Monday, July 13, 2009

Fresh from the tree.

When I was 15, I spent the summer in France.

We (by which I mean a group of about 20 high school kids and a few brave teachers) started in the south, gradually making our way to Paris via Nice, Cannes, Avignon, Montpellier, the Gorges du Tarn and the Loire Valley. Most of the eight weeks were spent in various hostels, where we breakfasted on baguettes smeared with butter and jam, washed down with latte bowls brimming with chocolat chaud. We took language classes in the mornings and spent the afternoons seeing the sights.

That summer, I tasted my first Roquefort cheese (in a cave on the side of a Roquefort hill, no less), fell in love with perfume at Fragonard, kissed a boy on a dark beach in Nice, ate tarte tropézienne while walking down a cobblestone street in Saint-Tropez, and tasted my first Berthillon glace on the Île Saint-Louis.

Every single moment of that summer was memorable, but one sun-bleached afternoon in Provence stands out from the others.

Our two weeks in Montpellier were spent on homestays; we met our host families at the American students' center and fanned out around the city, nerves jangling. My family lived in a suburb about twenty minutes from the center of town, which was exactly as bland as it sounds. Over the weekend, we drove out into the country to visit my host mother's family at their farm in southern Provence.

All week, my family had been talking about the pool. "La piscine, la piscine": it was all I heard about for seven whole days. You can imagine my disappointment when la piscine turned out to be an inflatable kiddie pool - one that measured 10 feet across, fair enough, but a kiddie pool nonetheless.

Far more exciting to me was the farm itself. My host mother's brother took me on a tour of the fields, the enclosure where they kept the goats, and, finally, the cherry orchard. Acre upon acre of rich Provencale hillside planted with endless rows of cherry trees. I'd never been much of a cherry fan, having been raised by a mother who favored strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. But that day changed everything.

After the tour, while my family lounged in the pool, I walked back to the orchard and stood in the cool shade of the cherry trees. Their sweet, rich fragrance was overwhelming in the heat of the afternoon sun. The branches were dripping with ripe fruit almost ready for the season's largest harvest, which would happen over the next few days.

While I stood there, a cherry fell off a branch and fell to the ground in front of my feet. I picked it up; it was heavy with juice and piping hot from the sun. I popped it into my mouth and savored the scarlet juice and soft flesh of the cherry. Its flavor was complex - sweet, tangy and rich all at once, the juice stained my fingertips pink and dyed my lips crimson. I picked a handful more and ate them slowly, standing in the orchard, under the deep blue French sky.

To this day, I prefer my cherries warm, and leave them - by the bowlful - on my windowsill for a little while before devouring them. It helps recapture a tiny bit of that stolen moment, if only for a short time.

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