One of my favorite M.F.K. Fisher quotes is this: Wine and cheese are ageless companions, like aspirin and aches, or June and moon, or good people and noble ventures. To this I would add another companion comparison from my own recent experience: children and ice cream.
In 1686, the first café in Paris, Le Procope, opened in Saint-Germain-des-Prés with a Sicilian chef at the helm. His recipe of milk, cream, butter and eggs, an early Italian gelato, made ice cream available to the general public for the first time. For centuries it had only been enjoyed by the aristocracy. Over in America, it wasn’t until 1790 that an ice cream parlor opened in New York. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were known to have an affinity for this creamy icy treat. Ice cream’s reign as an indelible taste of summer is in the hearts of people around the world. Perhaps children most of all.
When I was growing up, the seasonal ice cream truck rang its bell through the streets of our neighborhood in St. Louis once or twice a week every June, July, and August. Parents doled out pocket change. We shouted and ran to the ice cream man who opened his portable freezer filled with drumstick cones or chocolate coated vanilla ice cream on a stick or ice cream sandwiches. It was a race to eat as fast as possible in the heat and humidity while trying not to lose precious drips on the way home. There was usually some kind of messy “plop” on the sidewalk which was left for the ants.
There are, of course, other foods typically consumed in the summer besides ice cream. Fresh corn-on-the-cob or s’mores made around a campfire are two of them. Food happiness, measured individually by expression, is certain to occur when delicious things are eaten by young children for the first time.
In April, we drove across two states to care for a two-and-a-half-year old grand-daughter and her eleven-month-old brother while their tired parents flew somewhere else for adult R & R. We brushed off muscle memory around the heavy lifting required with infants and toddlers. By the third day, it was time for a change of scenery away from the house, backyard, and front porch. Some kind of field trip.
Because of the previous fifteen months of shutdown life during Covid, I thought an outing for ice cream might be just the thing for young and unsuspecting palates. Also, it could be accomplished outdoors on a warmish spring day.
With the 2-year-old, things began with the anticipation of a drive somewhere new. There was curiosity to stand at a window, place an order, and be held up to see what was going on inside. There was eagerness when a cup of vanilla ice cream smothered in rainbow sprinkles was handed through the window. There was barely contained excitement while carrying it to a red iron bench and sitting down with a spoon and her own multi-colored delight.
While husband fed tiny tastes of ice cream to infant brother, the independent “I-dood-it-myself” girl spooned one transformative bite into her mouth. After one or two more she discovered a faster method.
It was the hand-to-mouth-vacuum-cleaner-technique. Her eyes narrowed momentarily as the heady sensation of cold and sweet sank in. Both hands tipped the cup to vertical maximum.
There was a moment of selfish possessiveness as she huffily pulled away from brother’s outreaching hand. Letting the remainder of the icy creamy semi-liquid slide into her mouth, she paused to consider what had just happened. Then, with a smug and satisfied grin, what was left was an empty container and face, hands, and clothes covered in sticky.
The success of the outing was summed up in one final moment. It was the kind of moment that captures the best part of kids and ice cream. With a timely click of the camera, a small girl was framed in a spontaneous second of joy…and ice cream bliss.
My favorite kind of integrated person–some of each thing and not too much of any one. –Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune Restaurant, author of Blood, Bones & Butter
Two great-nieces came to stay with us in Princeton, New Jersey over a winter holiday weekend. The trip was a Christmas gift from their parents. They arrived from the Midwest, St. Louis, Missouri, which is my birthplace too.
The girls are “16 going on 17”, and since we live in proximity to New York City it seemed like a fine place to send them on a cousin adventure.
The weekend was a mixture of a full on activity in NYC balanced with some leisurely relaxation at home. One day–an early morning train to Penn Station, three hour shopping spree in Soho, a Broadway matinee [Hamilton!], followed by dinner at Prune Restaurant in East Village. The next day–a sleep-in/pajama morning, breakfast in bed, and binge watching reruns of a favorite TV series.
Over three days, I learned the trending social media sites that teens use as well as a photo editing/filter app that I will use [VSCO]. I waited outside dressing rooms as clothing options were tried on, modeled, considered, or rejected. Only the very cutest made the final cut to the checkout line.
On the last day, before departing to the airport, the girls shared with us their favorite things about the weekend. Then I spoke up, because I wanted them to know there was a best part of the visit for me, too.
It was simply this–I loved observing, and then knowing, how confident they are in their ability to talk about anything–high school, friends, teachers, popular culture, university options, career wonderments. Most importantly, when asked a direct question requiring an opinion, a preference, or a desire, they had thoughtful, ready answers. Two young women with a point of view!
When these girls were given choices, there was no dilly-dallying around, no hemming and hawing, no shrugging of shoulders or murmuring, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” or “Whatever you think”.
Plans and logistics seamlessly came together because there was no second-guessing. I didn’t have to be in charge of every thing. Their ease in speaking up was a gift that led us forward. It allowed us to recalibrate or mix things up. And to fine tune how we enjoyed time together over the weekend.
In the best circumstances, a person begins to develop self-confidence, including the ability to express one’s own ideas and thoughts during childhood and adolescence. Some develop it later, after leaving home and living independently. And some people find it a challenge throughout life. There are adults who hedge and defer and cannot give a straight answer to the simple question, “What do you want…?”
I don’t know how or when my nieces became so comfortable in their own skins. It is testimony to guidance from home, influences in school, the community and friendships.
The girls’ maturing confidence reminded me of an M.F.K. Fisher story, which I shared with them. Fisher wrote about a cross-country train trip where she learned to use her own voice and life changed forever, in a good way. She began to speak up almost a century ago.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was 19 years old in the mid-1920s when she was sent to school in Illinois from California. She was both naïve and extremely self-conscious. Her words follow, in bold italics:
“I must have been a trial, or at least a bore, on that trip. I was horribly self-conscious; I wanted everybody to look at me and think me the most fascinating creature in the world, and yet I died a small hideous death if I saw even one person throw a casual glance at me…”
Her travelling companion on the train was her mother’s brother, Uncle Evans. They ate together every night in the dining car. From the first evening meal, he began teaching her to really look at a menu, to use deliberation and care when deciding what to eat, and never make decisions haphazardly or with phony indifference.
“…I would glance hastily at the menu and then murmur the name of something familiar, like lamb chops. ‘But you know what lamb chops taste like,’ my uncle would say casually. ‘Why not have something exciting instead?’”
Then her uncle would order food that seemed quite exotic at the time such as Eastern scallops and an avocado salad with fresh lime. Over the next five days she began to feel more comfortable, enjoying their meal times together. When the train reached Chicago, Uncle Evan’s son, her older cousin, met them for dinner. Suddenly Mary Frances lost her confidence, and her way. Asked what she would like to eat, she averted her gaze and mumbled, “Oh, anything…anything, thank you.”
“’Anything,’ I said, and then I looked at my uncle, and saw through all my gaucherie, my really painful wish to be sophisticated and polished before him and his brilliant son, that he was looking back at me with a cold speculative somewhat disgusted look in his brown eyes.
It was as if he were saying, ‘You stupid uncouth young ninny, how dare you say such a thoughtless thing, when I bother to bring you to a good place to eat, when I bother to spend my time and my son’s time on you, when I have been so patient with you for the last five days?’
I don’t know how long all that took, but I knew that it was a very important time in my life. I looked at my menu, really looked with all my brain, for the first time.
‘Just a minute, please,’ I said, very calmly. I stayed quite cool, like a surgeon when he begins an operation…Finally I said to Uncle Evans, without batting an eye, ‘I’d like iced consommé, please, and then sweetbreads sous cloche and a watercress salad…and I’ll order the rest later.’
I remember he sat back in his chair a little, and I knew that he was proud of me and very fond of me. I was too.
And never since then have I let myself say, or even think, ‘Oh, anything,’ about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone with death in the house or in my heart.” **
It doesn’t necessarily matter when a person learns to speak with confidence and purpose, but it matters very much that they eventually do. My nieces are clearly on the way.
That evening, after the Hamilton performance, the three of us sat at the black marble counter facing the antique fuzzy mirror behind the bar in Prune Restaurant. I told the girls that any food choice, no matter how simple, would be delicious prepared by this chef. We discussed options and then ordered.
Elizabeth chose soup and then a plate of tender potatoes and herbs to satisfy her tastes. Emily and I had different soups and then split the duck breast with white beans and sautéed root vegetables. Conversation flowed between bites as we sampled each other’s fare. The finale was sharing three desserts and deciding, unanimously, which one was best. “Lemon Semifreddo” drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. Oh My!
Dining in French bistro ambience, with good food, and easy banter was a fine way to end an event filled day, as I hoped it would be. Each of us will surely hold onto different stories and memories from the time together.
But for me, it will always be this–a snapshot moment of two lovely nieces when they were sixteen years old. They came, and they readily shared the best parts of themselves. They showed me that my favorite kind of teenager is one with a few life lessons already in place, integrated with “some of each thing and not too much of any one.”
**Excerpts from the chapter “The Measure of My Powers” in The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K Fisher, compiled in The Art of Eating, published by Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY.
Long ago, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about the art of good eating in one of these combinations: “one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people…dining in a good restaurant; six people…dining in a good home.”
Fisher suggests that six people, together in a private dining room, form the ideal dinner party combination. The reason is simple; that number engenders the best conversational banter.
The six should be capable of decent social behaviour: that is, no two of them should be so much in love as to bore the others, nor at the opposite extreme should they be carrying on any sexual or professional feud which could put poison on the plates all must eat from. –mfk fisher
Her other requisite for a memorable party is to make the usual unusual, the ordinary extraordinary. In other words, when inviting people to your home, be playful and sometimes mix up expected rituals or habits.
I still believe…that hidebound habits should occasionally be attacked, not to the point of flight or fright, but enough. –mfk fisher
During our years of living overseas, we have been both frequent dinner party guests and hosts in various countries and cultures. Our own rituals evolved from naive beginnings. But we improved with creativity, time and practice.
When we first began inviting guests to dinner, I sought guidance to learn one decent dish to cook. Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians After that, I shifted into doing-everything-mode; the guest list, menu planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, creating the ambience, serving and finally…retreating into a Zen moment of clean up.
Gradually, and gratefully, we changed our entertaining routine. My husband began cooking for dinner parties. He planned menus, shopped for ingredients, selected the wine, did most of the cooking and serving.
Left to my preferred activities, I prepared the table, carefully, on the day. Sometimes layering antique linens that belonged to my mother and grandmother. Filling tiny vases with small flowers or vines, alternating them with candles down the middle of the table. Scattering glass beads, randomly, to reflect the candlelight.
Later, when echoes of departing guests drifted away, I stayed up late to put the kitchen in order listening to favorite tunes on high volume. Then, lights off, I sipped a last bit of wine as candlelight faded in the living room, recalling the best parts of the evening.
My current mentor of all things culinary is Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune Restaurant in the East Village, New York City. Her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, was a gift to me several years ago by my daughter. Since then, I have gone to Prune every time we find ourselves in NYC. Twice, late at night, I have seen Gabrielle climb the stairs from the basement kitchen and hurry out the door as diners lingered over conversation and dessert. Once, she stopped to briefly say hello and signed a copy of her book.
I have read Hamilton’s description about the art of a grown-up dinner party. Her words depict not only a vision of a perfect dinner but some advice for the perfect guest, too.
Gabrielle’s words from a New York Times series of articles published October 2017 are in bold italics preceded by her initials, GH. They are followed by my own thoughts and experiences.
GH: To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…
WCU: I believe the best dinner parties are the ones you think about in the wee hours afterward. When guests have departed, before candles have been snuffed and you tumble into slumber, there are precious moments of remembering everything from mishaps such as trying to cut into underdone chicken breasts rolled in pistachio nuts to our friend Alec’s kitchen clumsiness Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto or the philosophical exchange of ideas during a group study of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyer. For me, thisis the way a good party night should end–in a quiet, candle lit room reflecting on the communion of spirits present around the table hours earlier.
Conversely, if you are a guest, “debriefing” is the perfect transition while you head home. Once, in a taxi in Paris, my husband and I laughed long and hard about an enforced departure where we were offered orange juice on a silver tray followed immediately by our coats. Buh-bye now.
GH: …But there were always, also, a couple of guests who knew exactly what to do. Who never arrived too early but allowed you a 10-minute breather just past the hour they were expected. Who never just plopped their paper cone of bodega flowers on the kitchen prep table in the middle of your work but instinctively scanned the cabinets for a vase and arranged the gerbera daisies then and there. They found the trash and put the wrapping in it, leaving your counters clean and your nascent friendship secured for eternity. When less-experienced guests arrived, those perfect friends guided them quickly to the bedroom to stash their coats and bags so they wouldn’t sling them willy-nilly over the backs of the chairs at the dinner table I had spent a week setting.
WCU: There is cultural variety in correct “arrival times” at dinner parties. Americans are almost always exactly on time, unless they follow Hamilton’s ten-minute rule. Europeans generally adhere to a 20-30 minute-late rule. They also thoughtfully send flowers in advance so there isn’t the scurry to trim stems, arrange, and find a vase while other dinner prep is going on. I love this idea. But if you haven’t pre-planned, then be the guest who knows how to put flowers in a container without leaving a mess.
GH:I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested. Those people who are pushing back their chairs and clearing the dessert plates from the table just as you are squeezing the oily tangerine peels into the flames to watch the blue shower of sparks, who are emptying all the ashtrays just as you are dipping your finger in the wine and then running it around the rim of your wineglasses to make tones like those from a monastery in Tibet. When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…
WCU: This is my pièce de résistance, the centerpiece of all parties. I truly believe that invited guests should be the King and Queen of Everything. They should not clear plates or stack dishes or put away leftover food or wipe kitchen counters. They have been invited to be taken care of, to feel special. A guest need only bring an appetite, a good sense of humor, and their best “conversational self”.
informal dinner for 4
thanksgiving table, chez bentley
GH: …The dinner party now depends more than ever on having one frequently, offhandedly, with abandon. If there are only eight seats and you know a few are going to end up with someone who’s got his head down to check his phone every 20 minutes, or who will be drunk on red wine by the salad course, just think of next month. To know that there will always be, for you, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, a well-set table and a roast and a salad and still,always, the wine, is to know that you are always going to find along the way another perfect friend, and then yet another.
WCU: About the wine…In Taipei, we had an experience that clearly marked cultural differences around wine and a meal. Seated in the dining room of a Chinese family home, the first bottle of red wine was 1953 Château Lafite Rothschild which had been “breathing” on a side table before gently poured into each glass. A brief toast, then the tasting which was velvety, delicate and delicious. There was a pasta course generously garnished with white truffles our host had imported from Italy. He proposed another toast. This time he held his wine glass with both hands and looked directly at my husband, who followed his example but held his glass slightly lower to show respect. They executed a perfect “ganbei”, the traditional Chinese toast of draining glasses until empty. It was a time-and-place cultural experience, but tragic, too. This vintage Bordeaux wine, which we were privileged to drink once in our lives, was downed like a beer on a hot day.
At our own formal dinners we like to announce each course as it is served, giving a little description of ingredients and preparation. It’s a quirky ritual, but seemingly enjoyed by guests. We also begin the meal with a toast. One of my well-used ones originated from home cook and author, Laurie Colwin, “One of life’s greatest pleasures is eating. Second to that is eating with friends. And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.” Cheers and bon appétit.
A dinner party doesn’t require formality. As Hamilton says, throw them often, even with reckless abandon. It’s about getting people together. We often entertain by making homemade pizza topped with arugula, served with champagne for Sunday night supper. There could be placemats instead of tablecloths or bare wood with a colorful Asian tapestry running down the table length. Candles always. [Kindle Some Candlelight]
GH: …Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Even if you can now afford real flowers, trudge across a field for a morning anyway collecting attractive branches and grasses to arrange down the center of the table — it will put you right. Roast the rabbits and braise the lentils, and clean the leeks and light all the candles. Even now, someone may get a little lit on the red wine and want to do a shot. But that may be just what your dinner party needs…When your kids come downstairs to say good night, give them a glimpse of something unforgettable.
Our children are adults now and the best ones to say what they remember about growing up overseas. Yet, I believe they might recall coming home from their own night out with friends to a dining room full of adults known to them, backlit with candles, open bottles of wine, empty dessert plates and coffee cups and, always, the lingering aura of good friendship and conversation around a table.
I can’t say whether this memory is unforgettable to them. But, to me, it is indelibly imprinted in my mind as the communion of good people around a grown-up table.
In April 2016, my husband and I headed to Provence for an early spring weekend getaway. We wanted to explore Avignon, the former Papal capital during the Middle Ages. The direct TGV train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon took us there in a little over three hours.
We arrived at the station two hours before departure time and ascended the wide curving staircase to the historic restaurant on the second floor, Le Train Bleu. It overlooks the tracks of incoming and outgoing trains, on one side, and the city of Paris, on the other.
track side view, judith clancy drawing, 1979
street side view, judith clancy drawing, 1979
The first order of business was to relax in comfortable ambience before the train departed. The second was to order petit déjeuner à la M.F.K. Fisher who wrote stories about this restaurant from the 1930s-1960s. I wanted to replicate her experience 50+ years later.
Le Train Bleu is always grand, but mostly empty in the early mornings. A few scattered travelers may show up to drink coffee or tea, but the white tablecloth tables and red leather banquettes are unavailable until lunch. We were seated at an unadorned table near the trackside windows.
the revolving door into another century
We invited friends, Sally and John, to join us even though they were not travelling. They were first timers to Le Train Bleu, and we knew they would enjoy the historical elegance with a light breakfast, too.
Fisher’s typical order was thin slices of Italian Parma ham, good bread and butter and a half bottle of brut Champagne. Parma ham is no longer a choice, but whole grain brown baguettes with butter and jam are still traditional. Cappuccino or café noir was our beverage of choice.
We breakfasted leisurely, ordering a second round of coffees. As our friends left to return to their apartment in Montmartre, we boarded the train going south.
Exiting the station, the train picked up speed passing sooty graffiti-walled cityscape. Then came the banlieue [suburbs] with blocky cement apartment buildings and finally pastoral countryside dotted with farms and grazing animals.
Avignon sits on the banks of the Rhône River in Provence, north of the coastal city of Marseille. When the Catholic Church moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in the 14th century, it became the center of Christianity. The Palais de Papes [Popes’ Palace] was occupied for the next seven decades by a succession of seven popes.
Avignon was still under papal control until the time of the French revolution in 1789. Afterward, it was used as a barracks and then as a prison for many years. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a must-see museum–the Palace itself.
The Palais de Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built. Its’ walls are an impenetrable 17-18 feet thick. Immense proportions are filled with cavernous halls, chapels and chambers.
top of the pope’s palace tower
palace walls 17-18 ft. thick
The “Treasure Room” was where all the gold, silver and jewels owned by the Church were kept. Back then it was off limits to everyone except the Pope. Today the room has a glass floor where you can see massive rectangular stones, propped up, under which the treasures were hidden, back in the day. It is impossible to imagine the wealth once secreted under these stones.
papal tower thru a rampart
We stayed at La Mirande, an historic hotel in the shadow of the Palace museum. Originally it was a Cardinal’s palace, resurrected into a period hotel centuries later. Our room had a small, walkout walled terrace overlooking rooftops and a church steeple.
As often the case when traveling, one of the best experiences we had was stumbling upon an unknown restaurant when rain-soggy wet, tired, and very hungry.
We were lucky to slip into the last table for two in a tiny, terra cotta tile-floored café called Chez Lulu. On a piece of black slate, we were served a small round of Camembert cheese baked in its’ thin wooden container. Around the cheese box there were rolled up slices of prosciutto, tiny roasted potatoes, small green cornichons, and a lightly dressed mixed salad.
That molten cheese into which we dipped bread, potatoes, prosciutto and pickles is as memorable now as it was at first bite. The cold dampness of all-day showers disappeared. Dim interior lighting radiated warm ambience. Provençal wine complimented the peasant-like simplicity of the meal. We ordered a second glass.
There is subtle enjoyment in the harmony of opposites. Early morning spring sunshine in Paris–chilly, all-afternoon rain in Avignon. Beginning the day under the splendor of Belle Époque frescoes in Le Train Bleu and ending it in an unpretentious brick walled café with fogged over windows dripping rain.
Si vous êtes chanceux, alors ça va parfois dans la vie…
If you are lucky, so it sometimes goes in life…
BAKED CAMEMBERT A LA PROVENÇALE
1 small round camembert cheese per person or 1 large round for 2 people
boiled or roasted potatoes, skin on
prosciutto or any charcuterie [optional]
tiny pickles, gherkins or cornichons
raw veggies such as sweet peppers, radishes, cherry tomatoes
baguette or crusty country bread
mixed green salad with homemade vinaigrette
Remove the paper covering over cheese. Line the inside of the wooden box with aluminum foil to keep cheese from leaking out of box. Place cheese back in box. [Box should be held together with staples, not glue.]
Cut a thin layer off the top rind to expose interior. Insert several slices of fresh garlic, place a few fresh rosemary leaves on top, a sprinkle of sea salt or chili peppers, as desired.
Drizzle a tiny amount of olive oil over. Place on baking sheet or in cast iron skillet then into preheated oven set at 180C or 350F.
Bake no more than 10-15 minutes, until cheese is “melt-y”.
Place box of oozing Camembert on serving plate arranged with prepared potatoes, crudités, pickles, meat, and salad.
Soon after we moved to Paris I sought out this “Place” M.F.K. Fisher wrote eloquently about as being more than just a train depot for entering or exiting the city. She was referring to the Gare de Lyon in the 12th Arrondissement. I wanted to know why it was so special.
inside gare de lyon today
track side view, judith clancy drawing, 1979
Fisher’s experience on French trains began in 1929 when she moved from California to Dijon. She described herself in the early years as “…always one more ant scuttling for a certain track.” Then, in 1937, while waiting for guests to arrive, she sat under the enormous glass roof in a trackside café with marble tables and green trees planted in boxes. With a brandy and water in hand, absorbing her surroundings, she was suddenly overcome by a feeling that she “was not in a station, but in a Place”. From then on, she made it a habit to arrive early–with time to wait.
clock tower outside entrance
under the glass roof
In the 1960s and early ‘70s, after children and husbands and lovers were long gone, she was often sent to Provence on writing assignments. Her publishers encouraged her to fly south from Paris. Memories honed decades earlier meant she preferred the “Mistral” train from Gare de Lyon to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence.
She developed the habit of arriving at least two hours before departure. This allowed time to ascend the wide stone staircase to the second floor restaurant–Le Train Bleu. When you spin through the revolving wood and glass door, then and now, it is like walking into a time capsule from La Belle Époque. Instinctively, you stand a little taller and walk a little more gracefully to your table.
ascending the stone staircase to le train bleu
and from the other side
the revolving door into another century
In 1900, Paris was hosting a second world’s fair. As part of the preparation, a new train station, Gare de Lyon, was designed to highlight the railway lines of the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] Company from Paris to destinations in Provence and the Côte d’Azur on the Mediterranean. The company also wanted a prestigious and elegant restaurant to symbolize travel, luxury and comfort.
In 1901, Buffet de la Gare de Lyon first opened its’ doors amid sumptuous art nouveau décor. Ornate carvings, moldings, gilding, and imposing chandeliers highlighted frescoes and murals of cities and scenery viewed from PLM trains as they headed south and east. The restaurant offered tranquility, character, and a place for travelers to spend a refined break. In Fisher’s words, it was “all that was opulently cheerful, generously vulgar and delightful about la Belle Époque.”
In 1963, the restaurant was renamed Le Train Bleu in reference to the French Riviera destinations.
art nouveau details
opulence, decadence and delight to the eye
Fisher’s early arrival gave her the luxury of time for a leisurely breakfast or lunch. In the 1960s, she believed that the fresh bread served in Le Train Bleu was the best she had tasted since before WWII. For petit déjeuner she always had “bread and butter, Parma ham, and a half-bottle of brut champagne…”, which she thought a bit expensive, but enjoyed all the same.
If lunchtime, she started off with a Kir and wine cocktail, followed by some kind of soufflé and fresh berries for dessert. Oh–and a half bottle of white wine–Grand-Cru Chablis. She liked her grown up drinks, having adapted easily to the French way.
Interestingly, Fisher played a role in the longevity and preservation of Le Train Bleu. By the early 1970s, the paintings were filthy with soot and pollution, gold leaf was flaking from the ceiling, the lace curtains hung in tatters and, underfoot, the flooring creaked and sagged. She was told by a group of worried waiters that the restaurant’s survival seemed doomed. She relayed all this to an American friend, Janet Flanner, who was also her neighbor. Flanner, a longtime journalist and Paris correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, went directly to the French Minister of Culture at the time. Le Train Bleu was designated an historic monument in 1972.
Since that time there have been many renovations, the most recent in 2014. Parquet floors were insulated and shored up, paintings re-cleaned, carved moldings refinished or repainted, brass coat and luggage racks polished, and leather banquettes refurbished. The name over the door was updated from neon lights to a chic metal plate.
The antique Big Ben Bar from 1901 is used today as a decoration piece and stands imposingly by the swinging glass doors to the kitchen. The original cash register is there too.
big ben bar today
sits near kitchen doors
drawing by Judith S. Clancy, 1979
There is not one corner or wall, ceiling or chandelier, archway or window in this special Place that doesn’t grab your attention or overwhelm your senses. Every time.
art nouveau details
view toward the city
These days, the menu is priced for upper-crust travellers, tourists, or well-heeled Parisians. But because it is such a Place, truly unlike any other, it’s always worth it.
Recently, I went for lunch by myself. Timed perfectly, I arrived near the end of the service, around 2:00 PM. On this cool, autumn day I decided to try the made-in-house foie gras served with rhubarb chutney and grainy toast, green salad and a glass of Montrachet white wine–from Burgundy.
When I dine alone, the pleasure is subtle and personal. Not everyone feels this way. But, over time, I have fine-tuned the ability to “disappear” in public and enjoy everything around me as if I were invisibly dropped into the scene. It is an example of cultural learning from which I have benefited greatly.
Fisher sometimes spoke of moving like “a ghost” in her travels, seemingly invisible to others, often because she was wrapped up in one of personal trials. I understand what she meant, but in a different way. For me, invisibility is a feeling of being completely content with my own company. And, at the same time, not taking anything, within the experience I am having, for granted. I observe and wonder, discreetly, without being the center of anyone else’s observations.
On this particular day, directly in front of me was an opulent antique buffet with perfectly arranged wine glasses and the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] logo carved on the top piece. Above that, reaching up to the very high ceiling, was a colorful painting of Marseille.
buffet with PLM logo from 1901
As the tables to the left and right gradually emptied, I gazed openly through the window to my left onto the tracks and boarding passengers one floor below. I wondered where they were going, how long they would stay. Was it travel for business, pleasure, something mysterious or even sad?
To the right, down a long banquette of tables reset for another meal, sat two diners leaning in towards one another. They were silhouetted against the window overlooking the square at the entrance. Why were they lingering? What was their conversation? When you are invisible, all possibilities are imagined.
Meal over, espresso finished, with no train to catch, I made my way home. Musing on the métro, my thoughts drifted to a weekend getaway my husband and I took from Paris to Avignon several months before–a trip that began in a place, not a station…
Secret eating is seldom spoken about or easily admitted. If you ask most people what they enjoy eating alone, without sharing, they hesitate with a questioning look. Or mumble that they don’t know. It’s possible they’ve never experienced this solitary pleasure.
The desire to eat unobserved isn’t like bingeing on ice cream or sneaking candy bars to feed your chocolate craving. It’s not comfort food either. It is something you do surreptitiously, consciously, and quietly by yourself. It is a moment, by choice, of indescribable satisfaction.
A survey of extended family members about clandestine eating revealed only one answer close to my definition. It came from my daughter-in-law who is Latvian with Russian heritage. She formed a covert eating ritual as a child, from the age of ten. In the summertime, after her parents left for the evening, she went to the market by herself. She bought a huge watermelon with pennies saved or found under chair cushions. Lugging it home, she managed to cut it in two, carried half to the living room sofa, watched television, and ate it down to the rind. Spoonful by decadent spoonful. Including the seeds. She was not under the watchful eye of anyone, or told to get a plate, or to sit on the floor, or not make a mess. She did it quietly and happily, for her own pleasure.
M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote a wonderful story about secret eating. It took place one frigid winter when she and her husband lived in an unheated walkup apartment in Strasbourg, France. They were depressed by the unending cold, dreary grayness and couldn’t afford to move. So they rented a room in a pension for one luxurious week. It came with a big bed, billowy curtained windows and heat.
Each morning after waving Al off to the university, Mary Frances sat in the window considering the day ahead. She wasn’t ready to brave the outdoor temperatures. While the maid fluffed up duvets and pillows, murmuring in her Alsatian accent, Fisher carefully peeled several small tangerines. Meticulously separating each orange crescent and removing all the white “strings” between pieces, she placed the sections on top of newspaper over the radiator. And forgot about them.
There was a long lunch when Al returned and perhaps a wee nip of “digestif” from the decanter on the dresser before he went back to afternoon classes. By this time the orange sections had majestically puffed up, ready to burst with heat and fullness. Opening the window, she carefully placed them in the snow on the outside sill. Several chilling minutes passed. Then it was time.
For the rest of the afternoon, Mary Frances sat watching the world go by on the street below, savoring each orange morsel slowly and voluptuously. She reveled in the spurt of cold pulp and juice after biting through the crackling skin that was like …”a little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl”. She mused while vendors sold half-frozen flowers, children ran home from school, and prostitutes sipped hot tea in a café across the way.
Winter’s early darkness descended and the orange sections were gone. She couldn’t exactly say what was so magical about them. Yet she knew that others with “secret eatings of their own” would somehow understand.
I read this story many years before we moved to Europe. The first winter we lived in Germany, I traveled by myself to Strasbourg on a train from Frankfurt. Next to Place Gutenberg is a small hotel where I stayed in a room under the roof. The spire of the Strasbourg Cathedral was visible when I stuck my head out the dormer window. The bathroom was at the top of an open staircase right under the peak.
That February was bitterly cold.
I bought a bag of small clementines, peeled them into sections, and laid them on a piece of hotel stationery on top of the radiator. Then I went out to explore.
When I returned, the oranges had grown fat and hot just as Fisher described. There was no snow, but the outside temperature was below freezing. Out on the sill they went. When thoroughly chilled, I ate them one by one in the dim afternoon light. It was true–the skins were crisp and crackling. So thin that, when you bit through them, there was a “pop” followed by the rush of cool juice and pulp. It was a replay moment from the pages of a story by a writer I had long admired. It made me happy.
Several years later, a new secret eating ritual started during a visit with “Dietitian Daughter” in Colorado. She was buying a snack item for her husband from the bulk bins of a national food chain. I watched her fill a bag with flattened, dull-colored, brownish-orange pieces of fruit. They looked run over by a truck. They were unsweetened dried mangos. Dehydrated into stiffened leather. She handed me a piece and said, “Try it”.
The first sensation was what it looked like–rough, tough hard-edged, with the taste and texture of dust on shoes. As salivary juices kicked in, that road-kill-looking mango became softer, warmer, and pliable. Careful considerate chewing brought out interesting changes. It turned vaguely sweeter but held onto the essence of fruity leather. I had to chew slowly, without hurrying, before it was ready to swallow. I had to pay attention.
The degree of subtlety from dry dusty toughness to a satisfying payoff several minutes later completely hooked me. I took my own bag back to Paris.
Now when I feel the urge, I go to the hiding place in the kitchen and randomly choose several pieces of dried mango. Then I stand or sit in a window of our apartment overlooking the vine-laden courtyard where I never tire of the view.
If I stand in the kitchen window during secret eating time, I might muse over the spring unfolding of the Virginia creeper vines or the work-in-progress renovations on the apartment across the courtyard. The neighbour’s cat might be outside on the balcony chirping wistfully at pigeons. If I choose to sit in the warm afternoon sun of the dining room windows, I have a private view of sky, rooftops, vine covered brick walls, and my own blooming geraniums.
Or, I might decide to stand in the street-side windows at the front of the apartment where I take note of pedestrians, shopkeepers, or a trumpet-playing street musician four stories below.
My secret eating is something I try to keep to myself. It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction. But what is it really? Like Fisher, I can’t exactly say. Perhaps it’s simply a meditative time-out, or a few private minutes of simply “being” and not “doing”, or a satisfying break in the midst of a day, a week, a month.
There must be someone out there who understands what I mean…
M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote that the best outdoor eating is on the side of a hill in the early evening. Her story of an unforgettable picnic took place in Switzerland in the 1930s. Sixty years later, in the 1990s, on a grassy meadow in Taiwan, we had a similar family experience. Continents and decades apart, the stories are interwoven because both Fisher’s memory and mine are reflections about more than the menu.
Fisher’s story went like this. She and her husband were building a small house above Lake Geneva, Switzerland, on a steep hillside surrounded by vineyards. Her parents came from California to visit. Late afternoon sun in June promised just enough warmth for an outside meal. The four of them carried baskets to the construction site, after workers had left for the day.
A table under the apple tree was covered with a checkered cloth and set with silver, ceramic plates and cloth napkins. Bottles of wine were placed in an ancient spring-fed fountain to chill. A fire was built, ringed with stones and roofing tiles, fueled with wood shavings.
The first spring peas were ready to harvest. As the men picked from the terraced garden uphill, Mary Frances ran baskets downhill to her mother who quickly shelled them into a pot. An iron casserole was set over the open fire where the peas “cooked for perhaps four or five minutes, swirling them in butter and their own steam”. Salt and pepper at the end, then table side.
On each plate lay a small roasted pullet. There was salad of delicate mountain lettuces, a basket of good bread, and fountain-chilled white wine generously poured. And those tender young peas–freshly steamed and seasoned! They shared the harvested feast and each other’s company as the surrounding hills turned rosy and the sun began to sink. Suddenly, in a neighboring field, “…a cow moved her head among the meadow flowers and shook her bell in a slow, melodious rhythm, a kind of hymn.” Fisher never forgot it.
There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. –m.f.k. fisher
In the spring of our first year in Taiwan, we went on a picnic where the alignment of people, place, and food replicated Fisher’s kind of perfection. More importantly, our young daughter began to understand the communal spirit created when food is shared in good company.
Yangmingshan is the national park north of Taipei. It was typically crowded on weekends with cooped up city people seeking fresh air, hiking trails, flowers and greenery. Friends Maddy and Cabby knew of an area in the park where water buffalo grazed freely and people were few. They organized a picnic in Buffalo Meadows on a late afternoon. We were four adults and three young children.
From the parking area we hiked uphill in a cloud so dense it moistened our hair and skin with droplets of water. At the top of the trail the landscape turned sunny and green with views all around. The soft grass was picnic perfect. Out of a backpack came a Frisbee and the men organized play on the hillside. Lara and Liza tired of running after a frisbee they couldn’t catch. They tried to follow a slow moving water buffalo. He wandered on.
Our nine-year-old daughter came over and sat down to watch the food preparation. There was a small camp stove along with a battered and blackened Japanese wok in which to put together the meal. Ingredients had been sliced, steamed, grated and pre-cooked at home. Once the stove was leveled, primed, and producing enough heat, assembly began.
Olive oil was generously poured into the wok and heated. Thinly sliced cloves of fresh garlic were added to the hot oil. Shaking the pan continuously, the slices began to brown around the edges. Bite sized broccoli flowerets were stirred in with freshly ground pepper. Pre-cooked penne pasta was added along with butter. Everything was tumbled together with a large wooden spoon until thoroughly heated. Finally, freshly grated Parmesan cheese was layered on top and melted into everything. Lightly browned garlic slices gave toasted sweetness to the broccoli and pasta. A one-dish meal. Perfect.
Plates were passed. We sat side by side on blankets eating, laughing and talking. As the sun lowered over the far hills, the temperature cooled and we reached for jackets. Thimble sized portions of single malt whisky were passed among the adults. A breeze stirred and we leaned in closer, wrapping arms around children. Four-year-old Liza was zipped into the front of her father’s grey sweatshirt where she fell asleep curled into his chest, only the top of her blonde head showing. We talked quietly as darkness descended. The mist returned. It was time to go home.
Days later, our daughter asked if I could make that broccoli pasta. She had a faraway look in her eyes while she spoke of the picnic in Buffalo Meadows and how wonderful it had been. Looking at her face and listening to her speak I knew she had made a connection about more than the food. She was asking to go back to a feeling created on a tranquil hillside with close-knit family and friends. I never forgot her request. She had connected the dots that Fisher writes about so well–the communion of spirits when food and love are shared, around a table or on a hillside, with people who are important to us.
Perhaps this explains why a picnic, so many years ago, is vivid in my memory. Although I love reflecting on Fisher’s story of peas, a Swiss hillside, and a cowbell, my own recollection is this–a beat-up Japanese wok filled with pasta, a misty meadow, adults and children with arms around one another, and a water buffalo. I can’t let it go.
Simmer broccoli in boiling water 1-2 minutes, drain, rinse in cold water.
Heat oil ~ 1 min. Add garlic slices and cook, shaking pan until it begins to brown ~1 min.
Add broccoli, stir, grind pepper on top.
Add butter and penne, stirring continuously until well mixed and heated through.
Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Pass the pepper mill.
Add garnish and extra Parmesan.
For variety, add shredded or cubed cooked chicken, sliced black olives, or leftover veggies. Red or yellow bell peppers make a colorful addition. [Steam or stir fry before adding.] Red pepper flakes for added spice. Cherry tomatoes, cut in half, as garnish before serving.
In Colorado, the holiday season was snow-white and the fireplace blazed night and day. There were deer and elk on the hillside, daily hikes into the National Park, a miniature snow-woman laboriously constructed from barely packable “dry” snow, and, of course, there were egg sandwiches.
A multi-layered, made-to-order egg sandwich is staple breakfast fare when we are at home in the mountains. It is nourishment spiced with geography and longstanding tradition. The ritual evolved, as things often do, from something I read.
Twenty-some years ago I was immersed in the writings of M.F.K. [Mary Frances Kennedy] Fisher. She weaves autobiographical stories of people, places, and food into descriptive prose. Her mythologizing of Aunt Gwen’s fried egg sandwiches caught my imagination. It is the tale of a child’s realization that food and life lessons are inseparable from a strong adult mentor.
When Fisher was a young girl, several influential summers were spent with Aunt Gwen in Laguna Beach, California. As Mary Frances explained,
“…she taught us a thousand things too intangible to report, as well as how to roast kelp leaves, steam mussels, tease a rattlesnake away from a frightened horse, skin an eel after sundown, and stay quiet while a night-blooming cereus [cactus flower] unfolds…”
With Aunt Gwen leading the way, Mary Frances and her younger sister Anne hiked the hills and cliffs above the beach singing hymns and marching songs at the top of their lungs. There was always an egg sandwich or two carefully tucked into their pockets.
In the good Laguna days, it was an exciting promise, to warm up the pan, ready the ingredients, and make fried-egg sandwiches. Aunt Gwen insisted that we have at least two pockets somewhere on us, one for shells, stones, small fish, or lizards, and one big enough to hold these greasily wrapped, limp, steamy monsters. Then we would race the sunset to a high hill. The sandwiches stayed warm against our bodies, and when we panted to a stop, and fell against a good rock or an old eucalyptus trunk, the packets sent out damp insistent invitations… We each had two sandwiches. The first we gnashed at like fairly well mannered puppies. The second was for contemplation, as we watched all of the quiet empty slopes down to the cliff edge, and the great ocean with the sun sliding into it. —MFK Fisher, Among Friends, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1970
What I love about this story is that it speaks of satisfaction beyond physical hunger. Fisher was learning, as a child, that the right combination of food, company, and spiritual nourishment was a metaphor for living well. The ingredients of those egg sandwiches included “equal parts of hunger and happiness”, a hillside sunset, and companions she loved.
There are no cliffs overlooking an ocean where our cabin is located, but cool summer mornings and cold winter ones stimulate good appetites. Mountain views, towering ponderosa pines and native wildlife are our spiritual geography. When home in Colorado, family and friends are often with us. A tradition was born around the kitchen table in winter and the front porch in summer—our mountain version of the fried egg sandwich.
Aunt Gwen’s recipe was well documented. It started by heating the grease from whatever was cooked the day before in a large flat-bottomed skillet. When the fragrant drippings reached a smoking hot temperature, an egg was dropped in, the yolk broken, and quickly fried so that the edges were crisply brown and barely digestible. Next, two slices of good bread were added to the pan and browned on one side only. The cooked egg was slapped into the middle of the bread slices and pressed together. Finally, the whole thing was wrapped in wax paper that partially melted into the sandwich, small pieces of which were consumed when bit into with hunger and a happy heart.
As an aid to digestion and modern taste preferences, this is our version.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN EGG SANDWICH
Thick sliced smoked bacon, cooked crisply
Eggs, preferably brown and free range
Jalapeño jack cheese or cheese of choice
Toasted English muffins or good brown bread
Salsa or fresh tomato slices
Fresh spinach or some kind of leafy green
Avocado slices or guacamole, optional
Salt and pepper to taste
Additional red pepper flakes as desired
Family and/or friends gathered on a sun-warmed front porch in summer, around the kitchen table or fireplace in winter. Laughter and conversation flowing easily with a cooked-to-order egg sandwich in hand. Appetites satisfied. Camaraderie shared. A new day begins.
Assemble ingredients. Cook bacon in well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Using the bacon drippings, crack an egg into round metal form and break the yolk. Season with S&P or red pepper flakes. When egg is set, remove the form and gently turn the egg over for just a few seconds. On toasted English muffin, layer a thin slice of cheese, tomato, bacon and optional ingredients [avocado, salsa, etc.]. Add cooked egg and fresh spinach leaves or other greens. Press the whole thing down to a manageable biting size. Eat immediately while hot, using both hands. A mug of strong coffee or tea is good accompaniment.
Traditions are important to children as they grow up. Aunt Gwen’s ritualized hiking and singing and eating egg sandwiches at sunset on a beach created a symbolic tradition, which in turn mentored a young girl that living well and eating well are intertwined.
All I could now say about Aunt Gwen will never be said, but it is sure that much of my enjoyment of the art of living, as well as of eating, comes from her…as well as my certainty that the two are, or can be, synonymous.—MFK Fisher, Among Friends
“There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” These words, written long ago by M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992], speak of the chemistry that occurs with the right combination of people, place and food–a communal spirit shared around the table with family or friends. Bread and wine are not the only catalysts. It can happen around a pot of egg coffee, too.
Three weeks ago we reconnected with a group of people we have known for many years but not seen in a long time. It was one of those bittersweet reunions–gathering to celebrate the life of a friend who passed away. And, at the same time, seeing others with whom we had shared great moments in the past. The weekend was one of those memory jolts when you re-encounter special friendships after losing touch with them. It’s easy to catch up because what you loved about them before is still there.
For several years in early marriage, we made repeated visits to a stone farmhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was the family home of Dale and Marilyn Larson. The house was thick walled with deep windowsills constructed from native fieldstone. Of all the warm memories of time spent on that beautiful farm, the clearest one is standing in the kitchen around an enamel coffeepot with a broken egg inside.
Legend has it that the recipe for egg coffee was carried on a boat from Sweden to the New World sometime during the 1800s. In Larson family lore, the story goes like this.
A young Swedish girl, named Edla, moved to southern Minnesota in the late 1880s. She was terribly homesick, often going into the fields late at night to have a little cry. Then, Karl Larson proposed marriage and a new life began on his farm. It was 1890. There was no more homesickness. And there was always a pot of egg coffee on the stove.
Two generations later, Edla’s grandson, five-year-old Dale Larson, walked across two farm fields to visit his grandparent’s home. To gain his mother’s permission for the trek, he had to hold the hand of his older sister. She was six-and-a-half. Upon entering the kitchen, Edla would say to them, “Milk is bad for you. Coffee is good. Drink this.” So he did. For the next 80 years.
Every time we visited the Michigan stone farmhouse we drank it, too. It was a morning ritual perfected over generations and fascinating to watch. Making egg coffee became the symbol for something else—time spent with people we admired and loved. And who loved us back. Important life lessons were absorbed over cups of egg coffee in those years.
During the memorial weekend for our mutual friend, an important message from the Larson kitchen returned. It’s this–spend time with people who bring out the best parts of you, the best version of you. Then remember to go back and get refreshed.
I tried making egg coffee each time we returned from those Ann Arbor visits. But it was never quite right. I was probably too impatient or easily lured by push button coffee making. Eventually the attempts stopped and the enamel pot became merely decorative.
These days I’m more patient about the sweet spot of perfecting a ritual. With an enamel coffee pot from the flea market and step-by-step practice, I can make a good cup of egg coffee now. And always within this ritual, I’m reminded of friendship and lessons learned first in a kitchen, in a field stone farmhouse, with a broken egg at the bottom of the coffeepot.
…And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things, the heart finds it morning and is refreshed.”–Kahlil Gibran, “On Friendship”
LARSON FAMILY EGG COFFEE
Determine how many cups [8oz] of coffee your pot makes. Break one egg into bottom of pot, with or without the shell.
Measure in coarse ground coffee–one heaping scoop for each cup plus one for the pot.
3. Stir mixture with chopstick to combine egg and coffee grounds. Pour boiling water over egg/coffee mix. Stir together with chopstick.
4. Place enamel pot over heat. When it starts to foam up and boil, turn off heat immediately. Watch closely so it doesn’t boil over.
5. Cover and let steep for 5 minutes. Then pour and enjoy. You can use a sieve to strain, but if you pour slowly it is not necessary.
Egg coffee is as good as it gets for those who love a strong, smooth, mellow brew. What happens is this: The egg congeals coarse coffee grounds into a clump and neutralizes acidity that makes coffee taste bitter. It also acts as a filter, because essential oils from the beans are in the finished beverage, rather than on a paper filter. More oils make better tasting coffee. If you throw the whole egg with shell in the pot, you probably get some added calcium benefits, too.
Edla Larson kept adding water to the same pot all day long. She was probably frugal with both eggs and coffee. I have used a second round of boiling water, but don’t go beyond that. Just start over.
What to put on toast in the morning was not something I thought much about for most of my life. That is, until four years ago, when we moved to France. It is interesting how a nondescript food item can suddenly become an art form when you step outside your normal way of experiencing it.
Most jams and jellies in North America are found in the supermarket aisle alongside peanut butter or honey. They can be chosen by color, flavor or, in my case, if there was red fruit and seeds in it. One jar usually sat forgotten in the door of the refrigerator unless I remembered to pull it out. It had the status of something easily ignored and possibly moldy.
Within the first year after our move to Paris, I experienced a “jam epiphany”. Students in French language courses learn “la confiture” is something to spread on the breakfast baguette or to stir into plain yogurt for dessert. Outside of class the learning curve rises steeply when you discover that confiture in no way resembles Welch’s-fructose-sugar-product in a jar. Yes, it is packaged in jars, but there are shelves upon shelves dedicated to the myriad brands and flavors in every market or shop. Another difference is that you want to savor, remember, and talk about what the flavors taste like.
While wandering about Paris, I discovered a small shop completely dedicated to “Les Confitures”. This specialty store, stocked floor to ceiling with out-of-this-world-jams, was not in my normal shopping district. Now I plan excursions across town to pick up a jar, or two, or three. I send visitors there to buy gifts to take home.
What is it about jam in France that turned my head around? For one thing, each jar tastes exactly like its name–-to the ingredient. You can close your eyes and identify the fruit from which it is made without looking at the label. The sweetness is not cloying and sugary, but subtle. The taste is pure, sweet, fragrant fruit in spreadable form.
Sometimes confiture tastes like flowers. At a breakfast buffet in a château hotel in Normandy, I zeroed in on an arrangement of seven jars in a perfect circle of color, each with it’s own long handled spoon. They had names like Violettes de Provence, Cerise Grillotes, Oranges Améres, Lait Confiture, and Roses Confit.
I tried four of them on the fresh bread being served. They were all exceptional. Those named after flowers tasted as you might imagine a violet or rose would taste. They had what looked like pieces of flower petals mixed into the jellied matter.
Lait Confiture is light caramel in color and taste. It is notable for a creamy texture that makes you want to close your eyes and hum. When my nephew visited us in Paris from the United States, I watched him quietly stir a spoonful of Beurre Lait Confiture into his coffee each morning.
I have written before of my love for Normandy French butter imbedded with crystals of sea salt; how I spread it daily over toasted pieces of grainy baguette. On the weekends, breakfast has a different routine. My husband and I share a leisurely petit déjeuner in the small eating area overlooking the vine-covered courtyard of our apartment building.
He starts the coffee and begins making a plate of toasted pieces of baguette. Sometimes we have the crusty round bread from Poilâne bakery. On the round marble-topped table goes a clean cloth. From the refrigerator comes a special pottery container filled with confiture transferred from its original jar to this one. The flavor is whatever is on hand: mango, fig, strawberry/rhubarb, wild blueberry, pear, or simply “fruits rouges”, red fruits. Weekend breakfasts are when we indulge pleasurably—when there is time to sit and read, or converse quietly, without rushing out the door. It’s a sweet formula we have come to love.
I learned something new about enjoying fine confiture from a young French boy. Nico, ten-years-old, lives in Strasbourg, and stayed overnight with us one weekend.
His mother and I were chatting when he arrived at the table to have breakfast. I served him a small wedge of Spanish omelet and two pieces of baguette toast. While our conversation continued, I was distracted by Nico’s approach to his food.
He looked into each of the two open jars of confiture and smiled to himself. Next, he scooped a generous amount of strawberry/rhubarb jam onto a piece of toast. With patience and precision he pressed the fruit of the confiture into the larger holes of the baguette, using the back of a spoon. Then he smoothed the entire surface, back and forth, back and forth, for about three minutes until it was evenly and completely covered out to the edges. Not one millimeter of bread showed through the jam. It looked beautiful. Like a rosy still life painting. Once satisfied, he began to eat. For Nico, nothing was more important than preparing his toast and confiture, just so.
It reminded me of a story M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about Lucullus, a gourmand from ancient Roman times. He had a reputation for hosting lavish, elaborate banquets. But a solo dining experience was just as important to him.
Once, when served a meal where “he was conscious of a certain slackness” in the food, he became annoyed. When the summoned chef protested, “We thought there was no need to prepare a fine banquet for my lord alone…”, Lucullus responded icily, “It is precisely when I am alone that you pay special attention. At such times, you must remember, Lucullus dines with Lucullus.”
At my kitchen table, Nico was dining with Nico. With full attention and pleasure.
We stopped talking and watched as the second piece of toast was readied. With no less concentration, each meticulous step was repeated–smilingly scooping out jam, pressing it in, painting long strokes from edge to edge. His mother asked him what he was enjoying more, his toast or his confiture.
There was no need to answer. Nico’s contentment was visible from his smile down to the bottom of his little boy soul.