The perfect strawberry tart

Just finished reading an extraordinary essay by Rosecrans Baldwin, one of the founding editors of The Morning News. In it, he details a gluttonous, soused weekend in Paris, taking a few detours along the way to discuss cholesterol, bilingual children, conceptual art and the difference between a cocotte and culottes.

Good food writing should make the reader hungry and after savouring his article, I am ravenous and suddenly have a desperate need to go back to Paris, like I won’t be happy if I’m not on a plane there in the next 24 hours.

I lived in Paris once, just for a few months when I was 19, naive and terrified and brave all at the same time. My apartment was a typical high-ceilinged three-roomed unit in the 14th arrondissement, sublet from a kindly lesbian teacher who had gone to India to do charity work there for the summer.

The apartment was directly over a boulangerie/patisserie and I woke each morning enveloped in the decent, homely smell of freshly baked bread. When I swung my feet from the bed, the floorboards were warm from the ovens below. Anywhere I’ve lived in Ireland seems prosaic in comparison.

The truly Parisian thing about it was that the two ladies who worked in the boulangerie, wiry little things, never once gave me the slightest indication that they recognised me, although I went in almost every day.

In the morning, I would get some bread or a tarte aux raisins – a fruit danish, as we call them – but my real treat was to stop off once a week or so for one of their heartrendingly good tartes aux fraises. My commute from work involved a bus, an RER train and two Metro lines, not to mention avoiding the amorous advances of some hobo or lowlife, which often had to be done on the Metro.

So I would reward myself with a strawberry tart. I think a small one was about 25 francs. I couldn’t really afford it but it was worth every centime, the buttery pastry base filled with creamy, gelatinous custard, topped with strawberry halves and finished with apricot glaze.

This being Paris, the ladies didn’t just hand you the tart with a napkin or shove it into a paper bag but took as much care to package it as a jeweller might with a diamond-encrusted necklace.

They made up a little box from pink and gilt card, lined it with paper, nestled the tart inside, covered it with more paper, closed the box, sealed it and tied the whole with thin pink ribbon, running the blades of a scissor along the ends of the ribbon so they sat in fat pink ringlets on top of the box. They covered the knot in the ribbon with a gold sticker.

This was done so carefully and deliberately that it was all I could do stand by patiently and not grab the half-packaged tart, dump the money on the counter and run upstairs to devour it in lewdly indecent haste.

When the package was finally bestowed on me, I would take it upstairs, place it on the coffee table and force myself to eat some salad or bread and cheese or anything that could be counted as dinner. When you live on your own, you develop these odd routines of delaying gratification to fill the evenings. 

When I did go to eat the tart, I really tried so hard not to rush and strove to relish every glorious mouthful. It would be still be gone in a flash and I was left with the empty box, torn ribbons, crumbs all down my shirt and my lips sticky with strawberry juice and apricot glaze.

Just thinking about it, I am famished and I want to crumple in a tantrum because there is nothing to eat in this house that would be a fraction as good as one of those tartes. Ah well, Paris isn’t going anywhere, I guess.


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