With a Cherry on Top

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMountains of cherries at the market these days. They are labeled by variety–Burlat, Montmorency, Bigarreau, coeur de pigeon (yes, pigeon’s heart), Napoleon, Van–and by origin–Spain, France, or, more specifically, surrounding villages like Caunes-Minervois. A lot of cherries, especially the early ones, come from Céret, south of Carcassonne. Actually, it’s also south of Perpignan, right near the border with Spain.cherries closeCéret has several claims to fame. Cherries, to be sure. It is in the foothills of the Pyrénées, in the neighboring department of Pyrénées-Orientales, in a little protected valley that has a very mild microclimate. Hence the early cherries, a crate of which is sent to the French president.

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Lots of arches!

It also was the capital of the Catalan county of Vallespir, back before this area became part of France in 1659. Even today, there’s a Spanish flavor to the region. Although official borders are delineated down to the centimeter, in reality, countries–cultures–overlap, and you pass from one to another not by hopping over a line but in a progression, like ombre colors, with the intensity deepening the farther you go. Especially here, where borders have moved so many times, and where people have moved even more.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn example of Céret’s Spanish–or, really, Catalan–heritage is its feria, with running of bulls and bullfights every July (11-15 this year). The modern feria was started in 1980, but records of the practice date to the 1500s, when the celebration was held in September for the feast of Saint Ferréol. Never heard of him? I know the name only by the reservoir that feeds the Canal du Midi. I looked him up and found this site, which warns, “Don’t mix up your Ferréols!” Who knew this could be a problem with such an uncommon name? Saint Ferréol was born in Vienne in the 3rd century. Though he doesn’t seem to have visited Céret, there’s a chapel dedicated to him just outside town, with crutches of the miraculously healed hanging on the walls.

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Narrow streets!!!

Céret is a small town of around 8,000 inhabitants, but it became an important center for Cubism. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque moved there in 1911. Soon their friends joined–Raoul Dufy, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Juan Gris, André Masson and others. The little town lost in the mountains became a refuge for Marc Chagall and several other artists fleeing the Nazis during World War II. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1950, Picasso and Henri Matisse helped establish the Museum of Modern Art in Céret. Besides those painters, the museum also has works by Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and many of the artists who have stayed in Céret over the years, like Chagall and Masson.124.Street in CeresCéret is another pleasant day trip from Carcassonne–about an hour and a half drive. It’s a little place, and even with a visit to the museum, you have time to include a stop at the beach.

 

Calçots

on grillFew things are easier on the grill than onions.

You can just throw them on, without doing anything. No cleaning. No preparation. Take onions, place on hot grill, wait. Then you cut them in half and scoop out the caramelized insides. We discovered this many years ago at Le Moulin restaurant in Trèbes, near Carcassonne, realized the sheer brilliance of its simplicity and have been employing it since.

cookedJust south of the border, the Catalanes also do onions, namely spring onions called calçots, that are like giant scallions. The calçot capital, Valls, Spain, even has a Gran Fiesta de la Calçotada. But you don’t have to go to Spain to get in on the goodness of grilled onions. You can do it at home.

Any old green onions will do. You can wash off the dirt, but it isn’t a must–that part gets peeled off later anyway. Put the onions on a hot grill.

When they’re done, wrap them in newspaper, which keeps them hot until they’re eaten, and the steam helps the outer layer peel away from the caramelized inside. Put the peelings in the newspaper for easy cleanup.

 

Dip your peeled calçot in romesco sauce (make the sauce ahead or else your calçots will be cold!). Tilt your head back and lower it in into your mouth like a sword swallower. Don’t forget to chew, though.

While the grill is still warm, roast some peppers for your next round of romesco sauce. Trust me, you’ll want more.

romesco

There are lots of recipes for romesco, which could be considered a Spanish red pepper version of pesto. I wouldn’t sweat the details too much. More/less pepper? More/fewer almonds? More/less garlic? It’s all good.

3-4 red peppers (you could use already-roasted ones from a jar)

1/2 cup almonds (a handful, or two!). Slivered, whole, whatever, as long as there’s no skin.

1-2 cloves of garlic (or 3-4 if you want!)

1-2 tablespoons tomato concentrate (one of those tiny cans)

1/4-1/2 cup olive oil

A hit of Jerez (sherry) vinegar

piment d’Espelette or cayenne, if you want a kick

Cut and clean the peppers. Roast. Put them in a paper or plastic bag (I prefer paper, but I’ve seen both ways) to make them easier to cool, which you do once they’re cool.

Toast the almonds in a skillet. No need for oil. Keep an eye on them that they don’t burn.

Throw everything into a blender or food processor and purée.

I had two lonely sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, and added them, using the olive oil from the jar. Why not?

Should you have leftover romesco, it won’t be around for long. You can use it on pasta, on bread, on potatoes, as a vegetable dip, on meat, on fish. It’s so yummy.