NOTE: The recipe is at the end of the story – you can scroll down and cut to the pie if you want…
When I was 20 or 21 (or some such age indicative of fearless youth,) I was aimlessly traipsing about Europe alone for a few months. Me, a backpack and enough books and journals that I have a special appreciation for things like laptops, wifi and e-readers now. When people asked me why I was going to Europe alone, with no plan whatsoever, my stock answer was, “why not?”
I was looking for something, though at the time I could not have told you what. Sure, the sex, drugs and rock and roll had an appeal (and were often consumed, together, with great glee.) But the hunger I was wanting to sate was a great deal more innate to breath. There was something in me that wanted to consume everything – air, dust, rhythm, language, touch, sounds – elemental to the history of the world and, let it infuse me with the subtle mysteries of history. I wasn’t trying to imitate anyone I had learned about, or anything like that. I just had a feeling that there was some magic ingredient that, when added and baked in time, would help me rise to the occasion of my own life.
At some point I’m sure I’ll write about spending Bloomsday on the roof of Nora Barnacle’s childhood home in Gallway. Or being chased off Corfu by the Greek mafia (which entailed walking barefoot, in the middle of the night with that big pack on my back and yummy British boy at my side, only to see the scary Greek men at the ferry terminal waiting for us to get there and making sure we got off the island.) But really, one of the highlights of this epic trip was learning how to make cherry pie from a toothless old woman in some tiny village in Italy.
Having spent a day in Paris, a city I had little affection for and found cold and unwelcoming, I decided to take an overnight train from Paris to Rome. I met a boy on the train. I’m ashamed to say that I no longer remember his name, but he was tall and skinny, with a mop of curly hair and eyes that would seem too small for his lanky frame were it not for their unnatural depth, giving them an enormity that a wiser woman than I was would have spent a lifetime exploring. By the time we pulled into Rome (which ensconced me in wishes and promises the moment we pulled in,) the boy announced that he would be taking me home with him, to his family. This was my first introduction to the sensory indulgence that is Italy. The first time I thought I might actually find the ingredient I was looking for to make my life complete.
His father – like mine – was an architect, and their apartment was everything you would fantasize about. It was large and filled floor to ceiling with evidence of a life lived and loved. Art, books, music, and food. I don’t remember the details of that first meal, except that it lasted for hours and was doled out slowly, the opposite of the dance of the seven veils. One by one the courses arrived and piled on each other, I thought I would burst with glee, even though I had no idea what I was eating. If it had a name, it didn’t matter, I loved it and wanted as much as I could get. Much like the boy.
The boy’s parents left the next day, and we had the place to ourselves. His friends would come over and the days passed in fits and starts of decadent consumption, I was drunk on everything, and a little wine. Eventually, he and I and 4 or 5 of his friends, all went to his family’s country house. I honestly don’t remember the name of the village. It involved two trains, a slow climb through mountains and rested in the cleaving thighs of a local range, in a lush valley filled with orchards, farms and a river in which we all skinny dipped daily. Entire days passed, naked, singing songs, eating salami and cheese, washed down with wine fetched from the giant barrel in someone’s back yard. In the evening we would bathe. I will never forget soaking in a the tub – sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend – and having these beautiful Italian boys bring in pots of hot water that had been heated on the stove and filled with rose petals.
On the second or third day there, the boy came back to the house with a cherry pie. Even with all of the sensory indulgence that had me aglow inside and out, I was blown away by this pie. I felt totally at home in Italy, like it was where I came from in some very deep way. But this pie? This pie was totally foreign to me. It was, I was sure, part of “the key.” I didn’t know how or why, but I knew that this pie mattered.
The boy’s English was very good, but he was a 20 year old boy, and had no idea what made this pie so special. So he took me to the woman who made it. I have no idea who she was, but she was no younger than the trees we swung from by the river, and every bit as elemental to the region. If you told me she was a 400 year-old witch, I would have believed you. If you told me this pie would make me sprout wings and breathe fire, I would have believed you.
I asked her to teach me how to make the pie. And she did. Mind you, there was not a single linguistic word that could be shared between us. Not one. We just made pie together, and I tried like hell to pay attention. Most of the ingredients were things you could easily recognize, and made perfect sense to me. But there was something that I had never seen before. It was in a small, unmarked bottle. I tried to ask her what it was, and she just grinned her toothless grin at me and said, “balsamico.” For all I knew she had just cursed me and I would soon grow hair out my ears. “Balsamico!” She implored, and could tell that I had no idea what she was saying. So she took me into the root cellar and showed me the barrel, with a spigot in it, and put some in a bottle for me. “Balsamico!” She repeated. I had no idea. I had never tasted anything like it. It tasted a bit like vinegar, but vinegar, to me, was either light brown or clear, and came in giant jugs.
Long story short, the cherry pie was made with balsamic vinegar and orange zest.
I make this pie often now. Few things make me as happy, because it reminds me of…. Well, not just the experience of learning it, but of being so willing and able to just go see what life had to offer in the nooks, crannies, barrels and root cellars of other times and places. I miss that about me. I miss the fearlessness and the ability to be sated with anything that life offers me.
I made the pie tonight – with a special twist. If you want to make it, I will share it with you.
A bunch of cherries – 3 bags if you’re buying them frozen, or however many you want. If frozen, thaw them in their bags.
1/2 stick (or so) of butter
The zest and juice of one orange
Balsamic Vinegar – you’ll have to go on taste here, but probably 1/2 bottle or so
Sugar – to taste
Vanilla – not too much
1. Melt the butter in a big skillet. (I use an old cast iron skillet.)
2. Add the zest and juice from the orange and mix until it’s all blended.
3. Add about 1/2 cup of sugar. You may add more later, but you don’t want it to be too sweet, so hold off. Cherries are very sweet, and you’re actually trying to make it less sweet, which is why you’re adding orange zest and vinegar. Cook until it’s dissolved.
4. Add a good pour of balsamic vinegar. Seriously, more than you think – add a bit more after you think it’s got to be enough. Reduce it all down for about 5 minutes on low / medium heat. Taste it. If it isn’t tart, add more vinegar and keep reducing. Keep going until you like the way it tastes. You want a little pucker.
5. If you’re using frozen cherries, open the bags and pour the juice into the mixture on the stove. Not the cherries.
6. Pour the cherries into a big bowl and put in enough flour to coat them all in flour. When they’re all coated, add them to the mixture on the stove. Mix everything together until it starts to bubble again, then remove from heat.
7. Put it all in a pie crust and bake at 375 until it begins to bubble in the middle and the crust is golden brown.
8. Let cool. Enjoy.
When I made this pie tonight, I forgot to make a top crust for it. So, instead, I put butter, brown sugar, almonds and a little flour in a food processor and made an almond crumb topping for it. To die for.
And as a bonus, it made me think of grandma Celia the moment I smelled it. Why? Almonds and cherries. No, she never made this pie, but she always used Jergens lotion when I was growing up, and that classic Jergens smell is cherry & almond. So tonight’s cherry pie was extra special. I thought about calling it Jergens pie, but I just couldn’t make that sound good.