Saturday, June 4, 2016

Peeping frogs, loud birds and strawberries

I woke up this morning thinking about strawberries. I can’t say why, exactly, but it might have been the bright sun just beginning to intrude through a gap in the draperies. Or it might have been the trilling cacophony just outside my open window. The sun and the sound of the birds only wake me in the spring and summer and I suppose my brain was already moving on to the next things that herald the best time to live on Candlewood Lake: strawberries, Johnny’s chicken burgers on the grill and cold beverages.

So back to the berries. I really learned about the art of buying fruits and vegetables when I lived in France more than 10 years ago. At that time, super-speedy refrigerated shipping and storage were not as prevalent as they are today. We found in the markets only the fruits and veggies that were ripe and in season in the nearby area. I think the only time we could anticipate a fresh fruit treat out of season from a truly distant land was clementines from Israel at Christmas.

Strawberries were my introduction to this wondrous phenomenon. I had just arrived in Paris with my two young children and my husband announced that we would go food shopping. I was soon to discover that there was nothing in the fridge in the huge, old house we had rented. Thoughtfully, he had waited for me to join him to accomplish such a task. The irksome part of this is that he had already been living there for six months. Those tales, my friends, are for another day.

So we go to the market. It is a magnificent, outdoor affair with lines and lines of stalls featuring everything from salad greens to rabbit carcasses. My jet-lagged brain was slow to adjust to the French writing on all of the signs, and filling my ears. My husband, ever the eager helper, picked up a cardboard basket of strawberries and asked me, “is this a good price are these good?” Before I could answer, the woman operating the stall reached across her beautiful display and slapped at his arm, nearly causing him to drop the carton. She growled something incomprehensible at him and shook her finger at me in admonishment. Hmmmm. I guess we are not to touch the goods, as we do at home in the United States. Lesson learned. I looked at him in despair and said that any price would be good right now and would he please just pay the unhappy woman and let us be on our way.

A few weeks later, I had learned to navigate the roadways and the kids and I found a wonderful, pick-your-own farm. Here we used shovels to wrest carrots from the ground, pulled green beans off their bushes with our fingers and sat in the warm sandy soil among the strawberry plants and simply ate the berries as fast as we picked them. When we got home, we made a dinner of those veggies and for dessert, a beautiful strawberry tart. I had not had any cooking lessons yet, and boy did I need them, so the tart was not actually beautiful in the traditional sense. I did not get the cream right but we sure had fun creating designs on top with the sliced berries. Sadly, by the time we were finished with the masterpiece, we were too full to eat it. The tart was a little defeated looking by breakfast the next day, but it was still delicious.

So today, I conjure up all of my strawberry memories as I lie in bed and think about summer. Strawberry season is upon us now in Connecticut and the local crop is a good one indeed. My mother always told me the best way to buy fruit is to smell it: does it smell like a strawberry? Surprisingly, the answer is often no. But go ahead and lift that plastic container close to your face and inhale deeply. It should smell like sunshine, sweetness, birds singing and the star of your lunch-time salad.

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