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Life is an orchard where the seasons stroll.
-Adonis, from “To The Poem”

By Nani Steele | Photography By Sarah Remington

There’s someThing magical abouT waking aT dawn’s firsT lighT, the sounds of birds calling and morning’s delicate echoes, pinging through a house still slumbering to the rhythms of sleep. This magical time is when I tend to my courtyard herb garden. The rose geranium reminds me of my grandmother, as I snip verbena and sweet mint for evening tea, or feed the coffee grounds to the fabled lemon tree-a gift I gave myself one winter a few years ago-a reminder of home, of land I love and sometimes long for. Mornings like this are like stealing time with a hopeful lover on a sunny day, when the course of your life lands you exactly where you want it to be, and all that may seem wrong turns suddenly right, nothing existing except each other.

It’s in these hours, too, when memories unfold without regret, perhaps more gently than in the heat of the day, when the world around you wakes to its own occasion, leaving you at times feeling helpless and faint in its harried wake. Time and orchards have a way of bridging such stories, as they shout promises from the rooftops and tree branches when you least expect it.

On mornings like this, I’m reminded of how far I’ve come (or gone-which is it, I sometimes have to ask) from country living to the surreal waters of the Pacific and coastal ports at large. There were times teeming with spiny lobsters carried in baskets from the harbor by women in colorful sarongs. But today, in an urban jungle, my humble abode on a tree-lined street crammed with potted plants, it is the lavender and a Japanese plum that bloom as if to mimic my own impatience for what’s to come. Both my almost fully grown children and a cat gather around a tarnished, metal table at all hours of the day, eat lime-scented shrimp and fruit- filled tarts on warm evenings with friends, and savor favorite reminisces from other distant shores.

I’m struck by what lingers in memory’s garden as I pinch back the blushing sage and brush the felled rose petals under the fence, flashbacks of an orchard kind of life. Those with a profound effect include the thriving orchards on the island of Bequia, a whaling port in the Grenadines, exploding with exotic scents like juicy grapefruit with thick, golden skins and the sweetest oranges I’ve ever had. I recall fondly the shirtless, tanned boys with song in their voice who paddled up to our boat on a misty morning after we had spent nearly a week at sea, and sold us bunches of bananas, fresh coconut, and papayas the size of a football. The boating life rarely tasted as good again as it did that day.

There is also the tranquility of Hawai’i, then and now, where time moves more slowly and the beauty (and bounty) of tropical flowers and fauna, honeyed pineapple and passion fruit stain each delicious moment. How sweet life can be when you least expect it.

For a year when my kids were young, I lived in a mountaintop orchard, with a view of both lavender hills and crystalline sea, a placid and yet lusty refuge scattered with ethereal quince and heirloom apple trees, horses and goats, and a whole narrative to explore around the poetics of place. This land flourished recklessly in all its shrieking glory, cradling our life in the seasons, and bringing us that much closer to paradise. A jumble of roses, plum trees, citrus, loquats and pomegranate paired with a one- room cabin framed our world back then, painting an Arcadian scene in an otherwise tangled story. By then it was just the three of us-eating, sleeping and breathing each other, at once lonely and content, fragile and beautiful.

A companion story to Plum Gorgeous: Recipes and Memories from the Orchard

Honey-lime Peaches with Crème Fraîche Clouds
Serves 4-6

A breezy, refreshing dessert combining summer peaches with late-season Kadota figs, treasured for their honey-like taste. Use any flavorful peach with robust flavor, like Sun Crest, and marinate for at least 2 hours or up to overnight before serving with a floating cloud of lightly sweetened cream or Crème Fraîche Ice Cream (page 150). This is also a fine way to prepare mango slices, dressed up with fresh passion fruit and raspberries.

2/3 cup light-colored honey, like orange blossom honey from California Grated zest of 1 orange Grated zest of 1 lime 1/2 cup fresh lime juice 1 cinnamon stick 3 peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise 1/2 cup heavy cream 1/2 cup crème fraîche Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting About 6 Kadota or other green figs, quartered Additional lime zest, or slivered mint leaves, for garnish

Combine the honey, orange zest, lime zest, lime juice, cinnamon stick and 2 tablespoons water in a medium saucepot; bring to a boil and simmer until syrupy, about 5 minutes. Let cool. Strain over the sliced peaches in a bowl. Add the vanilla bean, cover, and marinate for several hours in the refrigerator. Just before serving, whip the cream to soft peaks, and then fold into the crème fraîche, dusting with confectioners’ sugar to taste. Arrange the marinated peach slices and figs in shallow bowls and add enough syrup to barely cover. Top each serving with a cloud of whipped crème fraîche. Garnish with more lime zest or mint leaves.

-From Plum Gorgeous: Recipes and Memories from the Orchard by Romney Steele/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Grilled Sardines with Preserved Lemon Gremolata
Serves 4-6

Savor the flavors of the Mediterranean in late summer, when sardines are plentiful and enjoying a meal al fresco is a must. It’s best to enjoy these oily little fish with your fingers, removing the bones as you eat and not giving a darn about how you might look in the process. Gremolata is an Italian condiment typically made with lemon zest, garlic and parsley; the cilantro and preserved lemon here give it added zeal. Made without the currants and bread crumbs, it is delicious on steak.

1-1/2 to 2 pounds fresh sardines, cleaned and gutted Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper Preserved Lemon Gremolata:

Leaves from 1/2 bunch parsley, coarsely chopped Leaves from 1/2 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped 1/2 cup toasted coarse bread crumbs 2 pieces Preserved Lemons (recipe follows), finely diced 3 tablespoons currants, plumped in hot water 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 shallot, finely chopped Finely grated zest of 1 lemon Olive oil, for drizzling and brushing

Season the sardines on both sides with salt and pepper. Leave at room temperature while you prepare the gremolata.

To make the gremolata, combine the herbs, bread crumbs, preserved lemon, currants, garlic, shallot, and lemon zest in a small bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, just enough to moisten.

Heat a grill pan or outdoor grill to medium-hot. Brush the sardines on both sides with olive oil. Grill for 2 to 3 minutes per side, until just cooked through. Arrange on a platter and scatter with the gremolata. Grind fresh black pepper over the top and serve.

Preserved Lemons
Makes 1 quart

Preserved lemon is a common North African condiment and something I learned to make from my stepmother, Elena, who grew up in the Mediterranean. The lemons are traditionally quartered partway, leaving the stem intact, then stuffed with salt and covered with lemon juice to preserve. Over the years, I have taken to cutting the lemons all the way through (or occasionally slicing into rounds, as in the alternate method below) and instead layering the salt and spices. Either way, it takes a good three weeks or longer for them to cure. Slivers of salty rind are delicious stirred through couscous, beans and grains or added to olives. Chopped, they add a zing to dressings, gremolata and meaty dishes.

8 organic or unsprayed lemons,
preferably thin-skinned
Kosher salt or coarse sea salt
1 or 2 bay leaves 1 cinnamon stick
1 dried chili, crushed or whole
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
Fresh lemon juice Olive oil

Wash the lemons well and pat dry. Quarter lengthwise and toss vigorously in a bowl with about 1/2 cup salt to coat. Pack the lemons tightly in a sterilized quart jar, layering as you go with the bay leaves, cinnamon, chili, peppercorns, and any residual salt and juice. Add enough lemon juice to fill about half the jar. Cover and set aside in a warm place. Shake once a day or so for three days, to help release the juices. Add more lemon juice, this time enough to fully cover the lemons. This is very important. Pour a thin slick of olive oil over the top. If you like, you can also place a round of parchment on top, to help keep the lemons submerged. Cover and place in a dark cupboard or cool area of the kitchen. They are usually ready in about a month-the rinds will be quite tender and the salt completely dissolved-sometimes a little longer. They usually get better with age.

-From Plum Gorgeous: Recipes and Memories from the Orchard by Romney Steele/Andrews McMeel Publishing