The other day I was catching up on friends’ blogs, and several of them mentioned the scrumptious ripe strawberries of summer. I felt my friends’ joy. I could taste the sweetness shining red.
California summer — at least in the inland valleys — is tawny and dry, a palette of dark greens and golds, and the fading, receding blue-green line of the evaporating lakes and reservoirs, and the blinding blue and white of the sky. Last week Erik and I drove down to Porterville, halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield. Along State Highway 152 and Interstate 5 (the great, boring, four-lane, north-south artery that runs from Canada to Mexico), the hills ripple with a thick coat of dry grasses. From the road’s distance, the landscape appears furred, velvety uniform, sun-heated and dormant, like a lion in the sun. I can almost feel it sighing in slumber.
Photo taken in 2009
On the other hand, on the California coast, summer is all sparkling ocean and the glare of the sun on the water and the grey of rocks seen through tinted lenses. The sun is bright, but the air is cool. In the cities the hipsters stroll with their big sunglasses and their straw hats and their beach-colored accessories, eating organic ice cream and fusion tacos.
Photo taken in 2011
In my first couple of years of college, I acquired, pretty much at the same time, Chez Panisse Fruit and a love for baking. Using recipes in the book, I made many free-form galettes from the summer berries and stone fruits I found at the Berkeley farmers’ market.
In subsequent summers I moved on to pies; one week I think I baked nine — there are still people out there who know me only as a piemaker.
Then, for some reason, for a long time I was not that into summer fruit desserts. I still made pies, but half-heartedly. I was more into cakes, I think, then puddings and custards. Once my sister got me out of bed by reminding me that my chocolate pudding was done chilling and ready to eat.
The fruit desserts are back now. For Father’s Day weekend I baked three shortcakes, and yesterday I made a peach tart. The shortcake recipe came from Saveur. I altered it to use peaches or pluots instead of strawberries, splashing a bit of rum or triple sec into the unpeeled cut fruit, and added a very lightly sweetened whipped cream with a touch of vanilla. All the shortcakes were for guests of honor who can’t eat much sugar, but the fruit was plenty sweet enough. And the giant biscuit is much easier to deal with than a bunch of individual shortcakes.
Summer-fruit gluttony feels so good, as if I were not eating fruit and whipped cream and pastry, but sunshine and clouds and crisp bits of earth. With the harvest so abundant, the fields themselves seem to encourage this voracity. Every time I gulp and suck my way through a ripe peach, I feel like I’m getting away with something.