Some mothers are really good at birthday parties. They effortlessly host a dozen screeching kids and don’t seem to mind the pack of them running around and trashing the house. They make props and invent games that fill an entire afternoon. They bake elaborate cakes with towers and flags and multi-colors of frosting topped with decorative elements you can eat. They seem to enjoy the party as much as the birthday boy or girl.
I’m not one of those mothers.
I still make a big fuss all day long, and there are cards and presents and colored streamers hanging from the ceiling. A cake gets baked and decorated. But it’s usually just a family affair, with maybe a friend or a neighbor included. I’m not a complete grinch: we’ve thrown the occasional gang-of-kids party, but we’ve successfully minimized that sort of hullabaloo, generally keeping birthdays small and quiet.
Inventiveness is still required. Last fall, I tracked down Buddy-roo’s favorite busker, and invited him over for our family party. She was entirely surprised. He gave a little concert, including a live acoustic guitar version of happy birthday as she blew out the candles. He stayed for cake. She was over the moon.
When one of my sweetest friend, the Pastry Ace, was hired to start up the new Rose Bakery Tea Room at the Bon Marché department store, it clicked that this could be the perfect place to pay homage to Short-pants’ birthday this year, once again avoiding an elaborate in-house production. I presented to her the idea of high tea at a chic address, and she bit. We did an advance trip in early May. All the pieces fit.
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When I weaned Short-pants, just after her first birthday, I left town to make it easier on the both of us. I escaped with my girlfriends to the hills of Navarra, the culture of the Basques and their local drink, patxaran. Because I was no longer breast feeding, I imbibed with abandon, and fell in love with the deep red liqueur. It’s reminiscent of cough syrup, but without the medicinal aftertaste. A little bit of fire water, patxaran is an elixir that aides digestion, revs up your libido and leaves you with a syrupy smile.
That trip turned out to be an amuse-bouche for the north of Spain. Soon after, a pilgrimage to Pamplona was incorporated into my every-summer routine. Each year, I replenish my patxaran supply, bringing several bottles home to Paris to last until the following July. I mentioned to the Fiesta Nazi that I really wanted to get my own endrina bush – this is the Spanish name for the berries that produce patxaran – so I could brew my own. All the lovely Basque men I’ve met brag about their mother-in-law’s home-made patxaran. I see myself as the kind of woman who makes hooch for her beloved son-in-law. But I need some practice before the girls come of marrying age.
We asked every respectable (and frankly, non-respectable) Spanish person we knew in Pamplona about where might I get my hands on an endrina bush. It became apparent that it’s not something you go and buy at a nursery and plant in your garden. It was impossible to get a specific answer about where to find it or even what it looked like. The response was always something like, “It’s just…you find it…around.” Then I realized the endrina is a weed.
Last summer, the Pastry Ace visited us at the country house. It was the end of August and a string of warm, sunny, dry days inspired us to pull our mattresses out to the back terrace so we could sleep out – all of us together – under the stars. She made us cakes and pies and one night cooked up a mean ratatouille; her talents stretch beyond things pastry and chocolate. We’d go for long morning walks and she’d point out the different trees and herbs and organic goodies that a chef perpetually looking for ingredients can’t help but see and that I had missed altogether, though I walk these same roads and trails every summer. She discovered a mirabelle tree, covered with fruit, on the other side of our barn. We’ve owned this house for seven years, and we’d never harvested its fruit. We didn’t even know it existed.
One afternoon, Pastry Ace walked into the kitchen with a smug smile on her face and some blueish berries in her hand. She knew of my hunt for endrinas, and was even able to help me name them in English: sloe berries. She’d found them growing wild by the side of a nearby dirt road. She’s also found some growing in a hedge, on the edge of our property. Can you imagine my bliss? Endrina bushes growing on my land.
The berries were immediately harvested and transported back to Paris, where I scoured the Internet for tips on making patxaran, and wrote to my Spanish Facebook friends for advice. I once visited a patxaran factory, I remembered this detail from that tour: mix the berries with good alcohol, don’t use the cheap stuff. I stocked up on some quality anís to mix with my precious endrinas, which means my home-made brew has nothing to do with saving money by making it yourself, but everything to do with the craft of distillation and the pride of its provenance.
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Every July I rush back from the fiesta in time for Short-pants’ birthday party, though I’m not necessarily in the best of shape, usually recovering from many consecutive days of patxaran consumption. This year, she asked if we could have an early party in June, too, so she could include a few school mates. Last Saturday we made another excursion to the Rose Bakery Tea Room, this time with friends, and her sister, in tow.
Because we were VIP guests of the chef, we were received like royalty, seated at the best table, coddled and catered to. The girls ordered white hot chocolate and it came with an extra pot of whipped cream on the side. Short-pants licked the little bowl clean. The tea service trays were presented with aplomb, stacked with savory finger sandwiches, bite-sized scones with clotted cream, tasty cakes, pastries and custards. Everyone started with wide eyes and finished with sticky fingers.
Short-pants beamed the entire time. She’s always a good sport about the the fact that her birthday parties are rather modest, and perhaps because of that, she appreciated the fuss of this tea party that much more. I enjoyed it too, especially when the elaborately ornamented chocolate birthday cake was placed in front of her, and I hadn’t been required to bake it.
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The collection of hermetically sealed glass jars were wrapped in opaque plastic bags and stowed in the back of my closet. I’d learned that when endrinas are transforming into patxaran, light is an inhibitor, so I kept them stashed in the dark. Every week, I’d pull the jars out and turn them upside down for a minute, re-mixing the contents gently, before setting them upright back in their dark corner. Some people talk to their plants; I’d talk to my berries, encouraging them through their cocoon phase.
The distilling was sufficiently completed in March, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I found the right moment to filter and bottle my home brew. Short-pants was reading on the couch when I stripped the black plastic from around the jars, revealing the rose-colored liquid. Maneuvering the 3-liter glass container over the sieve required more than two hands, so I called her over.
“Honey, can you help your mama make her hooch over here?”
She sprang up and ran to help. I gave her the metal strainer and she held it steady, catching the berries as I poured the liquid through it. The smell of the alcohol was strong; the aroma of fermented berries filled the kitchen. There we stood, mother and daughter together, stirring up a concoction that in any other kitchen would have been a batch of cookies, or a birthday cake. Instead, I was teaching my daughter how to make moonshine, because, well, I’m one of those kinds of mothers.