneath the cross strip. Lay a second cross strip parallel to the first center cross strip and continue lifting alternating vertical strips and laying new horizontal cross strips and so on and so forth. When finished laying the lattice from the center down towards you, rotate the pie dish and complete the second half of the pie.
Trim the edges of the dough strips and press (flour your fingers if they stick to the dough) the strips into the dough of the bottom crust. If you like, use any leftover dough to make decorative shapes for the top (I made strawberries and raspberries). “Glue” these shapes of dough onto the crust with a bit of milk. Gently and lightly brush the crust lattice with milk.
For more detailed photos of lattice-making, look here.
Bake the Mixed Berry Pie in your preheated 375°F (190°C) oven for 40 – 50 minutes, until the crust is golden and cooked. The fruit will be bubbling. If any part of the crust begins to brown too fast – the edges of mine began browning well before the center, simply cover with strips of aluminum foil.
Carefully remove from the oven and allow to cool on a cooling rack. The filling will firm up perfectly when cooled to room temperature.
Serve plain, with unsweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.