Over the last year and a half I’ve been so focused on the question of my marriage, that it felt as though my heart constricted, zeroing in on it. I’ve been looking inward, and analyzing, questioning, deliberating. In the village of Labastide-Esparbairenque, Occitan for “fortified city beneath the cherry blossoms” (is that not a line of poetry?!), it feels like I’m stepping outside, placing my heart in my hand- gently, gingerly- and giving it a long, luxurious, cleansing bath in all of this beauty.
There are moments when I feel overcome with grief, with disappointment, with how terribly daunting this separation can feel at times, and I take myself by the hand, and step outside and take in the quiet beauty surrounding me, in great big gulps: the way the light plays on the grape vines, the way it warms up before sunset, turning everything golden. I let this beauty, these little things, ground me in the present, in gratitude for being here, for being able to witness it all.
Walking to get water from the spring, chestnut tree branches arching overhead, sunlight peering through the leaves, I catch myself singing aloud. In this state of relaxation, of openness, laughter travels easily through my body.
I’m eating light, simple meals- platters of goat cheeses with clusters of grapes and figs split in half, their insides the deepest ruby, drizzled with local honey, its chestnut overtones surprisingly assertive; pink glistening slices of smoked salmon on warm toasts with wedges of lemon; an avocado sliced in half, its cavities filled with tuna and drizzled with olive oil, balsamic and a flurry of salt and pepper; simple, easy caprese salads with tomatoes from a neighbor- round, red hot, their flesh yielding beneath the knife with a heavy sigh, juices seeping.
About that neighbor. There are thirty to forty people living in the village in peak season; I don’t think I personally saw more than a half dozen. On a little tour of the village, we were introduced to Ernest, from whom we could buy eggs and tomatoes. He came out to meet us, a hat perched on his head, his face opening in a wide, beaming smile. It didn’t take long for me to knock on his door.
He would walk out slowly in front of me, opening the gate to his garden, and when I would reach for tomatoes I thought were ripe, he would steer me in the direction of better ones, picking them for me himself. Then he would invite me in for un petit aperitif, whether it was late afternoon or early morning.
Over glasses of Pastis, I learnt about his childhood- about his family moving to Southern France from Spain during an economic crisis when he was nine, and living in different villages in this valley since. One day, while out chopping wood, he set eyes on the woman who would become his wife, and moved to this village, where her family lived, and where he has lived ever since. Together they had six children, and they gather at his house on Sundays; at 86, he still prepares elaborate meals for them.
Laughter is easy on his tongue and in his eyes, and he reminds me of my grandfather, who loved talking to people and loved his aperitif, and in whose blue eyes laughter was always present, sparkling like the sun on the Mediterranean.
We visited Ernest often, joking it was our laughter therapy. We left with tomatoes and eggs, but also carrots, leeks, onions, parsley, and lettuce for which he never let us pay. As soon as I set eyes on his leeks, I knew I wanted to make this tart, which I had bookmarked ages ago.
On a rainy day, the sky a lifeless grey, rain fingering my windows, I cut rich, yellow French butter into flour to form the tart dough. Then, I made the leek confit, the leeks turning soft and almost translucent, the aromas warming up the kitchen. I rolled out the tart shell, and blind-baked it, then dotted it with goat cheese, before smearing it with a layer of leek confit. Next came more dollops of goat cheese before the whole thing was swamped with an egg and cream mixture. When it came out of the oven, the filling settled in a contented sigh. I cut a thick slice of it and brought it to Ernest, wrapped in foil, juggling an unwieldy umbrella. He led me into his dining room, opened a door in the wood panels lining one of the walls, and urged me to choose a cake from shelves laden with treats.
*The first image is by photographer Al Wildey, whom we were lucky to have among our group on the retreat. Titled “Calliope’s Window”, the image is a composite of many stills taken from his window at La Muse, and forms part of his “Journeys” series.
**Thanks to the lovely (and talented!) Philippa Caddow for her presence in the photos above.
Belgian Leek Tart with Aged Goat Cheese
From this recipe by Molly Wizenberg for Bon Appetit
4 tablespoons (or more) ice water
3/4 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
scant teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 1 tablespoon chilled unsalted butter
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup crumbled aged goat cheese (such as Bucheron), rind trimmed
1 1/2 cups leek confit (see below)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
4 large leeks (white and pale green parts only), halved lengthwise, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices (about 5 cups)
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon salt
*This makes about 2 cups of confit, a little more than you’ll need. Spread some on warm toast- cook’s prerogative, or fold into an omelette.
Begin with the Crust: In a small bowl, mix the 4 tablespoons ice water with the cider vinegar. In a food processor, blend the flour and salt; then add butter and cut in using on/off turns until mixture resembles coarse meal. With the machine running, slowly add water-vinegar mixture, processing until moist clumps form. If dough seems dry, add ice water, one teaspoon at a time. (If going low-tech: 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.)
Gather the dough into a ball, and then flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours. (Can be made 3 days ahead, or frozen for longer.) Allow dough to soften slightly at room temperature before rolling out.
Meanwhile, prepare the Leek Confit: Melt butter in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add leeks, stirring to coat. Stir in water and salt. Cover the pot and reduce heat to low. Cook until leeks are tender, stirring often, about 25 minutes. Uncover and cook to evaporate excess water, about 2 to 3 minutes. (Can be made 1 week ahead; keep refrigerated.)
Back to the Crust: Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375°F. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to a 12-inch round. Transfer to a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Press dough onto bottom and up sides; fold in overhang and press against the pan’s sides. Line pan with foil and dried beans or pie weights. Bake until dough looks dry and set, about 30 minutes. Remove foil and beans and bake for another 20-25 minutes, until crust is pale golden. Remove from oven and cool.
Prepare Filling: In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, cream, egg, egg yolk, and salt. Sprinkle 1/4 cup cheese over bottom of the crust; spread 1 1/2 cups leek confit over and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Pour milk mixture over. Bake until filling has puffed, is golden in spots, and center looks set, 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer to a rack, and allow to cool slightly before removing pan sides. Serve warm or at room temperature.