Monday, February 16, 2009

Picnic with Albertine (I): Silent Apricots

The girls all preferred sandwiches and exclaimed at seeing me eat only a chocolate cake, with its Gothic architecture of icing, or an apricot tart. But sandwiches of Cheshire cheese and lettuce, untried and unknowing fare, had nothing to say for themselves. Whereas cakes were privy to much, and tarts were talkative. In cakes, there was a cloying creaminess, and in tarts, a refreshing fruitiness, which were aware of many things about Combray and about Gilberte, and not just the Gilberte of Combray days, but the Gilberte of Paris too, for I had renewed my acquaintance with them at her afternoon teas

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 482-3

Unlike peach, its relative, the apricot doesn’t carry strong fruitiness or intense fragrance. Instead, even though covered with fiery orange, apricots are silent in taste and subtle in flavor. According to Food Lover’s Companion, apricot is the “fruit of ancient lineage [that] has been grown in China for over 4,000 years. It now thrives in most temperate climates, with California producing about 90 percent of the American crop” (24). Perhaps it is due to its faint flavor and temperate growing environment that apricots shy away from the Taiwanese fruit market where local tropical or subtropical fruits are more abundant in character, substance, and taste. Indeed, growing up in Taiwan (a.k.a. the kingdom of fruits) where indigenous and exquisitely-engineered succulent peaches or delicate Asian pears are available only in deep winter and only from the high-mountain orchard of Li-Shan, I had never tasted fresh apricots until my attempt to make the fresh apricot tart at my New York adobe. Perhaps, the unbeatable popularity of Li-Shan peaches and pears accounts for why apricots have never been given the chance to vie for a place in the Taiwanese fruit market. Besides, limited Li-Shan orchard space would hardly permit the experiment. It is my suspicion that fruit farmers who have to contend with unpredictable natural disasters such as typhoons are not about to court the potential economic disaster of apricot’s gentle character not being able to stand up to Taiwanese bananas, papayas, guavas, lychees, tangerines, mangoes, pineapples, watermelons, or the local giant-peak grape. Even in the era of WTO, the apricot’s cottony texture and mediocre sweetness has kept it out of the importing limelight.

Apricots, however, are not at all shy after baking. Like an elusive, stuck-up figure who only shows his/her true colors after having been wooed, apricots have a lot to say after they have been warmed up in the oven. The effusive language of the baked apricot in a tart speaks passion, excitement and happiness. The meanings conveyed by the fruit tart are sweetness, tartness and fragrance. The nose anticipates the forkful being carried to the tongue. The tartness of the fruit stimulates saliva—a mechanism, a coaxing, that triggers the taste buds to explore the flavors. The custard made of sugar, egg yolks and heavy cream enters into the conversation but can hardly calm down the cheerful verbosity of the apricot. Rather, the creaminess from the custard is a comfort that prolongs the sweet happiness, a furthering of sensation which dances on the tongue and on the lips. The intoxicating syrupiness of the apricot filling, with its complicating fruitiness and creaminess is almost giddy in effect. Not until the sweet tart crust was blended with the filling could the tongue satisfyingly detect the full and substantial happiness lingering in the mouth, gliding across my tongue from this particular taste to that of abstract sweetness.

Proust, when having a picnic with the gang of girls on the cliff top, comments that, unlike a sandwich, the apricot tart is talkative. It is the refreshing fruitiness of the tart as well as the creaminess of the cake that reminds him of his days in Paris and Combray with Gilberte. Triggered by the sweet sensation of the fruit tart that does not just linger but loiters on his tongue, he reflects upon the sweet memory and applies it to what he feels among the girls. Surrounded by them, the sweetness is no longer in taste on the tongue but also in the feelings conjured up by the intimacy with the girls on the cliff. The sense of happiness conveyed through the taste sensation of a piece of apricot tart also carries a sense of authority because the one who enjoys the tart also has seeming control over how the taste of the tart is perceived.

The sense of perception, as the mechanism of understanding, is the process of incorporating the unknown and blending it in to a part of the self. In addition to the perception of the fruitiness from a piece of apricot tart—the taste of the tart being translated by the narrator’s sense of taste—the narrator also exercises the sense of authority among the group of girls by offering them some trinkets so as to enjoy their giddy laughter: “We would enjoy our picnic; and then, if I had brought with me a trinket of some sort that I thought one or another of the girls might like to have, their translucent faces would instantly turn red with such a vehement surge of joy that their mouths could not contain it, and they would burst into laughter” (483). The joy from the girls is not only translated through their laughter but also reflected through the narrator’s mindset in which his happiness is brought about through his ability of creating the sense of joy among the girls and for himself. As such, the cliff, with the joy, can be transformed into the lively garden wherein the narrator is the gardener: “They [girls] were grouped about me; and between their faces, which were close together, the airy spaces were like azure paths, such as a gardener might make in order to move around in his rose garden” (483).

In tasting the piece of tart, what I could experience is the sense of “talkativeness” not only of the tart per se, but also, perhaps, the sense of ecstasy and the sense of satisfaction, triggered by the tart, which simultaneously embraces my mouth. Perhaps, it is through the sweetness and fruitiness of the tart that the narrator reflects upon the situation in which the girls, like the tart, are talkative, while he as a taster is quiet and always ready to taste sweetness, tartness and happiness, be it from the tart or the girls. By appreciating the mouthful of apricot tart that clinches him, taste, then, is a process of judgment and also the act of control so as to define the girls or tarts from outside so as to embody ourselves to them. The taste of the tart is also similar to the act of understanding the joy from the girls. Therefore, the act of writing is also the act of eating the piece of tart—the process of translating the happiness.

Apricot Custard Tart
(Adapted from Classic Stars Desserts by Emily Luchetti)

This is a versatile summer dessert. You can substitute peaches, plums, or even berries for the apricots. It is ideal after a dinner of barbecued chicken, sliced tomatoes, and corn on the cob.

¾ pound (about 5) ripe apricots
1 prebaked 9 ½ -inch tart crust (see my tart shell entry)
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large egg yolks
¾ cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Pinch of kosher salt
¼ cup (1 ounce) sliced almonds

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Halve and pit the apricots, then cut into slices ¾ inch thick. Arrange the apricot slices in the tart crust in a decorative pattern. Set aside.

In a bowl, whisk together the sugar, egg yolks, and cream until blended. Stir in the flour and salt.

Carefully pour the cream mixture over the apricots. Sprinkle the almonds evenly over the top.

Bake until the custard is almost completely set, about 35 minutes. Let the tart cool until it can be handled, then remove the pan sides and place on a platter. Serve the tart slightly warm or at room temperature.

No comments:

Post a Comment