Pictures of one kind or another usually flood the memory when some favorite food of youth is injected into a conversation. Take strawberries, for example. To my American friends I find they bring vivid pictures of the grassy lawn near a country church and tables spread for the annual June supper party called, because of its ambrosial finale, a strawberry festival. The mammoth portions of home-baked shortcake, light and flaky, with a crust a bit on the crunchy side, had to be served, they tell me, in large, deep plates that could hold the rosy abundance of fresh-picked, juicy, chopped, and sweetened berries and all the whipped cream that was lavishly spooned over. All this has been described to me in various ways, but I still have to meet even one person who has recaptured in the big city his small-boy thrill with its savory memories of shortcake gorged at a June strawberry festival.
For me, the woodland strawberries, called les fraises des bois, will always roll back the years to spring in a little French town and my first rencontre with romance. May was le mois des fraises because spring came early to our Bourbonnais countryside. By April the tender green that March puts into shoots and leaves had already deepened, and when May arrived the fields outside the village were lush and blue with violets and all the bordering forests thickly strewn with muguet, lily of the valley, and ripening fraises des bois.
Our berries were somewhat larger than the wild strawberries I have had in this country, and more fragrant and flavorful, too, unless my memory, like that of nostalgic Americans seeking shortcake as delectable as that of the strawberry festival, tricks me into thinking so. I feel sure, though, that anyone who has eaten French fraises des bois cannot forget how luscious they were. The French themselves have affectionately called them la petite reine des desserts, the little queen of desserts, and city housewives waited impatiently for them to appear in the markets while their country neighbors just as impatiently went through the forests watching for the first bright red spots to show through the green.
Les fraises des bois grew profusely in the part of France where I was raised. But they had to be picked, of course. So picking them was a popular spring chore for children and a way for any enterprising youngster to turn capitalist. We would offer, presumably as a gift, a basket of berries not needed at home, to a neighbor who had no children of her own to go berry-picking, knowing the least reward would be a copper sou. And those sous, valued even then at less than an American penny, seemed a fortune to us.
La maman Dumont, my mother's good friend, an elderly widow and the town modiste, was the neighbor I liked to supply. She could use plenty of berries because she always had four or five young girls chez elle who were learning the dressmaking trade, country girls in their teens whose parents paid her the customary two hundred francs for a year or more of apprenticeship. They lived with her under an almost conventlike discipline, were well fed, their colds carefully nursed, and no departures allowed from Sunday devotions at the early Mass. A busy, happy household, as overflowing with the bright exuberance of youth as with the bright silks la maman brought back from a trip to Lyons. When I was about seven, Elise, an especially pretty and vivacious girl, was my favorite. At my knock she would drop her sewing, open the door, and almost fall over me in a bubbling kind of ecstasy.
“Cest le petit Louis, maman Dumont,” she'd say as though I were a heaven-sent messenger. “Il a des fraises des bois; et won Dieu, quelles fraises, comme elles sont belles et fraiches; quelle fragrance, comme le parfum de Grasse! Oh, maman Dumont, est-ce que nous pouvons les prendre?”
La maman would have taken the strawberries anyway; she liked them as much as the girls did, and she was my mother's friend, too. Then Elise would swoop down to kiss me on both cheeks and perhaps smack my petit derrière, all very embarrassing to a shy seven-year-old, although maybe I liked the performance, at that. What la maman did not know was that Elise began to slip notes in my hand for Jules, son of our village boulanger, who delivered his father's bread when la maman Dumont didn't go to market herself. Elise and Jules first opened my eyes to romance as I would watch them with well-concealed intent find seats in church where each could catch the other's eye and then snatch a few meaningful words as they mingled in the crowd outside.
My black hair and slightly pugnacious, so they tell me, ways as a child had not much in common with the blond, angel-faced cupids I've seen pictured. But trotting down to the boulangerie for the message from Jules, getting another one from him when I delivered my strawberries, topped with a handful of muguet and violets, and, not the least of my accomplishments, keeping my mouth shut, must have made up for other lacks. At any rate, the bans for the marriage were posted that summer, and, as soon as the harvest was over, Elise's mother was deciding which chickens should be killed for the wedding party. And for my part as Cupid, Jules always seemed to have bonbons in his pocket for me when I went to buy bread for my mother. Mais oui, strawberries bring back pictures to me, too, but of a dark-haired, vivacious girl, a village boulangerie, and l'amour in a small French town.
In Vichy, which was not far from my home town, the market gardeners cultivated la petite reine des desserts, and the result was a berry with the same delicacy and fragrance as the wild ones but a little larger in size. They were a specialty of the hotels of that famous watering place in the lush days of Vichy when all the top-drawer people of the world went there in the spring and summer. In the early morning before the dew had dried on the plants, you would see les jardinières bending over the rows picking berries. A mere shaking of the plant under which a large, flat basket was placed would drop the ripe berries into it. Those not quite ripe were left there until they in their turn would drop off. The morning's harvest was immediately sold to the large hotels where all fine foodstuffs found a ready market. And I can tell you it would be difficult to eat a more delectable dish of fruit than these fresh, succulent berries, fragrantly sweet and picked fully ripe, that had been chilled and served à la crème or au vin.