The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2014

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NOV 2014 Issue

I Love Being A Gourmande

Given my solid reputation as a gourmande, many readers imagine me seated at a table, framed with patés and bottles, like the “Gourmand” of a famous poster. That’s too flattering. It’s actually embellishing the truth, taking me for a cordon bleu, while I am only able to manage one dish, and give some advice somewhat brightened up by enlightened gastronomy.

In kitchen affairs, inspiration was never worth a lot, and I am only attached to tradition. A good dish is above all a matter of moderation and classicism. Down with ear-shattering spices, noisy alcohol, jazzy sauces! Down with guzzling, gluttony, and all the other intemperances! Away with you, diets! My stomach, remarkably preserved, is that of a bourgeoise gourmette and gourmande.

You are born a gourmet. The real gourmet is the one who takes as much delight in a buttered tartine as in a grilled lobster, if the butter is a fine one, and the bread well kneaded. It’s been a long time since I had an expert cook at home…. But I haven’t given up on whatever pleases the palate, therefore the brain. As far as “favorite dishes” are concerned, I prefer… everything good, that makes, at mealtime, a little feast for the papillaries and the mind. One day, I feel like salads, loving as I do pure olive oil, fruity, and red wine vinegar that I prepare at home. One day, meat is the thing, in its least harmful forms, on a charcoal fire, sprinkled with fresh pepper—black, from the Antilles—with a pinch of ground salt, I certainly didn’t say: sel fin. If the entrecôte is prepared with parsley, if it has retained a succulent rim of fat, it doesn’t even need butter. I can cook that entrecôte for you in my fireplace, or over an open fire at a picnic, on tongs, on a piece of wire netting… All it takes to bring it off is knowing the way fire works, and a kind of daring gesture.

If we’re talking about dishes to be cooked for a long time, I yield to anyone who’d care to do it. But I’m not giving up my critical temperament and I get finicky. French cuisine, the real one, sits aloft five or six principles that I revere. I fear, around a boeuf mode, too many calves’ feet, changing the gelée into gelatin, and too many sweet carrots, sugaring the sauce. On the other hand, I toss into the same beef concoction two sugar cubes at the very start of the cooking. Also in the aiguillette made the old way, also in a cassoulet. Why? Because. Our grandmothers used to do it this way and everyone found it very good.

I refuse the help of the Paris mushroom, for it liquefies the gravy without any real profit. I banish it from the poulet chasseur, from the sautéed rabbit, from the filet of veal, that it renders still more pallid. But I smile at it when it is there alone, bare and rose-tinted, ready to be sautéed in an irreproachable butter, or grilled, or eaten raw, moistened with oil and lemon. In last November’s mild weather, I found some edible mushrooms in the grasses of the bois de Boulogne. Liberated from their leathery skin and consumed right there, how delicate they were! This is the moment when they are fragrant with a whiff of truffle, their black princely cousin, the too little known, the misrecognized, the badly utilized, which we force into unreasonable marriages with that tasteless fattened pullet, with the adipose liver, whereas scrubbed and not peeled, boiled in white wine or swathed in buttered-paper, it’s the most loyal, the most easily digested of mushrooms—alas! also the most costly. At some point I will tell you about it, the shadowy, the unconquered, avoiding any possible description…

A certain “concierge’s café au lait” which comes up in Chéri aroused a lot of curiosity that I left—this is the perfect expression—hungry for more. But do I have any secrets for Marie-Claire? A concierge, in fact, who became a cleaning woman, once gave me the recipe for a breakfast fitting to shake off the winter morning chill.

Take a soup bowl—the little individual soup bowl for gratinées, or a large tureen in fire-proof china. Pour into it the café au lait, sugared and the strength you like it. Prepare some nice slices of bread –the loaf you’ve made at home, and toast doesn’t work—butter them well and place them on top of the café au lait that mustn’t submerge them. Then you just have to put it all in the oven, from which you don’t take out your breakfast until it is golden, browned, crunchy, bursting here and there into unctuous fat bubbles.

Before breaking your retoasted bread, toss into it a dust of salt. The salt biting into the sugar, the sugar very lightly salted— still a great principle that a number of desserts neglect, as well as some Parisian pastries, tasteless without a pinch of salt.

Doesn’t my concierge’s café au lait make a pleasant beginning to a cold morning, with the glazed frost steaming and the gutters frozen? I’m afraid that the rest of my day will seem to you very abbreviated gastronomy. Where can I be found in the middle of the day? I don’t know. In front of a big pint of warm milk, in the cowshed of Auteuil? That’s possible, but might I not be instead near a brazier in my own neighborhood, busy swallowing six or eight oysters—very cold “claires”—, accompanied by a glass of Pouilly? I know no better aperitif. It just leaves room for a mutton-chop, or the grilled mackerel awaiting me at home, fifty feet away. Notice, please—I am talking to the readers who have lunch at home—that mediocre coffee costs almost as much as good coffee. So you will buy coffee lightly roasted with small beans, cigar-colored and not dark brown.   

Having fed well, I can get to work by two, or two-thirty. I forgot fruit? Not a bit of it. Fruit fits the afternoon thirstiness, the dryness of nocturnal work, between eleven at night and two in the morning.

Dinner? Oh! My dinner, take some, leave some, whatever you choose. Sometimes it consists of a hearty soup of stewed vegetables bathing a small sausage. Or then a whole orgy of dates. Or then a croque-monsieur.

Or an egg poached with red wine. Or artichokes stuffed with rice and garlic…

Sometimes, with three or four friends, and stirred by the raw appetite that takes hold of workers tried of working, we leave, as we put it, for Paris. A Paris unknown to those who complain how you can’t eat well anymore, and weep at the closing of the last good bistro. In Paris, first of all, a good bistro is never the last one. Dead, it is reborn from its ashes in the form of a pioneer from Corrèze, or from Normandy full of cream, or from black Périgord, or from Provence perfumed with garlic and frigoulette. Somebody sets his wife to working the ovens, his son and daughter to serving tables, fills his cellars with young and fruity wines, and this Parisian, who cooks badly but is shrewd, makes himself a reputation in three weeks.

My first arrondissement is filled with unpretentious gastronomic treasures. Lamb stew is unchanging, always steady, its sauce neither too scarce or too plentiful. The cassoulet is cooking in its little individual bowls; in a kind of cupboard, partly underground, the crèpes keep turning over; pigs’ feet, lambs’ feet compete with each other in succulence…Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin are propitious for the lovely dense sole, for the chicken on the spit licked by the flames. Neuilly has its little temples, its intransigent regulars.

In a fresh spring, where could you have a gayer lunch than on the banks of the Seine, tasting those dry and slightly treacherous white wines from the siliceous soils? La Villette has its marvelous meats, its thick, almost cubic, wine bottles that you must, dear colleagues, try to find from time to time, after your days and nights of  hard work. Montmartre the adulterated, Montmartre itself is not without its faithful resources, and the wines you drink there aren’t ripening in the vineyard of the Butte…

So there persist, beyond our homes, the luxury of the good table and the honor of eating well, that have emigrated elsewhere. Where are the cordons bleus of yesteryear, the pride, joy, and terror of families? Today’s woman works. When she has the time to have lunch at home, she uses the grill and the hot plate rather than the coquemar, and the salad bowl takes the place of the frying pan. It happens that on vacation she can retrieve the pleasure of cooking, even if it’s outside, over a camping fire. That’s far from being a bad education. Lively cooking, over a great coal flame, with the slightest accompaniment. Also the cooking of fishermen and sailors. A grillade has a wonderful taste; the fish is cooked unlike any other; blackened outside, white inside. Let some twigs of mint, thyme, fennel, cling to the slits in its skin, and nothing could be better. The same coal fire roasts the ribs at the end of a little fork with two teeth, and, on a bit of metallic cloth, tomatoes, eggplant, a fat onion, a green pepper, a mushroom brown and crackly… I scarcely need to add that you will make a wonderful dish with the young chicken—don’t confuse it with the wan chick!—split in two, flattened with a hatchet or a rolling-pin, little fresh game entrusted to the same fire. You turn up your nose at this cuisine of campers and poachers? How wrong you are! For a simple meal, you need quality material. Those that I am advocating here will leave you with a fresh-feeling mouth and an unburdened stomach.

Perhaps you don’t have a charcoal grill, just a grill or some coal, and you have only a gas fire, being prisoners of Paris? Not to worry! Anything is better than cooking your minute steak in a casserole with butter. Have a on hand a really thick pan, sufficiently wide, and keep it for just one use: all dry and untouched, put it over a high flame. When its bottom reddens to a dark crimson, place in it your entrecôte , your ribs, your steak, which will sputter loudly. They will immediately sear and be covered with the light crust that retains the juice If they stick slightly to the bottom, release them with a knife blade or the teeth of a fork. But manage to turn the meat only once. The pinch of salt—always coarse ground salt!—the ground pepper, the dab of butter are added after the pan, on the hot plate. Scrap the pan, heat it again when it is empty, don’t wash it, don’t grease it. Every time it is fired red, every time it is clean.

Having talked to you about rudimentary cooking, I’m not through with my spiel. Do you know how to make a galette with foaming butter? Do you like toasted chocolate? And veal with anchovies? Do you know how to make a good cheese with bad cheeses? Do you make almond milk? Do you drink, sometimes in winter, a certain hot white wine?

I should, now, restrain myself. Besides, it is late and my dinner is waiting. It isn’t a real dinner tonight. I have some fat boiled chestnuts, a heart of lettuce, and to finish off… a little brown earthenware pot, full of young wine, the color of rubies, sugared, with some cinnamon, eight peppercorns and a single clove. When it’s poured, boiling, into a thick bowl, I will place on the steaming wine a toasted piece of bread, moistened with very good olive oil, and I won’t leave the bread enough time to lose its crackly surface. It’s as old as the world itself, this wine soup. Is it good? Try it, ladies. And don’t forget the chestnuts—for your figure.

    Colette, Paris-Soir, 27 January, 1939 (from Colette, J’aime etre gourmande, L’Herne, 2011 (presentation de Géraard Bonal et Frédéric Maget), pp 111-122


Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

Colette was the surname of the French novelist and performer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (28 January 1873 - 3 August 1954). She is best known for her novel Gigi, the basis for the film of the same title.

Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2014

All Issues