Monday, September 10, 2007

Flirtatious Sisters and Plans Gone Awry

This is not your mother’s apple pie! No Mon-sieureeee! It’s not even your aunt’s apple pie...that is unless your aunt happened to be named “Tatin” and was a part of the sister act that brought us this lovely little gem: La Tarte Tatin.

Stop me if you’ve heard this, but the word on the street is that these sisters had a little inn gig going in the north of France. Forgetfulness due to a little flirting with one of the guests is said to be the cause of the serendipitous result of an upside down apple pie. (The same thing happened to my sister once...the culinary results being less successful...but that’s another story.) The fruits of their plans gone awry brought us something that has certainly held up under the test of time. This is how I want my “apple-a-day” from this day forward!

The local apples are beginning to show up in the marché and one of the vendors was touting an “apple celebration” of sorts at their orchard. The reminder on the announcement "bring your cameras" caught my eye and I taped the directions and telephone number into my agenda and reserved the day. I was looking forward to being in the countryside in Provence.


...with its lavender sky at dawn and dusk that opens into an umbrella of deep blue through the day...

...and the light that the artists chased still washes the landscape in golden and peach-toned hues...

...and the charm of old architecture around every corner continues to capture my imagination ...and the fragrance as I pass the boulangeries along my daily routes satisfies without even tasting a morsel of what is being pulled from the ovens...and the cheese...ahhhhh...the cheese...have you heard?! We have over 400 types here?!



And then...there are days when everything seems to grind to a halt and there is a hiccup that makes all of those other charming qualities and experiences blur for a moment until I find my ground again. So it was on Saturday...the day of the apple celebration.

As a bit of background, my little French life has a very small carbon footprint. Translation: I have no car. Public transportation being what it is in this corner of the world, a car is not really necessary. In fact, it’s better not to have one in Aix as parking is at a premium and very expensive. So, for right car.

I can – and do - walk to everything I need: outdoor markets, supermarket, cinema, restaurants, parks, cafés, museums, galleries, train station, post name it, I can probably walk to it...and have. For destinations outside of town, there is frequent and reliable bus service (airport, TGV station, shopping or exploring Marseille) and when I want to do a bit of exploring in a more independent fashion in some of the outer realms, I rent a car from an agency that I’ve been using since I arrived. Well within walking distance from me, they had excellent customer service. (Notable given that customer service is not a concept that has really caught fire here in France.)

They were always a pleasure to work with and they always had a car when I needed one. In fact, there was the time when I needed a car for a pick-up at customs in Marseille at the last minute and it was the first and only time a car had not been available. The person running the desk at the time solved the problem by renting me her own car for the afternoon! Such a lovely gesture. This was a real measure of the overall customer service that I experienced with this agency time after time. They had earned a very loyal customer in me not to mention the occasional bundle of flowers or bag of madeleines from the marché as an occasional token of appreciation. Needless to say, we had a good thing going on.

Fast forward to Saturday. Sometime between the last time I rented a car (which had become less frequent with school) and now, the agency had been sold. The new staff was a bit abrupt and definitely not personable at first but I thought I’d give them another chance after an awkward start a couple of months ago.

I called to reserve a car for Saturday. A small car was confirmed for the afternoon and we discussed that I would only take it for a few hours and have it back before closing time. She confirmed her understanding and said she would see me Saturday...Yippppeeee! I was really looking forward to this apple orchard discovery and had planned this week’s blog post around it as well.

I arrived at the rental car agency a bit earlier than the time I had indicated and was greeted with “there has been a little change in plans.” Hmmmmmm...that didn't sound good. She had rented the car. In mild shock, I said “But I had a reservation.”

“No, no,” she informed me, “we don’t take reservations over the phone...that was not a reservation. You have to come in a give us a credit card to make a reservation.” I told her I must have been operating under the old rules of the other agency having rented regularly from them and she just sniffed and began dialing the phone.

While I mentally regrouped and tried to construct my next ideas in French to continue to express my shock and awe not to mention dismay, she put the phone down and looked up at me but down her nose (how do they do that?!?) and said that they had another car available at another location and they could bring it down to Aix (40 minutes away) and oh, by the way, it was a VAN...oh...and it would be over 60 euros...Would I be taking that offer?

Errrrrrrr...that would be NO!

I was terribly exasperated and disappointed and frustrated and couldn’t bring myself to get in her face in rapid fire French as I have seen people do when they are not satisfied with “customer service” in a business..and so I simply walked out...and missed the apple happening as it was far enough away to not be able to get to it easily via trains, bicycles or automobiles.

It is at times like this that the sweet little life that I’ve grown here has moments of implosion. Then somehow, the sky doesn’t look as blue, all I can smell is dog messes in the streets...and car exhaust...and the people on the street seem unfriendly...and the ville closes in on me...and as small as it seems when I can’t get out when I want to, the walk back to the apartment from the agency seemed endless in the heat of the afternoon. Zut! All of my plans dashed in an instant. While not having a car may be helping the planet, that small carbon footprint can leave some pretty heavy tracks and make my creative spirit look like road kill.

But the blog must go on...and so I turned apples into Tarte Tatin and brought my spirit back to life...along with my resolve to never use Rent-A-Car in Aix again!

Bon Appétit!


p.s. And to all of those naysayers who thought I was crazy to bring my cast iron skillet in my check-on luggage...hah! You should taste this little tart! What say you now?!? (Okay, it did seem a bit nutty at the time, I’ll give you that...but worth every inch of effort as I dragged it home!)

Try serving this with a dollop of crème fraiche...or ice cream...or all by itself! Two of my favorite gourmets thought it was “scrumptious”! Try it! You’ll see...

Tarte Tatin

6-8 apples (Jonathan, Braeburn, Granny Smith are just some examples to try)

12 Tablespoons butter, cut into 1 tablespoon pieces

1 cup sugar

For the pastry, use one sheet of pâte feuilletée (puff pastry) from your local freezer case. To prepare it for the tart, roll it out into a 12-inch circle.

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Core, peel and quarter the apples.

Melt the butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat. Remove from heat and sprinkle the sugar evenly over the butter.

Tightly pack the apples, core-side down first, around the inside edge of the skillet. They should be nestled tightly against each other. Return the pan to the stove and cook over high heat until the butter and sugar carmelize to a rich brown ~ about 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat and carefully turn the apples over to the uncooked side with a fork. Return to the heat and cook an additional 5-8 minutes.

Remove from heat. Drape the pastry over the apples, tucking the overhang down between the apples and the inside edge of the skillet.

Bake for 20-30 minutes or until the pastry is golden. Remove and allow to cool for 15 minutes.

Loosen the edges of the pastry with a knife. Invert onto a platter quickly and carefully. Rearrange any apples that may have fallen out. Serve warm.

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