I know that the calendar says that summer is behind us. I know that the evening temperatures, as well as Paris’ dark mornings, are trying to tell me that fall is here. But, to put it bluntly, I loathe fall. It’s not just that I don’t want to let the heat and light of summer go. I need to hold on to both — the heat and the light — as long as possible, so I can get myself through the long gray winter and come out the other side.
I’ve probably loathed fall since I got too old to jump in mountains of raked leaves, or at least since I stopped raking them in exchange for pocket money. Worse yet, autumn leaves in Paris, and indeed in most of the world, bear no resemblance to New England leaves, bring no recompense in the way of color and spectacle. Most of them just turn brown and then browner, until one day a driving rain comes and rakes them off the trees, clogging gutters and sidewalks, until the city’s army of street cleaners sweeps them up and out of sight.
Apart from the happy kitchen chaos of Thanksgiving and childhood memories of Halloween, autumn has always been a tough season for me. No surprise then that I’ll do anything I can to keep it at bay.
This year, I’ve managed to hang on to summer longer than usual. That’s thanks to the generosity of our neighbors down in the country, about four hours southwest of Paris, and our neighborhood farmers market, which runs every Saturday morning near the Place de Clichy.
Before we headed back to Paris a couple of weekends ago, our neighbors left us a big, heavy box of vine-ripened tomatoes, neatly packed and three deep. Each tomato was misshapen, some smooth, others deeply ridged, but all were dark red and seriously ripe, with skin so thin and fragile I could peel them without a knife, just using my thumbnail. One bite, and I was transported back to my paternal grandparents’ garden in Connecticut, where they grew more than enough of the world’s tastiest tomatoes to make puree to last an entire year, not to mention extraordinary tomato salads dressed with red onion, parsley, oil, and vinegar.
I’ve made endless tomato salads since we got back to Paris three weeks ago, and turned the mushier tomatoes into a vat of pasta sauce that’s already in the freezer. I’ve stuffed them too — halving, then scooping out all the seeds and juice, then letting them drain on paper towels while I chop up stale bread, and flavor it with minced parsley and garlic, salt, pepper, dried basil and olive oil, then mounding the stuffing into the halves. I bake them for 20 minutes in a 375 degree oven, and nless I’ve been careful to make enough so that they’re easily divisible by the number of people at the table, we fight over how many we get to eat.
The farmers market on the Boulevard des Batignolles has been doing its best to keep autumn at arm’s length too. I try to get there early, before most of our neighbors are stirring, and this year I’ve managed to time it right week after week, so that when I get to my favorite farm stand, they haven’t yet sold out of my favorite summer gift: fat bunches of big-leafed basil, deeply green and redolent with the smell that makes it the king of herbs (its name is said to come from the Greek word basilikos or kingly).
Each week I’ve been coming home with two bunches, which I quickly turn into pesto by tossing the leaves into my food processor along with a half a cup of olive oil, a couple of big cloves of garlic, two tablespoons of pine nuts, and a teaspoon of salt. Once processed, I stir in a couple of tablespoons of very soft butter and a quarter cup each of Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses. I always think I’ll freeze it for winter, to be ready for when we’re all in dire need of summer vitamins and summer taste, but week after week we manage to eat every drop of it, on fresh tagliatelle or on orecchiette, a pasta that looks a bit like its name — little ears.
As long as that box of tomatoes out on our front balcony lasts, as long as that basil is still on sale, I feel at ease pretending it’s still summer. This morning I checked on the contents of the box. We’re down to the last two tomatoes, both of them looking seriously over-ripe, and I’m not at all convinced I’ll find basil making an appearance again on Saturday.
That will mean that my pretend summer is likely to be ending soon. Come to think of it, it’s probably already gone: I made my first rib-sticking batch of polenta this week, the first since a very chilly night early last spring. And truth be told, it tasted nearly as good as the pesto…