“Imagine you are holding something in the palm of your hand. A cup of tea. Now tip it out onto the grass.”
“What? Why would I do that?”
“It’s not good tea… PG Tips? No, Lipton. And it’s cold, tip it out. Now pretend it’s a sponge, squeeze it out. Good. As you extend your arm, turn your hand and squeeze the sponge at the last minute. Imagine there is a leaf between your elbow and your side. Actually,” he chose the largest vine leaves from the terrace, “here. Keep it close to your body, as long as possible.”
As my flatmate Emma had requested, my brother was teaching us karate, starting with a basic punch.
“Now step forward at the same time. Good.”
Our vine leaves floated down to the ground, over and over. Step. Step. The grass under my bare feet was slightly damp in the evening air.
My mother had a project for us too, also for late afternoon when the sun was low over the fields. She roped us into building an outdoor bread oven, following a rough recipe. Reluctant to surface from my summer reading list, I soon discovered that it wasn’t so much hard labour as child’s play: making sandcastles and mud pies. With the same satisfaction of constructing a perfect dome of lemon cream over a lemon tart, we made a smooth dome of wet sand, then plastered it with damp newspapers (pictures of Wills and Kate, also “en vacances dans le Gers!” the local paper was excited to announce).
Then the mud and straw from the nearby field had to be stamped with water and more sand to make it pliable. Like grapes for wine, tougher. We started with garden clogs on, but it turned out to be easier to do so without, the mud squishing between our toes as it softened. My mother and I stamped and stomped and squished around in little circles. Finally the hard rubble (interspersed with dangerous pieces of terracotta roof tile) became smooth, the same plasticity as a butter slab beaten and moulded into shape for croissant dough. My brother supervised the construction of the clay layer, built up in balls squashed into a rough wall.
“About the size of cricket balls,” my mother said.
“Not a cultural reference I know,” Emma replied, a smile in her voice.
The cricket balls spiralled up and around, covering the English royal family and more local news of cows and tractors and shooting stars. When smooth, the dome looked like an old fashioned beehive. It reminded me of trying out wattle and daub on a school trip, ancient building techniques. The first layer complete, the mud now covered my hands and feet and stomach, somehow. Better than a spa, an exfoliating mud mask.
“We should sell this as an expensive retreat, mindfulness and oven building!”
The sun was almost gone by then, and we had empanadas to prepare. So we left the second layer and the carving out of the door for another day, and rinsed off the mud.
The empanadas were Emma’s idea. She wanted to make a nice gesture, a thank-you, on her last evening. All the more so since we accidentally told her what my mother had said about house guests.
“Like fish, after three days, they start to go off.”
My brother tried to make it better by adding, “but you are family really, more like Christmas cake. You can stick around for a month.”
She thought it was funny, I think, since she knows my anti-social tendencies. And because, equivalent to the cricket ball remark, in France, the bûche de Noël stays fresh for a day or two at best.
Her father sent us a picture of a faded newspaper cutting, their family recipe. Her mother was from Chile; she and her sister have spent time there and in Argentina, both of which make empanadas of varying sizes and fillings. She deciphered the sparse instructions for me, a cup of this, a small spoon that, mix, rest, roll. I made the pastry, unsure if the cold butter and warm milk would cancel each other out. But,
“It smells right,” Emma said. She was frying onions and finely diced beef, grilling red peppers, before adding cumin and chilli, a homegrown tomato, a handful of raisins. Then I rolled out the dough, stamped out handspan circles with a small, white bowl, while she added the filling, folded the rounds into half moons and crimped the edges, from the corners first, fold, press, fold, press. My brother brushed the little parcels with beaten egg. They could have been miniature Cornish pasties, or enormousgyoza. Choose your own cultural reference. Half were roasted pumpkin (from the garden) and a strong, melty goat’s cheese, the other half beef and peppers and a slice of boiled egg, The latter had sun’s rays drawn out with a knife point, in the manner of a galette des rois.
We ate our baked empanadas on the terrace, under the vines, next to the half finished mud oven. There was a meaty red wine from the Gers to mimic an Argentinian one and no need for cutlery.
N.B. No recipe today, because I don’t consider myself an expert yet. I wanted to tell the story anyway, to make a list of all of the imagery we used across our lessons and constructions. So much of recipe writing is hitting on the right simile / metaphor that will ring true for the reader. Not to be poetic, but to be explicitly clear. It looks like, smells like, feels like this.
We did compare a few recipes on line to see if they were similar to Emma’s family one. They were the same, and subtly different, in the way that everyone’s Chilean grandmother has her own special method. And yet they were not so difficult, especially with company. I highly recommend having a go. The fillings can be improvised according to your fridge or garden. The roast pumpkin and goat’s cheese (nothing more than that) was particularly good. And they reheated nicely for lunches and snacks later on.