My best friend in Detroit is no longer taking my calls.
This is mostly because the weather is beautiful here in Southwestern France. The last time I spoke with him, a couple weeks ago, Michigan was inundated with snow. I asked him to speak up because the songbirds were chirping too loudly outside. I tried to console him with complaints about the grass growing too long in the garden, and about the brief, dramatic hailstorm during my duck cookery class (which didn’t faze the Swedish students at all).
As it happens here in March and early April, the weather is fickle on an hourly basis. One might experience simultaneous and conflicting conditions of being — sun and popcorn clouds out one window, blue-black skies out the other. Mini-tempests that smite only your garden with gigantic hailstones and branch-cracking winds while your neighbor’s cat calmly grooms himself on their sunny terrace.
I told my friend how my French teacher taught me the poetic and descriptive meteorological term “Les Giboulées de Mars” (“The Hail-Showers of March”) while we were hurtling through rolling hills of Gascony in her chestnut-colored Mini Cooper Clubman. (Yes, now I take my French lessons on the way to private tours of local attractions like the museum of blue dye.) My complaining didn’t cheer him up at all. But the final blow was the cherry blossom report.
The tree in question had been in bloom for over a week by the time I finally got my act together. I’d been stalking its blossoms for years with every visit to The Kitchen at Camont, the cooking school run by my best friend in France in a paradise of her own creation. (As you might have guessed, there are many advantages to being me.) . Each spring, my timing was just a little off to harvest the blossoms: two years ago, I was moving house; last year I was killing a pig (well, not me, but the pig I had adopted for my ongoing art project, This Little Piggy, was sent to the abattoir).
This year, I informed my Detroit friend, I had set up residence in a room with a view of the cherry trees, determined not to miss the peak bloom. Each morning I woke and opened the windows to the tree. Each morning more flowers blossomed until the tree billowed into a light pink cloud under the topsy-turvy March skies. And each day, just as I’d worked up a sweat pulling up this or that from last year’s garden, that cruel slate sky and slap of winter wind would send me rushing inside to the comfort of the wood stove in the old kitchen, where, hypnotized by the flames, I all but lost hope of winter ever leaving.
And then, I woke up one morning to see that the grass (which insists on growing despite the dank cold each night) was blanketed with flower petals — deep enough, if they were snowdrifts, to call a snow day in France. Losing no time, I found a pair of extendable pruning clippers and a stepladder and set to work. Climbing into the branches of light pink blossoms, I was transported by their delicate, sweet scent. I filled a basket. Flower petals clung to my hair, face, shoulders and hands. I looked up at the sky through the branches and thought of Van Gogh’s paintings of almond blossoms and of Hokusai’s prints. I remembered that time as a child when we visited Washington DC to view the Japanese cherry blossoms.
This was the moment my friend’s Modine heater kicked on with a roar. He had me on speakerphone. He was expecting single digit temperatures in a day or two. He had mid-term papers to grade. I could hear his sullenness quietly converting to brooding resentment. I should have changed the subject to the new exhibit in Amsterdam featuring Van Gogh’s collection of Japanese art.
I shouldn’t have told him how I stuffed a two-liter jar with the rain-washed, pale pink petals, then topped it up with clear fruit alcohol (basically vodka made from local fruit), or how the next day the Swedish cooking students kept opening the jar for another sniff, or how the fumes smelled like an angel had eaten handfuls of sweet almonds and cherries then blown you a kiss. By the time I told him about the sakura champagne cocktails we had for Easter brunch, he had fallen into a deep, silent hole.
If he would answer my calls, I’d be able to tell him about the second batch of petals I harvested last week from the double-blossoming cherry trees on the path to my friend’s canal barge. I pickled these. The Japanese way. Another the advantage of being me is that my friend’s cooking school has three kitchens, one of which became the sakura kitchen for a week.
“A normal artist would just take a picture of the tree and be done,” my Camont Kitchen friend laughed as I laid out hundreds of blossoms individually on torchons (large tea towels). Every horizontal surface of the kitchen was covered with mats of drying pickled cherry blossoms.
If he would answer my calls, I’d tell my friend in Detroit how we grew annoyed with the perfume that filled the teaching kitchen. I would list the various, tiresome ways we’ve consumed the eau-de-vie and pickled flowers: in cocktails, cakes, savory warm riceballs, sweet mochi, vinaigrette, and anywhere you might use a caper or a splash of bright pink.
Maybe he’ll call me after he’s finished shoveling out his car from the last snowfall. Then I might try to tell him that I never wanted to see another, drink another, eat another cherry blossom again. But he would know I was lying.
Cherry Blossom Eau-de-Vie
1 cherry tree in bloom
1 – 2 liters flavorless 80 proof alcohol (vodka or Alcools pour Fruits)
2 liter glass jar with lid
Pick a very large quantity of cherry blossoms — about 1 kg. Stuff all the cherry blossoms into the jar. Fill with alcohol. Cover and set aside for three to five days. Strain/decant the resulting extraction into a bottle. Discard the remaining flower pulp.
This eau-de-vie can be used anywhere one might use bitters in cocktails or vanilla extract in cooking or baking.
Preserved Cherry Blossoms
Rain-washed cherry blossoms (double blossom variety) and leaves
Fruit or rice vinegar (6% acidity)
Large glass jar
On a kitchen scale, weigh your cherry blossoms and leaves. Take this number and divide it by four. This is the amount of salt by weight you will use.
Separate the blossoms by snipping the stems where they attach to each other. Sprinkle each blossom with a little salt and place in layers in the jar. Top with a few layers of leaves also sprinkled with salt. Place the ziplock bag inside the jar and fill with enough water that it acts as a heavy pillow, and seal.
Over the next two days the salt will draw out moisture from the flowers, and a brine will form. Drain off the brine and reserve. Dump out the flowers into a bowl, shake out the loose salt from each blossom, and replace the blossom in the jar. Top with the leaves. Pour enough fruit vinegar to immerse the contents. Weigh it down with ziplock water pillow. This step pickles the blossoms and sets their color.
After two days, pour off the vinegar and reserve for other purposes.* Dump out the flowers into a wide bowl.
Now you must engineer some drying mats using noncorrosive materials. I used very fine, loose-weave French torchon (#becausefrance) on plastic drying mats (#becausecookingschool). You could use several layers of cheesecloth on bamboo sushi mats – be creative.
Pick up each blossom by the stem, shake off the vinegar and arrange it on the torchon.
Dry the flowers undisturbed for several days until they are leathery.
Pack in small, lidded jars in either salt or sugar. Good for at least a year, stored in the fridge.
*I use the resulting salty vinegar to flavor and color sushi rice, or to sprinkle on fish or cucumbers.
Sakura Champagne Cocktail
Drop a sugar cube into a glass of the sparkling wine of your choice. Top with a spoonful of Sakura Eau-de-Vie. Garnish with fresh cherry blossom or pickled sakura.
Stir equal parts gin, homemade sweet vermouth, and Sakura Eau-de-Vie with ice until well chilled. Strain into coupe glass. Garnish with three pickled sakura.