The arrival of the first frost is upon us. I like it. There will be one night, when air swiftly turns from crisp to cold, breaking the fall in half: the-pre November fall and its aftermath, dark, icy and wet. And with coldness comes in the true, raw scent of fall. Before the first frost, fall smells like cider, pumpkin and apples, like candy. It smells of hazelnuts and cinnamon. And then, the cold air moves in and the frosty winds arrive, blowing it all away, leaving the air clean and celestial, until nothing else remains but the essence of fall.
Have you ever noticed how fall has different scent in different places?
In Vienna it smells of history and the time in slow motion. It smells of frozen grapes, icewine and melancholy.
In Istria it smells like truffles; like olive oil, salted water and fresh branzino. And the fishing boats put to rest.
Fall in Ljubljana smells of Alps and glaciers.
And then, there is the scent of fall in Belgrade.
Come November my hometown is fragrant with the smokiness of summer’s best red peppers left outside to dry. It is bursting with the scent of wet soil and the earthiness of freshly picked chanterelles, with the warmth of day-old roaming eggs and faint sugary notes of sweet potatoes. November air in Belgrade is rich with almost forgotten aroma of medlars; like spiced apple sauce, with hints of aged red wine and pomegranates. This unfathomable smell somehow finds its way out of the market and takes over the streets where it mingles with decomposing golden leaves imprisoned within the cobblestone of the Old City.
I have almost forgotten it; we only visit in the summer or during holidays. It has been over a decade. And, suddenly here I am, in the middle of this scent for a short week of Belgrade’s November.
It is a strange fall -- half of the leaves are still green as if the summer never left. A fall like no other before. I walk around dissolved in nostalgia and in the aftermath of over-expectations. To those who had gone faraway and stayed, longing for a better place and brighter future, the homecoming is inevitably flavored with a trace of disappointment – we almost regret being back, because the homeland is so much nicer in our dreams.
My stroll takes me to an old house, a block away from where I lived, across the street from the schoolyard and from the ice-cream box where we diligently lined up during the school breaks. It was majestic then, pretty in pink, proudly wearing lace curtains, a charming invitation to peep through. Today she stands alone and deserted, wrapped up in the memories of her old self. The walls are run-down and decaying, plaster falling off, antique ornaments crumbling away. Like an old affair, hinging on forgottenness, her old splendor is known only to the people who once took part in it, and to the children in the line behind the ice-cream box. Over the last ten years, I must have taken hundreds of photos of that house. And I keep on coming back. Reminiscence is the most powerful magnet of all.
The scent of fall in Belgrade is painful and I have no desire to stay. Yet I bottle it up and take it with me to New York. I wish I can take the medlars too, a gift for Dr. V and Miss Pain, as they have yet to try this ancient fruit. On the plane ride back, I open my laptop and begin to flip through the photographs. “Oh my, these are some beautiful photos!” a young man next to me points his finger at the screen. He asks to see the photo of “my” building, we look at it together for a couple of minutes, maybe even longer, and suddenly, via some strange magic, despite the ruin, crumble and decay, she stands proudly in her old glory, wonderful and unique, and beautiful again.
Sweet Potato Tortilla de Patatas with Chanterelle Ragout
for the tortilla de patatas
* 1 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
* 1 small red onion (about 5-6oz), finely chopped
* 1 lb 6 oz yellow sweet potatoes
* 6 large eggs
* a pinch of nutmeg
* a pinch of salt
for the ragout
* 6 oz chanterelle
* 6 oz shitake mushrooms (tops only)
* 2 large shallots (about 5-6 oz total)
* 1 tsp chopped thyme
* 2 tbsp olive oil
* salt and freshly ground pepper
* 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
Prepare the ingredients for the ragout: Wash the mushrooms and dry them thoroughly with paper towel. Chop the chanterelles into chunky pieces. Chop the shitake tops into 1/4-inch stripes. Chop the shallots into thin slices.
In a saucepan or medium sized Dutch oven heat two tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook for about a minute or two until shallots begin to soften. Add the mushrooms, mix well and cook until mushrooms are softened and most of their liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Stir in the thyme. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Make tortilla de patatas: Peel the potatoes and wash them. If the potatoes are large, cut them in half lengthwise. Slice the potatoes into thin slices (between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick). In a large bowl mix the potatoes with onion.
In a 10-inch cast iron skillet heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, until very hot. Reduce the heat to medium-low and slowly add potatoes. Distribute the potatoes evenly in the skillet, so that they resemble the cake as much as possible. Cover the skillet and cook for about 15-20 minutes. Throughout cooking, gently prod the potatoes here and there, to make sure that they cook evenly. Potatoes are done when they are soft yet still firm. (Make sure that they are not too soft, because they will fall apart.)
Remove the skillet from the heat and drain the potatoes in a colander set over a bowl. Reserve about three tablespoons of the oil. Season the potatoes with salt.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs lightly. Season with a sprinkle of salt and a pinch of nutmeg. Pour the eggs into the potatoes and mix gently.
Add two tablespoons of the reserved oil back to the same skillet and heat over medium-high heat. Transfer the potato mixture into the skillet. Arrange the potatoes neatly with fork or spatula so that they resemble a cake. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook undisturbed. When the egg has cooked around the edges and the top is wet but not runny, carefully lift up one side of the tortilla and check if the egg has slightly “browned.” When the mixture has browned on the bottom it is time to flip the tortilla. Loosen the tortilla with a spatula (make sure that the bottom is loose too) and place a large flat plate over the skillet. With one hand on the skillet handle and the other on top of the plate to hold it steady, quickly turn the skillet over and let the tortilla fall onto the plate. Place the skillet back on the stove and add the remaining oil to cover the bottom and sides of the skillet. Heat the skillet for about one minute. Gently slide the tortilla back into the skillet. Using spatula carefully shape the sides of the tortilla. Cook for another couple of minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and let the tortilla sit in it for a couple of minutes. Slide the tortilla onto a serving platter.
Cut the tortilla into slices, top with the mushroom ragout, sprinkle with parsley and serve. (A couple of shavings of good Parmigiano Reggiano and a slice of fresh baguette would not hurt either.)