Perigord, France, many years ago:
I sit at the oilcloth-covered table, watching the bee climb in and out of the jam jar as I listen to its buzz. The sun is a shock of gold outside the window. The cicadas keep time, rubbing their wiry legs together, spinning out the afternoon. It is hot at the table, claustrophobic inside the cottage. I look longingly at the shade spread out beneath the cherry tree. The bee isn’t in any hurry. He somehow knows the 78-year-old woman who lives in the cottage can’t see him. She is blind. Still, he gives himself away with ragged, contented buzzing.
But she doesn’t seem to mind and makes no move to oust him from his reverie. There are crumbs on the tablecloth, a knife smeared with butter.
We talk about the farm where she’d grown up and where I’m staying, the weather, her grandchildren. In my fractured French, I admire the cherry tree in front of the cottage. I tell her what we grow in California and what I found at the market that morning in Sarlat. All the while, the scent of dark cherries roasting sneaks out of the oven.
“Almost done,” she announces.
I don’t have to ask how she knows. She’s been making clafoutis with cherries from that tree all her life. She knows the recipe by heart, and though she’s lost her sight, her hands know what to do. She knows how far to turn the oven dial and how hot it should feel when it’s up to temperature. No bells or timers on this crafty old stove.
This is the recipe, more or less: Rinse off the cherries, remove their stems, lay them in a single layer in the bottom of a casserole. Whisk together two or three eggs, some flour and sugar, a little milk and cream, and pour over the cherries to barely cover. Bake until the room is enveloped in that heady scent, until the custard is set and browned at the edges, still yielding to the touch.
A blind baker seems remarkable. But maybe not so much, if you think about it. She uses her senses of touch and smell – and taste – to orient herself in the kitchen she’s known for years.
After she takes her clafoutis out of the oven, we talk quietly as it cools. After a while, she dishes it warm into two shallow bowls.
Every year for the same few weeks when the cherry tree is bearing, she makes her clafoutis. Every summer, I think back to that afternoon, now decades ago, and the taste of that clafoutis.
CHERRY CLAFOUTIS 4 cups fresh dark cherries (about 1 pound), stemmed but unpitted
1/2 cup flour
2/3 cup milk or cream or a mixture of the two
Vanilla bean, scraped
Pinch of sea salt
Powdered sugar for dusting
Note: This recipe calls for a 9- to 10-inch baking dish or cast-iron skillet. Look through a stack of French cookbooks and you can find an easy dozen recipes for clafoutis, defined in 1964 by l’Academie Francaise as a cherry flan. The recipes are all very similar. You can embellish the recipe with a pinch of ground cinnamon, orange or lemon zest, or a dollop of Kirsch (cherry eau de vie). Some recipes add a little melted butter to the batter.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange the cherries in a single layer in the bottom of a 9- to 10-inch baking dish or cast-iron skillet.
In a bowl, beat the eggs with a fork or whisk, adding sugar, flour, milk or cream, vanilla seeds and salt.
Pour batter over the cherries. Slip the pan into the oven and bake until the top is browned and the juices are bubbling, about 1 hour (timing will vary depending on the size and type of baking dish).
Remove and cool slightly. Sprinkle powdered sugar over the top. Serve warm or at room temperature, either plain or with a dollop of softly whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.1 hour, 15 minutes, plus cooling time. Serves: 6-8