My mother is a trouper. Over the years, I have dragged her to dinners that consisted of raw tuna, when she had never had anything but canned before, and spicy curries from countries she had never heard of. She would smile and eat what was in front of her, when I knew she would feel more at ease with a chicken breast or a plate of spaghetti. And although, it all seemed normal to me, the meals tested her comfort level. Now, she was in France for ten days and we were stretching all of her boundaries. I had signed us up for a day of cooking lessons in a French home. We had started early that morning at the market in Nantes, Brittany. Lars wound us through stalls pointing out baskets of mushrooms cultivated in the surrounding caves and misshapen pumpkins with popcorn bumps blistering their skin.
“These are the last of the summer peaches,” he told us. They were smushed as flat as a skipping stone; a different variety than mom bought at home, but not so foreign that she couldn’t recognize it. So far, it had all seemed familiar and mom was enjoying herself, that is, until we got to the corner stall.
There was a line of little old ladies hunched over the table blocking our view. Neither of us was sure what we would find on the table. I was the first to spot the proprietors fare. I saw, registered, and turned to block, but it was too late. Mom’s face had already corkscrewed to one side. I could see the vein in her neck bulge. On the table was a white plastic bucket, no different than one you would mop the floor with. The bucket itself was not the problem. It was what was inside. The bucket was full of shiny black eels slithering over and around each other like slimy snakes. I watched as mom stole one more, quick glance. At the same moment one of the eels lifted his head above the others and opened his mouth to breath.
“We’ll take two,” Lars said.
“I’ll wait for you over there.” Mom turned on her heel and marched directly out of the market area. I couldn’t blame her. I stayed to witness the slaughter and skinning, but only out of politeness. This was stretching my limits too.
Once we reconvened with mom, we headed to Lars’ high-ceilinged, wrought-iron terraced apartment to start our lesson. Lars had been trained in Sweden, but had lived in France for the past 18 years. His face lit up as he spoke about French food and creased in concentration as he bent his tall frame over the stove to study the pots.
“I have a treat for you today,” he said in his half Swedish/half French accent. “Do you like frogs legs?”
Mom was silent.
“I do.” I said, looking nervously at my mother. She wasn’t exactly blanching, but she also wasn’t beaming with excitement. “I rarely eat them. They aren’t exactly common at home.”
“A treat then.” Lars clasped his hands together in delight. We both looked over at mom.
“A treat,” she said with a little less enthusiasm.
But, as I said, she was a trouper. All afternoon we chopped, and stirred, and talked, and learned. Lars taught us how to make the local buckwheat crepes, and instructed mom as she stood by the stove stuffing them with ham, grated cheese and eggs. He switched back and forth from talking in depth about cuisine with me to explaining the history of the food in the area with mom.
“Have you ever tasted homemade vinegar?” he asked.
Mom was intrigued. “You make your own vinegar?” It shouldn’t have been surprising. One wall of his kitchen was shelving like a library lined with dozens of jars of jams and pickles. Fresh rosemary and thyme were potted in the windowsill and a loaf of homemade bread sat cooling on a wooden cutting board.
“I make all my own cleaning solutions, too.” These were things she was interested in, much more so than frog’s legs and eel.
Once we had cut the eel into unsnake-like pieces and fried it, mom pulled together enough courage to take a bite. An ‘I can get through this’ smile stayed plastered on her face. She even sucked the meat off the bones of the frog legs. She didn’t balk when we started stuffing duck necks or run screaming from the room when we shucked oysters and slurped them down with Lars’ homemade vinegar. But, just when I thought we had put her through enough, the menu turned.
Lars’ partner, Nirin entered the kitchen for the final instruction of the day. “I grew up here, eating tart Tatin,” he told us as he wrapped the long white waiters apron around his slender frame. “You are here at the right time of year.” His eyes were wet and sparkled when he spoke. “It’s apple season.”
Mom perked right up. “We are making apple pie?”
“A French version.” Nirin nodded. “This one is more like an upside down tart.”
Mom blew out a sigh and smiled. “I do like apples.”
We laughed and commenced the recognizable task of peeling apples and rolling dough. Once again, I looked over at mom. She was relaxed and enjoying herself. She looked like she belonged in this French kitchen. Maybe, when she went home and told stories of how brave she was to taste eel and frogs legs, she would also tell a tale about how French food wasn’t all that different from the comfortable familiarity of good old apple pie.
8 Gala, Fiji, or Golden Delicious Apples
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cup four
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons ice water
Mix flour and sugar in a bowl. Add the butter and rub together with your fingertips until the butter is incorporated. Drizzle the water over the mixture and mix together until the dough is evenly moist and begns to come together. Transfer dough to a floured work surface and shape into a 6-inch disk. Wrap with plastic wrap and refridgerate for 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 400
Peel, core and cut apples into quarters
To make the filling, set a 10-inch straight-sided, cast-iron pan, over medium heat. Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the surface of the pan. Distribute water and lemon juice to evenly soak the sugar and continue cooking until the sugar melts and turns amber colored, 3 to 4 minutes. Shake and swirl the pan frequently to redistribute the sugar for even melting and caramelization. The sugar will be extremely hot. Be cautious and do not touch the bubbling sugar. Remove from heat and set over ice water to immediately cool the pan and stop the sugar from continuing to cook and burn.
Arrange the apples, core side up, in a circular pattern in the caramel in a snug, even layer beginning with the outer layer.
Uncover the pastry round. On a floured surface, roll the dough out to fit the pan, slide both hands under the pastry round and carefully place it on top of the apples, tucking in around the edges and being careful not to burn your fingers. Bake until the crust is golden brown, and apples are tender, about 30 minutes.
Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes. Place a large flat serving plate upside down on top of the pan and invert the pan and plate together. Lift off the pan. Slice and serve warm with vanilla ice cream.