Delicious in Tarts

Delicious in Tarts

A Story of Poison and Haunted Houses

Two years ago I visited one of my favourite places in the whole world, Provence. There is something about the countryside there, the light, the earth, that evokes a little bit of magic, like ancient history is just around the corner if you know how to look. I understand why so many artists through the ages have been drawn to the area: it’s gorgeous.

To make our trip extra special, we added in some spooky. Seriously, the place we stayed in was so haunted. It was old, ancient, with WAAAAY too many staircases and corridors that should have connected but didn’t. It was insane. My family slept in the attic, where dolls came alive at night (probably). And in the cellar, there was a stone room for an au-pair or nanny attached to the kitchen, where I am certain something sad happened; you could feel it in the walls.

Also, one of the best things about Provence is the food that grows … everywhere. It drips off of the trees, produce practically falls into your hands. You could have a lunch just be walking through the woods and eating what you find.

But this did get me thinking about foraging. I have a weird phobia about eating food that hasn’t been vetted by my grocery store (possibly since I ate a nightshade when I was little, thinking it was a blueberry). But, how do people know what fruit is safe to eat? Don’t even get me started on mushrooms! In France, pharmacists are trained to know what mushrooms are edible or not, so you can pop in after you forage to see if they’ll kill you or not. A neat little bit of training.

All to provide some setting for this weird little story I wrote in that cellar, inspired by the French countryside, the seasonal food, and the pervading feeling of dread in this haunted house. It is a story about family and poison.

Apple tart tatin
Not-poisoned apple tarte tatin

In honour of this story, I went on the hunt for some fresh figs to make a tart for my family. But I couldn’t find any in Calgary! One thing I miss from my life in Geneva is the plentiful seasonal fruit that’s just not available in the Canadian prairies for obvious climactic reasons. But then, I reflected, based on the story’s content, it would be kinda messed up to serve my family fig tarts anyways. So I settled for an apple tarte tatin. (I didn’t get a shot of the cooked tart, as it was devoured that fast, but trust me it was good. For the recipe, check out here. Beautiful and delicious!)

Delicious in Tarts, by Cordelia Kelly

Illustrated figs

“Today we are going to hunt for truffles,” Maman pronounced with a gleeful clap of her hands.

Papa glanced up from the paper he was reading, one eyebrow arched. “What do you know about hunting truffles?”

Simon squinted at his father from over his cereal. His tone was accusing, but he was laughing with his eyes, so that was all right.

Maman drew herself up in mock offence. “I know plenty enough. My family came from this region and grew their own food on this land. They knew everything there was to know about foraging. That kind of thing runs in the blood.” She gave a knowing nod.

Papa snorted. “I’m pretty sure you need a pig for truffle hunting.”

Shelley stifled a giggle and exchanged a glance with Simon. He grinned, warmed by her attention. He and his older sister used to be inseparable, but he could see that time was coming to an end. She hunched over half a grapefruit, perched on the brink of womanhood. Shelley was set to start her next level of schooling at the end of the month, across the city from him. Simon missed her already.

Late summer light angled into the morning room of their rented holiday house, on the edge of the Luberon Valley, a place from where his Maman claimed her heritage but rarely visited. Their trip had more pressing goals than reconnecting with ancient roots, though it went unspoken. Each knew in their own way of the dangers encroaching on their domestic situation. Raised voices and sarcastic comments had become the norm in their household. Simon, at the age of seven, was aware this was a last-ditch effort to save a family.

“I would like to go truffle hunting,” Simon said, solemnly setting aside his bowl.

“Then pigs we shall be,” Papa said.

It was midday by the time they ventured into the nearby forest. The golden sunlight dappled through the foliage, burnishing the leaves. It was dry; each footprint set up a puff of dust.

Maman marched forward, leading them while making no real effort to unearth truffles. She endured their teasing with grace. “This is a juniper bush,” she said, gesturing to flora like a wilderness guide.

Papa, having lost his rigidity along with his suit, tromped through the woods. “What this search party needs are some pigs!” And he snorted, chasing after Simon and Shelley. Shelley forgot she wasn’t a child and shrieked in delight as she scampered away. When Papa grabbed Simon and lifted him up, the leaves spun above his head like a living kaleidoscope. Papa then chased after Maman, and she let him catch her behind a tree. Simon, flushed, beamed at them.

A crow cawed sharply, startling Simon. The bird rooted through the forest floor with its beak, glossy feathers covering its lithe body. It peered at Simon with beady black eyes and cawed again.

“Oh, look!” Maman said. “This day isn’t lost after all. A fig tree! I can make tarts with these. I’m sure I saw a recipe for that somewhere in the house.”

She began to pick some low-hanging fruit. When Simon went to eat one of the juicy orbs, she stopped him with a gentle hand over his. “Save them for the tarts.”

The party returned to the house triumphant, a basket of figs in hand. Maman set to baking the promised tarts in a flour-dusted whirl, making them wait through dinner. She finally produced them with a proud flourish.

Each tasted the tart and paused.

“It just needs a little more sugar,” Maman said. She sprinkled a generous share on each and then took a big bite. “That’s more like it,” she said with a nod.

Each closed their eyes as they consumed the dripping sweetness, save Simon, who watched each of their beloved faces as he chewed and thought it had been a very fine summer day.

Then his brow creased. “I have a tummy ache,” he said.

 “Today, we are going to hunt for truffles,” Maman announced.

“What do you know about truffle hunting?” Papa asked.

Simon gazed at the faces sitting around him at the table, each of them so dear. He squinted, a sense of familiarity not sitting quite right. “I would like to go truffle hunting.”

“Then pigs we shall be,” Papa said.

Maman startled visibly. Her brows pulled together, and she stared at Papa.

“What?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, then laughed. “I just got a chill. I believe someone walked over my grave.”

The hike through the forest was marvellous. Simon was in seven-year-old glory, turning over rocks to discover what lay beneath, getting hands, face and knees thoroughly dirty without a care in the world. Even prim Shelley shrieked with giggles when Papa chased her snorting like a pig through the brush.

A crow cawed then, spooking Simon. The crow stared directly at him with glittering eyes, cocking his head then cawing again. He dug with his sharp beak in the rich loamy earth and pulled out a squirming centipede.

“Look! Figs!” his mother called. “I can make tarts!”

That night, as they consumed their sugary treats, Simon regarded each of the members of his family with great devotion.

Shelley returned his smile, then frowned. “Maman, I don’t feel very good.”

 “Today we are going to hunt for truffles,” Maman pronounced.

“What do you know about truffle hunting?” Papa asked.

Simon looked at his parents and wondered why his skin crawled. “I would like to go truffle hunting.”

As they bounded through the forest, Simon took extra care with each step. He had a sense something was off, as if the sun was too bright, or he didn’t fit into his skin right. He stared when a centipede crawled past the toe of his boot.

“What’s wrong with you?” Shelley came up behind him and jostled his shoulder. He looked up at her smiling face, all her pretension wiped away with the joy of the day.

A crow cawed then.

Simon swivelled to it, blood draining from his face. Gooseflesh crawled up his arms as the crow contemplated him, consuming the centipede, and Simon remembered. Clutching cramping bellies, moaning. Disappearing, over and over again. Comprehension dawned.

“Look! Figs!”

Simon jerked forward.

“No! Wait!” He stumbled to his mother, arm outstretched. He saw her, flushed and happy in his father’s arms as she reached for the figs that weren’t figs.

“What is it, my love?” She gave him the weight of her full attention, truly seeing him. She held a fig towards him.

Simon paused, then smiled. “I bet those would be delicious in tarts.”

Fig tart

Do you like creepy stories? Check out my award-winning story Unfreeze, about two young women alone in their cabin during a snow storm.

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