When my friends Julien and Juliette got the keys to an abandoned apple orchard in the Loire Valley I jumped at the chance to join them for some apple-picking. The trees were on the property of a vacation house belonging to a couple that is in Paris most of the year, and therefore not often around for harvest season.
In true spirit of the countryside- let nothing go to waste- the homeowners kindly opened their orchard to us, where we found at least three different apple varieties, and a row of quince trees, still holding on to their last fruits of the season.
In preparation for a late afternoon among the apples, suited up in my indestructible Icelandic sweater, I was ready for another harvesting adventure. While our team of freelance harvesters was prepared with boots and warm sweaters, we had neglected to bring a ladder, limiting the scope of our harvest a bit, but not so much that we didn't fill up the four wooden crates the Julien and Juliette had brought along.
Whenever I think of apple-picking, which I had only thought of- and never taken part in until now- I immediately think of the Robert Frost poem "After Apple-Picking". One line kept coming back to me as I explored the orchard alone. It's repeated twice in the poem: "But I am done with apple-picking now." I kept thinking of this line, even if I was just getting started with apple picking now.
I paused in front of lichen-covered trees, which had formed alliances with blackberry bushes and brambles fortifying their security and introducing an anarchy of branches and spikes in the otherwise orderly rows. I thought about how apple-picking is just that- making a choice of which fruit to take, picking from the bruised or rotting, the pierced and worm-eaten apples, looking for what you think is best.
Despite being excited about apple-picking, and not having the benefit of Robert Frost's "long two-pointed ladder...sticking through a tree", I identified with other reflections in Frost's poem. Like most of my favorite poems of his, this one is kind of sad and completely about death, but in that meditative Robert Frost way that is good for you.
His mood and words are fitting for this time of year, when the air gets thin and we start to heat our houses and put on warm winter socks, endings and afterwards are naturally on our minds.
The grapevines have been harvested, walnuts and chestnuts take a kamikaze plunge to the ground below, where their protective skin will rot away, leaving them defenseless. And then there's an instant for picking apples- before they start to rot or their sensitive skin bruises- one bad apple will spoil the bunch- and you have to act quickly, because the days are getting shorter and your feet are feeling cold.
It's hard to decide when you're done with apple-picking. It seems that the "before" and the "after" of apple-picking get closer and closer as the season progresses, no matter how hard you try to stretch out the day or your time in the orchard.
Maybe apple-picking is over when your crate is full, or maybe when your shoulders are sore from boosting someone up into the branches. Maybe it's over when you realize it's enough to spend even those few short moments, wandering through a quiet orchard, alone and with friends, picking the last fruit these autumn trees will offer, before giving us their leaves.
Apple and Quince Tarte Tatin
If you don't know what quince are, you're not alone. This is a new discovery for me and I'm still figuring it out. Quince react well to a lot of sugar, being rather bitter and lacking a natural sweetness. Fruit leather or a heavily sweetened jam are popular uses for quince. I like pairing them, a little less than equally, with apples for a spin on a traditional Tarte Tatin. You can easily lave out quince if you don't have them on hand, but if you do, this is one of the best things you can do with them. This recipe was inspired by Ripailles, which also suggests variations which include using pears, bananas and pineapples.
For the pâte feuilletée:
2 cups (240 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup (225 grams) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup (120 mL) cold water
Sift flour into a medium mixing bowl and stir in salt. Break butter into medium-sized chunks and combine them into the flour and salt mixture by massaging them in with clean hands. Combine until mixture sticks together and can form a loose ball incorporating most of the flour, some clumps of butter can remain.
Make a well in the butter and flour mixture and slowly add cold water. Incorporate water with your hands until you have included the remaining flour. On a clean, preferably wooden, surface sprinkle flour and roll out your ball of dough into a rectangle. Once you've reached a consistency of about 1/4 inch, fold the top and bottom third of the rectangle to meet each other in the middle. Flip the dough over and roll into a rectangle again. Repeat folding technique and place dough in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. Repeat this cycle three times before rolling out the dough a final time for baking.
For the Tarte Tatin:
4 large apples, peeled, cored and cut in half (use whichever locally grown apples you would use in a traditional apple pie)*
2 large quince, peeled, cored and cut in half then cooked in boiling for 10 minutes, or until very tender
4 tablespoons (60 grams) butter
5 tablespoons (100 grams) sugar
*Use 6-8 apples if omitting quince
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Place a deep pie tin directly on the stovetop at high heat. Melt butter and add sugar. Stir together until combined and then let caramelize until it begins to brown and thicken. Stir again to prevent burning and remove from heat. Arrange apples and quince halves tightly and face down in the caramel mixture. Fit as many as possible in the pie tin. Save remaining fruit to make quince-applesauce. Place pie tin in oven and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and cover apples and quince with the pâte feuilletée, cutting around the edges so that it sits on top of the fruit, without hanging over the edges of the tin. REturn to oven and bake for another 20 minutes, or until pastry dough is golden. Remove from heat and reverse pie tin onto a large plate, while still hot. Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream.