I’d like to take you with me on the journey I took to the South of France.
The train station in Carcassonne is small and you’re faced with a long staircase, and you have a big, heavy red suitcase. You take it one step at a time, and at the bottom you make a right along a dark corridor, only to find yourself in front of another interminable staircase, this time in ascent. As you pause and hesitate, a man approaches and offers to help you with your suitcase, and as you say yes, your body fills with a deep breath of gratitude. You have an hour or so before your scheduled pickup time, so you lean against the railing of the station, one hand on your suitcase, the other shading your eyes as you look out before you, the pavements hot with the afternoon sun. You can feel your heart fluttering, like it did when you were on the train watching the scenery unfold, as you take in this city, a river cutting through it right in front of you, little cafes beyond it, their umbrellas wide open.
You make your way towards one of the cafes. You, with your big, heavy red suitcase, and the camera weighing heavily in your bag, and the thin black canvas tote with the heel of a baguette and a big neck pillow that you didn’t use, constantly sliding off your shoulder; and you sit down and order a coffee. And you put on your sunglasses and lean back and take it all in.
When the time for pickup nears, you make your way back to the station, it’s not far at all, but you struggle with your suitcase and the sidewalk and the heat. You try to see if you can pick out the other women who are supposed to be in your group. You can’t. So you find a patch of shade, and watch shirtless teenagers standing off in a corner, and a young couple with three little girls sitting on a bench, and two soldiers standing against the wall, smoking cigarettes. That’s when you notice two women standing on the far left of the podium, and you hesitate before approaching them, but when you do, they are the ones you were waiting for, and their train just came in, and they are weary from travel.
A dark green jeep pulls up, and a man with an Irish accent steps out, and he takes your suitcases, and before driving you to the village, he stops at a supermarket so you can stock up on supplies. And you look around with surprise at the sprawling parking lot, unexpectedly industrial and mainstream with its supersized stores and a big McDonald smack in the middle of it, replete with colorful slides and a jungle gym, and you wonder how this train going out of Paris and across the French countryside, brought you here, to this strip mall in suburban America. You’re a little disoriented as you push your shopping cart through the large aisles, but you feel oddly light, and you place the necessities you’ll need for these three weeks in your cart- coffee and milk and toothpaste and shower gel, but also smoked salmon and crème fraiche and small Muscat grapes, of the deepest purple. And you buy a six-pack of water, even though it causes an eyebrow to be raised, as the village you will be in has a freshwater spring, but you’re not ready to drink from it just yet.
As you drive up the mountains you pass tiny villages, clustered around the creek that makes its way between the mountains. No sooner do you pass a sign that announces a village, do you pass another sign, with a red line drawn through its name, marking its end. In the car, there’s talk of hiking trails and the publishing world, and hometowns, but your eyes are focused on the mountains covered in forest and the little villages you pass, and you know you won’t remember any of it. And your back is tight with the journey, and you’re aware of that small painful area beneath your right shoulder, and your day begins to catch up with you- waking up early, and packing, and finding the right train, and keeping your eye on your suitcase at all times, because they warned you about pickpockets, and carrying that suitcase into the train and up and down staircases, and waiting at the station in the heat and trying to make conversation with the others, all of you weary from travel, and pushing your cart through that oddly industrial supermarket. And you lean back and the day creeps up your fingers, sticky with antibacterial gel, and you begin to feel tired and a little hungry.
The jeep pulls into the parking lot of a small village, and you’re journey is over (or, possibly, has just begun): you’ve arrived at La Muse, an artist and writer’s retreat, your home for the next three weeks. Soon, you will settle into your cottage, and meet the others: an inventor, a photographer, a musician, writers, artists. And you’ll have a potluck to which you will bring a rustic tart filled with those Muscat grapes, their flavor intensifying with the heat, exploding on the tongue in a heady rush of perfume. The cottage will be quiet and flooded with light as you slice the butter into the flour, and as you fold the dough gently over the grapes, your heart will begin to mend.
Rustic Grape Tart
Adapted (barely) from the Vanilla Bean blog
I couldn’t get these gorgeous tartlets by Sarah of the Vanilla Bean blog, as well as this stunning photo out of my head, so I followed Sarah’s recipe, while doubling the quantities for the dough, and aiming for a big, rustic tart. It comes together very easily: you prepare the dough (cut butter into flour, add ice water; refrigerate; roll out; refrigerate) and then pile a bunch of grapes into the center of your dough, fold the dough over, and voila! The tart emerges from the oven with a flaky, buttery crust encasing roasted grapes, their juices bubbling, their flavor intensified with the heat, bursting on the tongue in a heady rush of perfume.
3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
285 grams (2.5 sticks/ 1 1/4 cups) butter, diced
6-12 tbsp ice water
red or green grapes (I used Muscat grapes)
1 tablespoon sugar
whipped cream or creme fraiche, for serving (optional)
For the crust: Process the flour, salt, and butter in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs, and the butter is the size of small peas (or, if going the low-tech way: mix the flour and salt in a large bowl, and cut the butter into the flour using two knives, until the same consistency is achieved). Add the water through the feed tube 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough holds together when pinched (about 10 pulses).
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gather it into a rectangular shaped pile. Use the heel of your hand to smear the dough against the work surface. Continue to smear until all the dough has been worked. Gather into a pile again, and repeat. Flatten dough into a 6 inch disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for about an hour.
Roll the dough into a 12 inch circle on a piece of parchment paper, and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Preheat your oven to 375, and position your rack in the middle of the oven.
Place the dough in a 9-inch tart pan, which will give a bit of height to your tart, and make it easier to form; fill the pan with grapes. (Alternatively, you could shape the tart free-form right on the parchment paper; in which case, mound the grapes in the center of your dough, leaving a 2 inch border.) Next, fold the outermost dough over the fruit, pleating it as you go (about every 2-3 inches). Add in additional grapes, packing them in and tucking them under the pleats. Brush the dough with water and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar.
Bake until tart is golden and the grapes are slightly wrinkled and their juices are leaking, about 1 hour, rotating the baking sheet halfway through. Cool the tart on a wire rack for 25 minutes. Serve.