Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Apricot, rosemary and almond.

It was four years ago last week that we first came here on holiday. It was the end of September, we had finished our first big run of weddings after having W&P and they were 9 months old. Nye’s parents had been here for three years and after spending the first year travelling around had bought a half built house at the end of a hill track out of the village. They had more or less finished the upstairs, although the kitchen worktop was still chipboard, and they had built one beautiful bedroom and bathroom for us in the downstairs, which was otherwise a wall-less, ceiling-less construction site.

Ammie slept in a cot in that construction site while Ella had one upstairs in her Grandpa's office. I use the word 'slept' loosely because at nine months old Ammie was yet to do very much of that. That week in separate rooms with walls, doors and a staircase between them was the most sleep Ella got for the first year of her life.

Every night as three out of the four adults ate their dinner either Nye or I would be downstairs for at least an hour, patting and singing and rocking and begging her to just go the fuck to sleep. On the nights when it was my turn I would try to see it through but almost invariably would tread heavily up the jangling steel staircase and tearfully whisper (lest I wake Ella) 'I really need your help'. I couldn't settle her but he could, eventually. My efforts almost always ended either in my scuttling for the door before she was asleep deeply enough not to notice or - more often - losing my cool long before she was even anywhere near settling, my frustration and distress only fortifying hers. It was a tough time for our relationship with that kid.

While the evenings and the ensuing hours of unsettled sleep were hell, the days were glorious and we carted W&P around the region, tucking them under our arms, hauling them up mountains and through vineyards. It was le 
vendange (the grape harvest) and in the vineyards of Villeneuvette a burly older gentleman with a bald head, red cheeks and an epic moustache the likes of which are only possessed by French wine growers and Eastern European circus strongmen, paused his picking to grin broadly at Ammie in her pram and flex his muscles - the universal sign language for 'that's a chunky one'. He chucked to himself that she would be very good at grape picking, when she was a little bigger.

One day on that first holiday we went to the market in Pezenas, bumping up against the legs and heels of the locals with our super truck of a pushchair. After we were done we had lunch sitting outside under the striped awning of a pavement café. I can't remember most of what I ate but afterwards I ordered tarte aux abricots; golden apricots glistening on a bed of sweet crème pâtissière, crisp pasty crumbling onto the plate. I've had a lot of good tarts in France – apricot, and raspberry, and lemon, and pecan, and chocolate - but that one was the one that I will always remember, the Tart of Tarts. Its crowning glory was that the apricots, or perhaps just the glaze, were flavoured with rosemary. It took me a few mouthfuls to figure out just what was going on there and it was as delicious as it was unexpected, two flavours that until you tried them you would never thing to combine, like strawberries and balsamic vinegar, orange and olive oil, dairy milk and ready salted crisps.

I've wanted to recreate it ever since and it took four years and temporary residence in France to get around to it. Let's say it was because getting hold of fresh apricots that taste of anything other than indigestion is a challenge in the UK.

But actually when it came down to it I didn't recreate it at all, it was more of an imitation sort of a thing. I wanted the girls to be able to eat it and Ammie has a dairy allergy so the crème patisserie that sits under the fruit in a traditional French tart was off the table. I worried that without some sort of cream filling just apricots on a bed of pastry would be a little dry and when I found this recipe for a sort of apricot Bakewell sort of a thing on La Recette du Jour I was pretty satisfied that it sounded delicious enough to work.

Seeing as I am wholly incapable of not meddling with a recipe I made a few alterations. I didn't fancy a compote-based tart, preferring the texture of whole pieces of fruit so instead of making compote in a pan I baked the halved apricots in the oven for half an hour at 180c, sprinkled with vanilla sugar, rosemary needles and a splash of muscat. The rosemary needles were a pain in the tits and my fingers burned and sticky by the time I'd picked every last one off the apricot halves but I couldn't think of any other way to impart the flavour while caramelizing the fruit. In the event, the fruit didn't actually caramelise as much as I'd have liked, I don't know if I needed the oven hotter or to leave them in there for longer, but I was impatient.

Before putting the apricot halves into the tart case I sprinkled ¼ cup of ground almonds over the base to absorb the extra juice from the fruit (no one wants a soggy bottom) and then I dolloped over the almond topping made exactly as it is in the original recipe. I made a glaze by boiling 4 tablespoons of apricot jam with another splash of muscat and a sprig of rosemary, then strained it (pushing the fruit pulp through the sieve) to get rid of the leaves.

It's been ages since I made it but I think I remember it being delicious. I also forgot to take a photo of the middle of it with all of it's beautiful chunks of apricot nestled in almondy cakey topping, because I eat fast and suck at food blogging.

While it was good it wasn't as good as the original tart and that is fine. I've often thought about seeking out that café and hoping that it's still on their menu but I don't dare, what if it's just not as good as I remember? While a recreation can never be expected to live up to the original and can yet still manage to enhance your memory of how good the first one was in comparison, eating the same tart in the same restaurant and it being a disappointment would just be deflating. I can't help but feel that it would make me question the integrity of my memory, of how good it that first tart really was and that in the questioning the glitter would be shaken off, The Memory of The Tart shunted from that shiny picture frame in my mind into the box of tattered, faded pictures of less-than-special meals I've eaten over the years. 

How unbearable that would be.