Years ago when I was a newspaper reporter, I came across a wire story that described a rare, peculiar illness. It seemed that certain sensitive souls, upon being exposed to the glorious art of the High Renaissance, were so overcome by the beauty before them that they literally went mad and had to be carted off. The condition has a name: Stendhal Syndrome, after the 19th Century French writer who was seized with it during a visit to Florence. Among the symptoms are a rapid heartbeat, dizziness, shortness of breath, confusion, and even hallucination.
Nothing that dramatic happened to me when I went to Florence as a teenager (though I did get a little lightheaded whenever a dark, curly-haired ragazzo buzzed by on a Vespa). Still, I think I know how those people feel. I feel it every Wednesday in summer when I hit my weekly farmers’ market. Undone. Overcome. Driven to the edge of sanity. As if at any moment, between the piles of peaches and mounds of sweet corn, the bins of summer squash and watermelons, the neatly arranged baskets of fat gleaming blackberries and rows of misshapen tomatoes, I might just keel over. It’s too much. Do you know the feeling?
It’s my fault. I am not a disciplined shopper. I don’t plan meals in advance, nor am I a list maker. And so when I arrive at the market with my eco-friendly shopping bags eagerly waiting to be filled, I am, essentially, already a goner. I can’t, for example, pass by a display of sour cherries in early July without picking up a quart. Even though I may have bought two quarts the week before and pitted them and frozen them. Even though I may still have a quart or two in my freezer left over from last year’s harvest (they keep well).
Don’t even mention summer squash–light green, dark green, gold, globe, pattypan, crook-necked. And if the blossoms still happen to be attached…I’m hyperventilating just typing this. It’s the same with eggplant–shiny black, streaky purple, white; and peppers–purple, green, red, yellow, hot, sweet. And all the rest. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and beets; peaches and melons and blackberries and so on. I am unable to resist these things, the way some people are unable to resist new shoes, or sunglasses, or (if you are my brother-in-law) cars.
I have, I’m sorry to say, gone off the rails more than once over the years. I’ve come home with a depleted wallet, weighted down with way more produce (and also grass-fed meat and pastel-hued eggs) than I can ever feed my family in the span of a week. This embarrasses me. It makes me feel guilty and regretful and slightly sick, like I’ve been on a bender. I have let berries get moldy and zucchini and peaches go soft.
So now I have rules. I try very hard to stick to them. I bring a finite, judicious amount of cash. When some stalls started accepting credit cards, I made a rule that I could only use mine to buy meat and eggs (and the occasional whoopie pie) from the Mennonite farmer, leaving the cash for vegetables and fruit. I make myself go to every stall before I buy anything, and I buy only what I plan to use during the week, unless I’m going to freeze or can it. I still have occasional relapses, like I did a couple of weeks ago when I bought too many berries and peaches. What can I say? Somewhere between the rosy blush of the peaches and the blackberries’ gleam my resolve evaporated.
I think I redeemed myself, though, at least a little. Not one berry or peach was allowed to go uneaten or turn moldy. I spooned them over yogurt and my daughter blended them into smoothies. Some went into the freezer and some were used to make another one of these. And whatever was left I turned into this free-form fruit crostata.
I’m not sure what it says about me that I’m more deeply affected by the fruits and vegetables of summer than I am by the art of the High Renaissance (certainly nothing flattering). It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Florence, and I do intend to go back one day. Just remind me to steer clear of any farmers’ markets.
Rustic Fruit Tart (Crostata Rustica di Frutta)
(copyright 2011 Domenica Cooks)
Just about any stone fruit or summer berry can go into this simple but luscious free-form tart—peaches, nectarines, or apricots, and blueberries, blackberries, or raspberries. Make sure they are at peak ripeness so their natural sweetness will shine through.
Makes 6 servings
For the crust:
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/3 cup ice water
For the filling:
1 pound ripe peaches, nectarines, or apricots, pitted and cut into wedges
1 cup ripe berries (I like to use half blueberries and half blackberries)
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon cream or half-and-half
Make the crust: Combine the flour, granulated sugar, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse to mix. Scatter the butter cubes around the bowl and pulse until coarse crumbs form. With the motor running, drizzle in the ice water and process until a ball of dough begins to form. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and pat it into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or until thoroughly chilled. Remove the dough from the refrigerator about 20 minutes before you plan to roll it out.
Make the tart: Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Combine the peaches and berries in a large bowl. In a small bowl, stir together the flour, brown sugar, and nutmeg, and sprinkle it over the fruit. Gently fold everything together.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough out into a 15-inch circle. Carefully roll the circle around the rolling pin and unroll it onto a large rimmed baking sheet. Pile the fruit mixture in the center of the circle, leaving a 2-inch border all around. Dot with the butter. Fold in the edges of the dough to create a pleated border that leaves some of the fruit uncovered. Brush the dough with the cream.
Bake the crostata for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the exposed fruit is tender and browned in spots. Set the baking sheet on a rack to cool for about 10 minutes. Carefully transfer the crostata to a serving platter. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or a little cold fresh cream poured over.