Between the pines, the tombs, throbs visibly.
Impartial noon patterns the sea in flame --
That sea forever starting and re-starting.
Our voices are snatched up and swallowed by the wind as it reaches in through the open windows, the drumming noise barely allowing the music to be heard. We’ve succeeded in escaping once again, just the two of us, and we revel in the escapade as we laughingly watch the paysage, the scenery flow by, the world a blur around us. We feel all alone, together here in the car as we roll south towards sunnier skies and warmer climes, singing loudly to the songs that flutter and sputter out of the radio, and we are never happier than when we are together by ourselves. My hand steals across the space between the seats that separates us and my fingertips brush against the back of his hand, feeling the warmth of his skin and his smile as he glances my way and gives me that special wink he has just for me. The road slips behind us as we try and leave our worries and concerns behind us as well.
We head south, first stop Bordeaux, that majestic, monumental city. Hand in hand, we stroll through this beautiful city the color of pewter and pearls and wonder at the fact that it is, in fact, smaller than Nantes. The wide turbulent river and stunning palaces lining the spacious squares in the guise of government buildings and apartment houses give this city the feel of one so much larger and of greater importance. We stood in awe at the beauty as the cars sped past and we dodged tramway cars as they trundled down the rails. As night fell and the darkness began to envelope us, the restaurants, bars and clubs lit up one by one, strung together by the laughter and babble of clients and passers by. The city comes alive at dusk as Nantes shuts down, Bordeaux bubbles and simmers with life as Nantes slumbers. Yet we stayed only one night as the itch to move, to widen the space between ourselves and home pulled us back out onto the road, our restlessness energized by the sun.
Next stop was Sète. Husband had a conference to attend in Montpellier yet we decided to stay in the seaside “Venice of the Langudoc”, Sète, a bustling port town peninsula on the Mediterranean Sea. Heavily influenced by both the Italians and Moroccans, their languages, cultures and gastronomies, the tiny center is dotted with both Halal butchers and pizza parlors while the main thoroughfares, narrow and packed with cars and people, line and weave along the waterways which themselves are studded with boats and fishing trawlers. A true fishing village in all its connotations, the buildings, now distorted with time, their elegantly decorative balconies rusted in the salty air, the once-bright yellows, pinks, blues and greens of the façades faded with sun and heat, lean towards the water as if searching for their fishermen. The ground level restaurants spill out into the street offering platters of seafood, stuffed mussels and other treasures from the sea, much to our delight! This is a predominantly poor town of immigration and fishing, the doorway to Morocco and back again, and her people’s struggles are shadowed wherever we roam, from the crowded, dingy streets to the faded beauty of her buildings, yet there is something so alive in the noise and activity, a vitality that comes from the water and gathers in the cafés and bars, a vibrancy warmed and nourished by the bright sun and brisk breeze off the water that gives Sète a certain intrigue and fascination.
Thursday, my man leaves me halfheartedly, nay, sadly as he stalks out of the hotel room, leaving his heart with me for the day. I gather my forces (I hate sightseeing on my own) and head to the Musée International des Arts Modestes, The International Museum of Modest Arts, art created from everyday objects, the ordinary infused with emotion, nostalgia and meaning. I then wander over to the town’s covered market which is much more impressive than I had imagined. I purchase the local gastronomic treasure, une Tielle, a very traditional tomato and octopus pie, poor man’s food to be carried to work on the boats to be eaten at lunch. Along with a cold drink and an apple, I wend my way up, up, up to the top of the city and the Fisherman Cemetery, awash in white, brilliant in the blazing sunlight. Tombs old and older, many cracked and askew, each one telling a story of a loved one lost, words engraved in stone, photos of the beloved staring at me from happier times. I wind my way up and up, climbing worn stone steps, letting the sun heat my skin and push away the memories, the thoughts of my own deceased and I come across a beautiful bench of elegant chocolate-hued wood stuck in the middle of all this crude white stone and it welcomes me as the land welcomes her sailors home. I settled in ready to lunch on my Tielle when I lifted my eyes and saw that I was sharing my meager meal with Sète’s own son, Paul Valéry. Poet and writer, his words, though chiseled into the tomb for safekeeping, flew out to me, touched my face, my heart than drifted out to sea.
Are the long vistas of celestial calm!
(poem Le Cimetière Marin by Paul Valéry, translation by C. Day Lewis)
Our trip ended with a stop to see his sister and mother, two sleepy days in the country, then the long drive home. Back to the daily grind, the last days of his job, a son happier to greet us than we usually expect and a Boston Terrier with a cartoon grin spread across his tiny face.
Before leaving on holiday, I created this Baked Custard Tart. Leftover egg yolks on my hands, I knew that I had to do something fast and this was it. Infused with the delicate, subtle flavor of vanilla and Amaretto and the sprinkling of almonds adding a slightly nutty hint, this creamy, rich filling bakes up light and elegant, perfectly nestled in my own tender Sweet Pastry Crust. This is the perfect dessert to serve with spring and summer’s own fresh, fruity, sweet berries as I have with our own local strawberries. I decorated the cooled tart with a fine dusting of finely grated chocolate and topped it with strawberries drizzled with Verlaque’s Wild Flower Honey-Infused Balsamic Reduction (a goodie bag gift from South African Food & Wine Indaba). Fabulous! And while we were basking in the glory days of vacation, this wonderful tart kept Clem excellent company, a reward for his staying behind on Marty Duty, and he finished before I had even phoned home (to check up on Marty) the first time.
I am sharing this with Jeanne of Cook Sister! who is hosting this month’s Monthly Mingle (created by our lovely sister Meeta of What’s For Lunch Honey?). Count on Jeanne to Spice it up with a provocative theme: Topless Tarts! And it is!
BAKED CUSTARD TART
1 10-inch (23 cm) partially pre-baked Sweet Pastry Crust (recipe follows)
For the custard:
3 whole large eggs + 2 or 3 egg yolks (save the whites for macarons)
½ cup (100 g) sugar
2 cups (500 ml) whole milk or half and half (I used 1 cup heavy cream + 1 cup lowfat milk)
1/8 tsp salt
Dash ground nutmeg
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp Amaretto (or replace with an extra ½ tsp vanilla extract)
1 to 2 Tbs slivered blanched almonds, optional
Fresh fruit, berries or strawberries to serve
Prepare the Sweet Pastry Pie Crust:
1 ¼ cup (175 g) flour
1/4 cup (50 g) sugar
7 Tbs (100 grams) unsalted butter, cubed
1 egg, lightly beaten
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 damp sand and there are no more large chunks of butter.
Using a fork, vigorously stir in the lightly beaten egg until all the dry ingredients are moistened and a dough starts to pull together
Gather the dough together into a ball and scrape onto a 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 very briefly and quickly until you have a smooth, homogenous dough. Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 to 30 minutes until it can be easily rolled out without sticking to your rolling pin.
Lightly butter a 10-inch x 1 ½-inch (23 cm) pie plate or dish (a 9-inch dish will work perfectly and give you a slightly deeper tart, just adjust baking time accordingly if needed).
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a disc, dusting the surface of the dough as needed to keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin. Lift and turn the dough as you roll into a disc, keeping the table underneath the dough floured. When the disc is just larger than the pie plate, gently and lightly roll the dough around the rolling pin, lift the dough and unroll it on top of the prepared pie plate. Gently lift and press the edges of the dough into the pie plate, pressing together to “mend” any rips or holes. Trim the overhanging dough. Cover with plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes before baking.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
Remove the chilled Sweet Pastry Crust from the refrigerator and remove and discard the plastic wrap. Prick all over with a fork then line with a square of parchment paper and fill with pastry weights or dried beans. Bake in the preheated oven for 8 minutes, remove from the oven and, without burning yourself, remove the paper and beans and return the crust to the oven for an additional 5 minutes until set and matte and just beginning to turn golden around the edges.
Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F (165°C).
Prepare the Custard Filling while the Sweet Pastry Shell chills and bakes:
In a medium heatproof mixing bowl, whisk the whole eggs, the yolks and the sugar until blended and smooth. Heat the milk or milk and cream over medium-low heat until it just reaches the boil (you will see tiny bubbles around the edges). Very gradually pour/whisk the hot milk into the eggs and sugar, whisking continuously so the eggs don’t cook, until all the hot liquid is blended in. Whisk in the salt, nutmeg, vanilla and Amaretto.
Pour the custard liquid into the hot/warm pastry shell and bake in the 325°F (165°C) oven – or better yet, place the pastry shell on the oven shelf/rack then pour the custard into the shell. This will help you avoid sloshing the custard as you lift and carry the pie dish to the oven.
Bake for 15 minutes then carefully sprinkle the slivered almonds – if using – over the top of the tart. Continue baking for an additional 15 minutes (bake for a total of 30 minutes) until the custard is set all the way to the center and just slightly puffed. If using a clear glass pie dish, you will see that the bottom of the crust is golden brown.
Remove the Baked Custard Tart from the oven and place on a wire cooling rack. Allow to cool to room temperature before chilling. You can serve the Baked Custard Tart at room temperature or chilled, but store any uneaten Tart in the refrigerator. Serve with fresh fruit salad or berries.