The Apple Experts
Talk among the mothers on the bus to les Fermes de Gally this morning is of apples—how to pick them, sort them, eat them and most importantly how to cook them. Apples, presumably at the bottom of a French food chain that pivots toward complex cream sauces and structured stews, are still important enough to merit serious discussion.
“Ah no, the best apple for a tatin is definitely the Reine,” says a mother with long black hair held back in a ivory clip. “You could try it with the Gala but that will lack a certain tartness, a certain subtlety.”
Another mother nods, sucking in the bottom of her cheeks in agreement: “There is the Calvile, but if you use that then you need to make your own caramel sauce for the tatin.”
“Do you buy the caramel sauce?” a third mother asks in shock.
“Yes, yes I do,” the black haired mother says defiantly. “You can make a perfectly acceptable tarte tartin with store bought caramel sauce. Trust me.”
Silence fills the air.
We are on the bus to the apple farm just outside Paris with forty three- and four-year olds in tow. In the front are six mothers plus a handful of teachers. This leaves four children per adult, a cautious ratio if I ever saw one, but no one is taking chances as the bilingual Gorsky school in the 7th arrondissement. Here the children are meant to not only learn English but “Anglo-Saxon values.” This appears to be a Monty Python sense of humor and the instinct to get up early in the morning and work all day long.
I don’t normally sign up for field trips but I am out of work for the moment and at loose ends. Mama used to work at Reuters, Theo tells his friends on the bus. But she is taking…he pauses to recall the party line…a little break.
Indeed. But this unsettling fact is augmented by the chance to spend more time with my children, and to practice my French with the mothers at Theo’s school.
My assessment of French women is ever-changing but generally falls between a kind of queasy fearfulness and grudging admiration. I start from the baseline of finding them judgmental, aloof and terribly competitive. When I first meet a French woman, I steel myself for the ‘once over’—a head to toe assessment of my shoes, clothing, hair and body. If they are at all nice after that, I am pleasantly surprised, even grateful.
The mothers at Theo’s school generally are nicer and they appreciate my American openness because they want it for their children. Meanwhile, I marvel at their ability to look chic, work long hours (some 80 percent of Parisian women my age work full-time), and care, really care, about how to make a glorious tarte tatin.
Once we get off the bus everyone rushes at the apples with playground enthusiasm. Little kids pull red, yellow and green apples off the bottom branches of the trees, while their mothers harvest the higher branches, stuffing fruit into their pockets like renegades.
“Have you tried this one?” the mothers ask each other, passing their apples around, taking a kind of visceral pleasure from eating with their hands, something which is never done in France.
The mother with the ivory clip comes over to me. She holds out a lumpy reddish Gala apple that is spotted yellow at the top. It is an unlikely piece of fruit, almost wormy.
“Try it,” she says.
I bite. Sweet, with enough juice to roll down my chin, and crisp. An apple out of the childhood imagination.
Making tarte tatin
Tarte tatin is basically a broken apple pie. It originated in a hotel south of Paris in the 1880s where the sisters Tatin were cooks. Overworked and probably underpaid, one of the sisters let the apples stew too long in caramel. In a panic, she threw a pastry shell over the apples, shoved the whole mess in the oven, let it bake a little, then turned it over and served her customers. They loved it.
Recipes abound for a decent tarte tatin. Ms Julia Child makes one as do most of the big French chefs. But this really is a dessert for the rushed kitchen worker or overworked French mother. It costs nothing to make and is open to improvisation. Whatever people say about apples, most any will do.
My friend Digby’s recipe for tarte tatin
- • You need a frying pan that can go in the oven
- • Over medium heat, melt butter (in the frying pan), sprinkle in plenty of sugar
- • When it starts to caramelise, arrange your little half-moons of apple around the pan – all pretty like
- • Let them cook for a couple of mins
- • Put your pastry base over the top and slip it in the oven for a bit – I guess 10, 15 mins on about 180 degrees, something like that
- • Remove the pan from the oven (wearing your fireproof mits), put a plate over the top and then flip the pan and the plate over, so that your perfect tarte tatin flops out apples-up and ready to serve
Buying tarte tatin
Paris is rich in extraordinary pastry houses. On the Rue du Bac in the 7th arrondissement La Patisserie des Revesmakes a delicious tarte tatin as does Ladurée on Rue Bonaparte in the 6th.
Patisserie des Reves even has an instructional video (with some very well behaved children) on how to make their fancy version of the apple cake.