January 3, 2002 La Saumane, Haute Provence, France
(An excerpt from my book-in-progress, Province of the Heart)
Well, I have won the gastronomic hearts of the French, trumping the best their cuisine has to offer—and that with one of the humblest dishes of American fare: the apple crisp. Not only that, rather than burrowing for the recipe through a raft of august tomes like a proper French pastry chef, I took it off the Internet like any other tech-savvy Amercan. (This was 2002, when dial-up was the only option and few in rural Provence went online regularly.) And with American brashness, I modified it—“invented”, as my friend the chef Michel might sniff. (Read my story about him here.) And they gobbled it up, with several helpings apiece.
My host's son, Gil*, was down from Paris for a New Year’s visit with his sidekick, Henri. Gil is a handsome, strapping man in his late thirties who must take after his father, as he looks very Dutch with his blond hair, blue eyes and upturned nose. He is cynical and guarded, with a dry wit and diffident air that conceals, I suspect, more than a little anger.
He was, I’ve been told, brought up by Mme. Pascal in her little house in the village while his father Paul frolicked with wine, women and V.I.P.’s in the mansion down the road, the playboy of Provence. Gil’s mother reportedly ran off in the seventies with a cinematographer who was in town to film Giono’s Crésus. (That the film was released in 1960 attests to the unreliability of rumor and memory.)
A businessman, Gil has been negotiating for months with his father over the sale of the Domaine de P____. Paul started out by threatening to sell it to an outsider for peanuts (about half a million dollars) if Gil couldn’t come up with fifteen hundred euros a month in addition to a large down payment. Gil, who is paying off a hefty mortgage on an apartment in a swanky section of Paris, has been waging a determined campaign to whittle his father’s price down. He plays his cards close to the chest and is not above a shrewd bluff to open an advantage. He drives a hard bargain. I imagine Gil is very good at his job.
Henri is a study in contrast: garrulous and friendly, he has an air of lazy aimlessness paired with a bright, restless mind, and is still looking for his place in the world as he pushes forty. He has a degree in organizational development and spent ten years in the States knocking around a series of colleges studying business. He is as easygoing as Gil is critical and they have been bosom buddies since adolescence. There is still an air of adolescent high jinks that clings to them.
It was the night before their return to Paris and Gil was in an expansive mood. He had just successfully closed a deal with his father to pay him about half his original asking price. Given the fact that Paul is no pauper and most fathers with his wealth would be leaving the property gratis to their offspring (Gil will only take possession of the house after Paul’s death), general opinion is that Gil has been generous. A dinner party was planned with a few guests and I offered to help with the preparations.
“How about a dessert?” Gil asked.
“I could make something real American, like apple pie,” I answered, partly tongue-in-cheek. “Or apple crisp.”
“Apple crumble, apple crumble!” crowed Gil, who has visited the States often on business and loves down-home American cooking. Ponderosa Steak Houses are among his favorite haunts. Crisp or crumble, we had the same idea in mind.
The preparation was a case of the twenty first century meeting the eighteenth: an Internet recipe prepared with technology from before the French Revolution. The kitchen lacks many amenities—a food processor, for one. But there was a cute little antique nut mill high up on a shelf. I dusted it off for a closer inspection: a wooden box with a small drawer on one side and a hand lever on the other. A funnel was installed on top. I poured the chopped walnuts and almonds for the top layer of the crisp into the funnel and started grinding. And grinding. Periodically, I pulled out the drawer laden with pulverized nuts and emptied it. And grinded some more.
Forty minutes of grinding later, the nuts were mixed with the flour, butter and sugar, spread over the apples, and popped into the oven. Later that evening, the crisp became the pièce de resistance, and I sat back smugly as the guests tucked into it with involuntary moans of satisfaction. “That was the most superb tarte I have ever eaten,” Paul managed to wheeze out after his third helping. And he has called for it several times since. Sometimes the haute-ist cuisine is composed of something so simple, even an American can make it.
Internet Apple Crisp
(adapted from Recipes.com)
|6 apples - peeled, cored and chopped
1-1/2 dashes ground cinnamon
1-1/2 dashes ground nutmeg
3/4 cup walnuts
3/4 cup pecans
|3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup and 2 tablespoons butter, diced
1-1/2 pinches salt
1- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
2- Place apples in a pie pan and dust with cinnamon and nutmeg. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes.
3- In a food processor (or an ancient hand grinder) chop nuts with a few short pulses (or grind for an hour). Pour in sugar and flour and process to combine. Add butter and salt and process until mixture resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle topping over apples.
4- Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until golden brown.
*The names in this story have been changed.