Saturday, July 11, 2009
Life is just a bowl of (Montmorency) Cherries
Here's some unsolicited advice: Never. Ever. Pat yourself on the back.
Or, if you insist on patting yourself on the back continue the motion and swing your hand up and around and smack yourself firmly and briskly upside the head. Pride is a fickle, tricky fool. Not even a minute into your self-celebration, you can find yourself staring, dumbfounded, into the eyes of your own humiliation. It's as if the universe has a way of self-correcting for blustery displays of arrogance. As the head swells, the feet slide out from underneath; karmic balance thus restored.
There is a story here. I'm sure you've gathered.
It all started with a cherry tree - a very special cherry tree - a Montmorency, the queen of sour cherry trees. A friend of mine offered them up, lamenting that there are more cherries that find their way to the ground than into pies. I'm all for the circle of life, and believe strongly in composting, but I prefer to let the cherries take a tour past my taste buds before they reach their final resting place. So - in the middle of one sunny Saturday afternoon - I chatted with my friend and plucked fire-engine red sour cherries off the branches. The branches were swollen with fruit which made for quick picking.
I brought the cherries home and, as I was headed to a July 4th BBQ, turned them into a rustic hand formed tart. I cooked the cherries down with sugar, port, some thyme and lavender and laid them over a base of equal parts sour cream and goat cheese, set up with an egg. April and I handed out samples at the party and basked in the glow of our food savvy friends adulation. My hand soon grew tired from (yes, you're right there with me) patting myself on the back.
Within hours after the party I learned of a tart competition being held in just a few days, the first of its kind in Seattle: a Francophile Fruit Tart competition, to be exact. Until this week I had never entered a cooking competition of any kind. Why not, I thought. Why not indeed?
inconceivably boring because each day must start out the same. "Ah," says the pastry chef of my imaginings, "A new day! I need to gather some FLOUR, BUTTER, SUGAR, SALT." Then, the very next day starts out the same. "Ah! A new day! I need to gather some FLOUR, BUTTER, SUGAR, SALT." Not for me, this life of 4 ingredients.
But the truth is that deep within me there is a pastry chef struggling to get out. I try to shove her down, but sometimes she proves too worthy a foe and bubbles up and over the surface. As any good pastry chef knows, you may start with very similar ingredients each day, but the true talent emerges when the same basic ingredients can produce a vast array of final products. So it was with some respect, a worrisome amount of over confidence and a share of flour, butter, sugar and salt that I, one and half hours before the competition, grabbed my buddy Jet and started baking. If you read this blog you know that Jet is my wingman, always at my side for the latest and craziest food adventure. I called her up at noon. The contest started at 4. "Wanna come help me enter a tart competition?" And just like that, we were off.
There was only one problem: What the fuck were we thinking? At 3:55 pm we were scrambling into the car, two tarts, one just slightly uglier than the other, balanced precariously on our laps, on beat up, ugly baking sheets. In the back, confectioners sugar in a sieve ready to go when we got there, 3 minutes late. We threw the tarts onto the back of my truck and garnished them with powdered sugar right there on the street. Speed walking while carefully negotiating the sidewalk pavers, we climbed the steps to Rovers, a well-known French restaurant in Seattle.
I was wearing jeans with a hole in the knee and a t-shirt, dusted with flour. Jet was wearing capris and a t-shirt and I think I saw some cherry juice splashed on it. We both had on flip-flops. I was carrying a hippie basket with sugar all over it. We heard them before we saw them, the sju sju sjus of French being spoken between several well-dressed women and men who greeted us as we entered. They were with the French-American Chamber of Commerce and oh yes, now I remember, this contest is part of Bastille Day celebrations, and oh right, perhaps I might have considered that a classic French tart consists of pastry cream, is made in a tart pan, has rows and rows of concentric fresh fruit, and sometimes glaze. Bien sûr! I looked down at my flat, hand formed, goat cheese, sour cream, cooked cherry and thyme "tart" and gulped.
Tingling sensations of dread - felt first just below the nape of my neck and running down my back, like thousands of tiny fire ants - came when we rounded the corner where the contestant chefs stood, lined up in their starched whites, names embossed on their lapels looking to all the world like a white pastry army facing down a most unprepared savory foe. They came from some of Seattle's best bakeries and restaurants. Funny, I never stopped to really think about who would be entering this competition. If my mind did linger for a moment on any picture of this day, it would have been on the image of a county fair, foodies and bloggers, chefs and pastry people all showing up with their tarts of every stripe. We'd sip iced tea and compare recipes. It would be held outside and there would be rows and rows of tarts.
Each one was more beautiful than the next - high-sided, glossy, magazine cover tarts sprung forth from their covers onto the plate. Chefs were placing flowers, just so, on their creations. I held my hand over my mouth, resisting all temptations to let out a crazy, wild, high pitched laugh-yelp and glanced, for a moment, like a beaten dog, over at Jet who did not return the eye contact. We realized we had not brought any tools to transfer the ugly tart from the ugly pan to the white display plate. With what we felt were the beady eyes of gloating competitors staring at us, we sloppily picked up the tart with our hands and slid it over onto the plate. I felt a tiny fault line crack run up the middle of the tart just as it landed, most unceremoniously, on the plate. Photos were snapping and all the air was being sucked out of the room.
I told Jet I'll be right back and I made my way quickly to the front door and down the steps and out into the garden and I breathed in the clean air, gobbling it up and clearing my head. I wanted to be the kind of person who would walk right back in there, head held high, proud of my creation, all flattened and amateurish. Instead, I tried to play their game and my eye caught on a newly blooming lavender plant and after looking over my shoulder twice to make sure no one was watching, I ripped off a hank of flowers and ran back in. Jet saw me, smirked in a way that made me think she was feeling indigestion, and I started frantically showering our cow pie with lavender flowers, which made it look just like a cow pie showered with lavender flowers.
I stood back. I surveyed my handiwork. I drank a glass of a Rosé. Fast.
The judging took forever and we watched as they broke down the crusts with their forks, stuck their noses right up next to the pieces, murmured about pastry cream and difficulty points, artistic expression and the ripeness of fruit. Then, the extras were shared amongst the crowd and contestants, our stress sweat mixed with French perfume; adrenaline and Chanel and frangipane hung in the air. I drank another glass of Rosé. Faster.
We took a sample of each of the tarts into a quiet outside room, sat down and tasted them. Bite by bite, I incrementally started to feel better. Mine was flavorful. The rest, save for a few, not so much. I felt slightly redeemed in knowing that what I lost in looks I made up for in substance.
The judges convened, discussed, and decided. And then came the announcement. Shockingly, I did not win. A quick perusal of the points distribution has me scoring high in flavor, and losing badly in difficulty and presentation. Food writer Rebekah Denn, one of the judges, tells me privately, later, that my tart was "ugga-licious" for its tasty homeliness. I declared it "Fug-tasty."
We clap clap clapped for the winner (Boulangerie Nantaise and my personal favorite of the day Macrina) and got back in the truck. It was 5:33pm and all over, just 3 hours after we met in my kitchen and started pitting cherries and making dough. We started laughing, hysterically, and I thanked the stars that I love telling stories a hell of a lot more than I like making pastries.