That winter in Paris, I mostly ate like the impoverished student that I was. There were the occasional pain au chocolat binges at brunch, of course, or a rare meal in one of the posher arrondissements. One unforgettable night, the poet Karthika Naïr took me to a Moroccan restaurant where I ate the most divine cous cous, while another evening Professor Joubert from my university bought me Mont Blanc, the exquisite chestnut puree dessert at Angelina’s, while we talked about Vikram Seth. But these were mere starbursts in my otherwise quotidian existence on campus.
In my room at the residence, supermarket stuff lined the cold ledge between the outer and inner glass frames of the corner window: milk, butter, cheese, fruits. Paris was often rainy and miserable in those weeks, the temperature 10 degrees below freezing point, and, on such nights, alternately studying and shivering, I would sit with a book propped up on my knee, eating cold bread slathered with flavoured butter and a cup of tea I’d brewed in a borrowed mug, using the hot water from the faucet in the bathroom.
By then, I had learned how acutely unionised the French were, and if the radiators stopped working over the weekend, we were fated to stay gelid in our cold-cold rooms since no one was going to come and fix them over the holidays. My friend Jenny often held forth on the many privations of student life in France but I bore it stoically. From the time I was a child, the story of Lenin sleeping out in the cold to build character had had powerful impact on me. Also, I just had to close my eyes and be transported to a similar cold studio in Delhi, where my husband was spending the nights writing his book. I felt a sort of austere symmetry in our conditions, the life of the mind that one had so desired. Here it was.
For lunch, Jenny and I would go up to the subsidised cafeteria on campus every day, where, for three euros each, we’d get a hot meal with a substantial main course. The first night, I had mistakenly asked Jenny what one might do for dinner: the Turkish place on campus or cooking over the gas ring back at the residence? “This is Paris, my dear,” Jenny had oracled in response, hands waving in the air, “Women don’t eat dinner here.” We’d chortled in mirth as we walked ahead to hunt for options regardless. It was true that French women ranged from sizes 0 to 4 while Jenny and I were both in the healthy 10 and above category. Since then, we’d improvised our dinners and eaten together.
A pleasant interruption to this routine came in the form of an invitation to go up to a village one weekend. Professor Katia Legeret, under whom I was studying at the time, an exquisite Bharatanatyam dancer and renowned dance scholar, divided her time between Paris, and a village near the little town of Amboise in the Loire Valley, close to the city of Tours, where her parents lived.
It was difficult to not get besotted by Katia. At the age of 18, while still a student of philosophy at Sorbonne, Katia had travelled to India without a plan. Already a keen dancer when she met her guru in Mysuru, it was as though the purpose of her journey had revealed itself. There was no turning back. She threw herself into rigorous sadhana, attending to every little instruction of her guru and even learning Sanskrit. Many years later, when the award-winning Kannada poet and playwright HS Shivaprakash began to advise me on my PhD thesis at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, he suggested that I write to Katia on the off chance that she might be willing to co-supervise my work. And that is, in fact, how I came to be in Paris that winter.
The following weekend, I took the train to central France. The countryside was bleak and wintry, the trees gaunt against ashy skies. I was terrified throughout the journey that I’d miss my station and land up somewhere else and worked myself into a panic. But at the tiny station of Amboise, as I caught sight of Katia waiting for me, my frenzy subsided. I hurtled gratefully towards her, my incongruous long coat flapping in an ungainly fashion. Soon, we were zipping along the most picturesque countryside in Katia’s Renault.
The village was full of sombre stone houses that often seemed empty. Katia’s was a magical two-storey, set in an overgrown garden where a single swing set stood aloof, almost a nostalgic testament to her daughter Gabrielle’s childhood. We sat in the kitchen all afternoon, chatting and drinking tea. While Katia served me slices of quiche and blinis with pate, Gabrielle told me all about the education system in France. When the light that flooded the kitchen became heavy with shadows, Katia dropped us at her mother’s — Gabrielle would study with Bernard, Katia’s stepfather, while I would bake with Tina — and drove off to the city of Tours where she was to lead a dance workshop. And that is how it came to be that evening, while Bernard and Gabrielle went over mathematics in the study, I learned from my professor’s mother — who spoke only a little English — the secret to making the simplest, most soul-satisfying apple tart ever, the Tarte Elbeuf, hearkening back to their northern heritage, while their pet goats bleated and donkeys lowed gently outside, and the scent of winter drifted into the house through the tall chimney.
Devapriya Roy is a Delhi-based writer.
100 gm flour
70 gm + 40 gm sugar (depending on how sweet or tart the apples are)
1 tbs baking powder
2 tbs milk (you could use more depending on the tightness of the dough)
2 tbs olive oil
Cinnamon powder, to taste
2 tbs + 75 gm butter
2 apples, medium-sized
A generous handful of walnuts
*Line the baking tin with paper and pre-heat the oven to 230 degrees Celsius.
*Sift the flour and baking powder together, add 70 gm castor sugar and the cinnamon powder to it.
*Make a puddle in the middle of the dry mixture and break one egg inside.
*Add two tablespoons each of unsalted butter, olive oil and milk and bind it all together into a soft dough. Don’t over-knead it.
*Gently layer it on to the baking pan with your hands or with a rubber spatula.
*Peel, core and chop the apples into tiny pieces. Spread them uniformly on the base.
*Bake it for about 25 minutes. If it begins to brown too quickly, you could cover it with aluminium foil.
*Gently whisk one egg, 75 gm of butter and about 40 gm of sugar together.
*Once the base is ready, throw the walnuts upon the baked apple top and pour the egg-butter-sugar concoction on the tart and bake it for five to 10 minutes, until it is golden brown.