ONCE I met a young servant in northern Burgundy who was almost frighteningly fanatical about food, like a mediæval woman possessed by a devil. Her obsession engulfed even my appreciation of the dishes she served, until I grew uncomfortable.
It was the off season at the old mill which a Parisian chef had bought and turned into one of France’s most famous restaurants, and my mad waitress was the only servant. In spite of that she was neatly uniformed, and showed no surprise at my unannounced arrival and my hot dusty walking clothes.
She smiled discreetly at me, said, ‘Oh, but certainly!’ when I asked if I could lunch there, and led me without more words to a dark bedroom bulging with First Empire furniture, and a new white bathroom.
When I went into the dining room it was empty of humans — a cheerful ugly room still showing traces of the petit bourgeois parlor it had been. There were aspidistras on the mantel; several small white tables were laid with those imitation ‘peasant-ware’ plates that one sees in Paris china stores, and very good crystal glasses; a cat folded under some ferns by the window ledge hardly looked at me; and the air was softly hurried with the sound of high waters from the stream outside.
I waited for the maid to come back. I knew I should eat well and slowly, and suddenly the idea of dry sherry, unknown in all the village bistrots of the last few days, stung my throat smoothly. I tried not to think of it; it would be impossible to realize. Dubonnet would do. But not as well. I longed for sherry.
The little maid came into the silent room. I looked at her stocky young body, and her butter-colored hair, and noticed her odd pale voluptuous mouth before I said, ‘Mademoiselle, I shall drink an apéritif. Have you by any chance —’
‘Let me suggest,’ she interrupted firmly, ‘our special dry sherry. It is chosen in Spain for Monsieur Paul.’
And before I could agree she was gone, discreet and smooth.
She’s a funny one, I thought, and waited in a pleasant warm tiredness for the wine.
It was good. I smiled approval at her, and she lowered her eyes, and then looked searchingly at me again. I realized suddenly that in this land of trained nonchalant waiters I was to be served by a small waitress who took her duties seriously. I felt much amused, and matched her solemn searching gaze.
‘To-day, Madame, you may eat shoulder of lamb in the English style, with baked potatoes, green beans, and a sweet.’
My heart sank. I felt dismal, and hot and weary, and still grateful for the sherry.
But she was almost grinning at me, her lips curved triumphantly, and her eyes less palely blue.
‘Oh, in that case,’she remarked as if I had spoken, ‘in that case a trout, of course — a truite au bleu as only Monsieur Paul can prepare it!’
She glanced hurriedly at my face, and hastened on. ‘With the trout, one or two young potatoes — oh, very delicately boiled,’ she added before I could protest, ‘very light.’
I felt better. I agreed. ‘Perhaps a leaf or two of salad after the fish,’ I suggested. She almost snapped at me. ‘Of course, of course! And naturally our hors d’œuvres to commence.’ She started away.
‘No!’ I called, feeling that I must assert myself now or be forever lost. ‘No!’
She turned back, and spoke to me very gently. ‘But Madame has never tasted our hors d’œuvres. I am sure that Madame will be pleased. They are our specialty, made by Monsieur Paul himself. I am sure,’ and she looked reproachfully at me, her mouth tender and sad, ‘I am sure that Madame would be very much pleased.’
I smiled weakly at her, and she left. A little cloud of hurt gentleness seemed to hang in the air where she had last stood.
I comforted myself with the sherry, feeling increasing irritation with my own feeble self. Hell! I loathed hors d’œuvres! I conjured disgusting visions of square glass plates of oily fish, of soggy vegetables glued together with cheap mayonnaise, of rank radishes and tasteless butter. No, Monsieur Paul or not, sad young palefaced waitress or not, I hated hors d’œuvres.
I glanced victoriously across the room at the cat, whose eyes seemed closed.
Several minutes passed. I was really very hungry.
The door banged open, and my girl came in again, less discreet this time. She hurried toward me.
‘Madame, the wine! Before Monsieur Paul can go on —’ Her eyes watched my face, which I perversely kept rather glum.
‘I think,’ I said ponderously, daring her to interrupt me, ‘I think that today, since I am in Burgundy and about to eat a trout,’ and here I hoped she noticed that I did not mention hors d’œuvres, ‘I think I shall drink a bottle of Chablis 1929.’
For a second her whole face blazed with joy, and then subsided into a trained mask. I knew that I had chosen well, had somehow satisfied her in a secret and incomprehensible way. She nodded politely and scuttled off, only for another second glancing impatiently at me as I called after her, ‘Well cooled, please, but not iced.’
I’m a fool, I thought, to order a whole bottle. I’m a fool, here all alone and with more miles to walk before I reach Avallon and my fresh clothes and a bed. Then I smiled at myself and leaned back in my solid wide-seated chair, looking obliquely at the prints of Gibson girls, English tavern scenes, and hideous countrysides that hung on the papered walls. The room was warm; I could hear my companion cat purring under the ferns.
The girl rushed in, with flat baking dishes piled up her arms like the plates of a Japanese juggler. She slid them off neatly in two rows on to the table, where they lay steaming up at me, darkly and infinitely appetizing.
‘Mon Dieu! All for me?’ I peered at her. She nodded, her discretion quite gone now and a look of ecstatic worry on her pale face and eyes and lips.
There were at least eight dishes. I felt almost embarrassed, and sat for a minute looking weakly at the fork and spoon in my hand.
‘Perhaps Madame would care to start with the pickled herring? It is not like any other. Monsieur Paul prepares it himself, in his own vinegar and wines. It is very good.’
I dug out two or three brown filets from the dish, and tasted. They were truly unlike any others, truly the best I had ever eaten, mild, pungent, meaty as fresh nuts.
I realized the maid had stopped breathing, and looked up at her. She was watching me, or rather a gastronomic X-ray of the herring inside me, with a hypnotized glaze in her eyes.
‘Madame is pleased?’ she whispered softly.
I said I was. She sighed, and pushed a sizzling plate of broiled endive toward me, and disappeared.
I had put a few dull green lentils on my plate, lentils scattered with minced fresh herbs and probably marinated in tarragon vinegar and walnut oil, when she came into the dining room again with the bottle of Chablis in a wine basket.
‘Madame should be eating the little baked onions while they are hot,’ she remarked over her shoulder as she held the bottle in a napkin and uncorked it. I obeyed meekly, and while I watched her I ate several more than I had meant to. They were delicious, simmered first in strong meat broth, I think, and then drained and broiled with olive oil and new-ground pepper.
I was fascinated by her method of uncorking a vintage wine. Instead of the Burgundian procedure of infinite and often exaggerated precautions against touching or tipping or jarring the bottle, she handled it quite nonchalantly, and seemed to be careful only to keep her hands from the cool bottle itself, holding it sometimes by the basket and sometimes in a napkin. The cork was very tight, and I thought for a minute that she would break it. So did she: her face grew tight, and did not loosen until she had slowly worked out the cork and wiped the lip. Then she poured an inch of wine in a glass, turned her back to me like a priest taking Communion, and drank it down. Finally some was poured for me, and she stood with the bottle in her hand and her full lips drooping until I nodded a satisfied yes. Then she pushed another of the plates toward me, and almost rushed from the room.
I ate slowly, knowing that I should not be as hungry as I ought to be for the trout, but knowing too that I had never tasted such delicate savory morsels. Some were hot, some cold. The wine was light and cool. The room, warm and agreeably empty under the rushing sound of the stream, became smaller as I grew used to it.
My girl hurried in again, with another row of plates up one arm, and a large bucket dragging at the other. She slid the plates deftly on to the table, and drew a deep breath as she let the bucket down against the table leg.
‘Your trout, Madame,’ she said excitedly. I looked down at the gleam of the fish curving through its limited water. ‘But first a good slice of Monsieur Paul’s pâté. Oh yes, oh yes, you will be very sorry if you miss this. It is rich, but appetizing, and not at all too heavy. Just this one morsel!’
And willy-nilly I accepted the large gouge she dug from a terrine. I prayed for ten normal appetites and thought with amused nostalgia of my usual lunch of cold milk and fruit as I broke off a crust of bread and patted it smooth with the paste. Then I forgot everything but the exciting faint decadent flavor in my mouth.
I beamed up at the girl. She nodded, but from habit asked if I was satisfied. I beamed again, and asked, simply to please her, ‘Is there not a faint hint of marc, or perhaps cognac?’
‘Marc, Madame!’ And she awarded me the proud look of a teacher whose pupil has showed unexpected intelligence. ‘Monsieur Paul, after he has taken equal parts of goose breast and the finest pork, and broken a certain number of egg yolks into them, and ground them very, very fine, cooks all with seasoning for some three hours. But,’ she pushed her face nearer, and looked with ferocious gloating at the pâtê inside me, her eyes like X-rays, ‘he never stops stirring it! Figure to yourself the work of it — stir, stir, never stopping!
‘Then he grinds in a suspicion of nutmeg, and then adds, very thoroughly, a glass of marc for each hundred grams of pâté. And is Madame not pleased?’
Again I agreed, rather timidly, that Madame was much pleased, that Madame had never, indeed, tasted such an unctuous and exciting pâté. The girl wet her lips delicately, and then started as if she had been pin-stuck.
‘But the trout! My God, the trout!’ She grabbed the bucket, and her voice grew higher and more rushed.
‘Here is the trout, Madame. You are to eat it au bleu, and you should never do so if you had not seen it alive. For if the trout were dead when it was plunged into the court bouillon it would not turn blue. So, naturally, it must be living.’
I knew all this, more or less, but I was fascinated by her absorption in the momentary problem. I felt quite ignorant, and asked her with sincerity, ‘What about the trout? Do you take out its guts before or after?’
‘Oh, the trout!’ She sounded scornful. ‘Any trout is glad, truly glad, to be prepared by Monsieur Paul. His little gills are pinched, with one flash of the knife he is empty, and then he curls in agony in the bouillon and all is over. And it is the curl you must judge, Madame. A false truite au bleu cannot curl.’
She panted triumph at me, and hurried out with the bucket.
She is a funny one, I thought, and for not more than two or three minutes I drank wine and mused over her. Then she darted in, with the trout correctly blue and agonizingly curled on a platter, and on her crooked arm a plate of tiny boiled potatoes and a bowl.
When I had been served and had cut off her anxious breathings with an assurance that the fish was the best I had ever tasted, she peered again at me and at the sauce in the bowl. I obediently put some of it on the potatoes: no fool I, to ruin truite au bleu with a hot concoction! There was more silence.
‘Ah!’ she sighed at last. ‘I knew Madame would feel thus! Is it not the most beautiful sauce in the world with the flesh of a trout?’
I nodded incredulous agreement.
‘Would you like to know how it is done?’
I remembered all the legends of chefs who guarded favorite recipes with their very lives, and murmured yes.
She wore the exalted look of a believer describing a miracle at Lourdes as she told me, in a rush, how Monsieur Paul threw chopped chives into hot sweet butter and then poured the butter off, how he added another nut of butter and a tablespoonful of thick cream for each person, stirred the mixture for a few minutes over a slow fire, and then rushed it to the table.
‘So simple?’ I asked softly, watching her lighted eyes and the tender lustful lines of her strange mouth.
‘So simple, Madame! But,’ she shrugged, ‘you know, with a master —’
I was relieved to see her go: such avid interest in my eating wore on me. I felt released when the door closed behind her, free for a minute or so from her victimization. What would she have done, I wondered, if I had been ignorant or unconscious of any fine flavors?
She was right, though, about Monsieur Paul. Only a master could live in this isolated mill and preserve his gastronomic dignity through loneliness and the sure financial loss of unused butter and addled eggs. Of course there was the stream for his fish, and I knew his pâtés would grow even more edible with age; but how could he manage to have a thing like roasted lamb ready for any chance patron? Was the consuming interest of his one maid enough fuel for his flame?
I tasted the last sweet nugget of trout, the one nearest the blued tail, and poked somnolently at the minute white billiard balls that had been eyes. Fate could not harm me, I remembered winily, for I had indeed dined to-day, and dined well. Now for a leaf of crisp salad, and I’d be on my way.
The girl slid into the room. She asked me again, in a respectful but gossipy manner, how I had liked this and that and the other things, and then talked on as she mixed dressing for the endive.
‘And now,’ she announced, after I had eaten one green sprig and dutifully pronounced it excellent, ‘now Madame is going to taste Monsieur Paul’s special terrine, one that is not even on the summer menu, when a hundred covers are laid here daily and we have a headwaiter and a wine waiter, and cabinet ministers telegraph for tables! Madame will be pleased.’
And heedless of my low moans of the walk still before me, of my appreciation and my unhappily human and limited capacity, she cut a thick heady slice from the terrine of meat and stood over me while I ate it, telling me with almost hysterical pleasure of the wild ducks, the spices, the wines that went into it. Even surfeit could not make me deny that it was a rare dish. I ate it all, knowing my luck, and wishing only that I had red wine to drink with it.
I was beginning, though, to feel almost frightened, realizing myself an accidental victim of these stranded gourmets, Monsieur Paul and his handmaiden. I began to feel that they were using me for a safety valve, much as a thwarted woman relieves herself with tantrums or a fit of weeping. I was serving a purpose, and perhaps a noble one, but I resented it in a way approaching panic.
I protested only to myself when one of Monsieur Paul’s special cheeses was cut for me, and ate it doggedly, like a slave. When the girl said that Monsieur Paul himself was preparing a special filter of coffee for me, I smiled servile acceptance: wine and the weight of food and my own character could not force me to argue with maniacs. When, before the coffee came, Monsieur Paul presented me, through his idolater, with the most beautiful apple tart I had ever seen, I allowed it to be cut and served to me. Not a wince or a murmur showed the waitress my distressed fearfulness. With a stuffed careful smile on my face, and a clear nightmare in my head of trussed wanderers prepared for his altar by this hermit-priest of gastronomy, I listened to the girl’s passionate plea for fresh pastry dough.
‘You cannot, you cannot, Madame, serve old pastry!’ She seemed ready to beat her breast as she leaned across the table. ‘Look at that delicate crust! You may feel that you have eaten too much.’ (I nodded idiotic agreement.) ‘But this pastry is like feathers — it is like snow. It is in fact good for you, a digestive! And why?’ She glared sternly at me. ‘Because Monsieur Paul did not even open the flour bin until he saw you coming! He could not, he could not have baked you one of his special apple tarts with old dough! ’
She laughed, tossing back her head and curling her mouth voluptuously.
Somehow I managed to refuse a second slice, but I trembled under her surmise that I was ready for my special filter.
The wine and its fortitude had fled me, and I drank the hot coffee as a suffering man gulps ether, deeply and gratefully.
I remember, then, chatting with surprising glibness, and sending to Monsieur Paul flowery compliments, all of them sincere and well won, and I remember feeling only amusement when a vast glass of marc appeared before me and then gradually disappeared, like the light in the warm room full of water-sounds. I felt surprise to be alive still, and suddenly very grateful to the wild-lipped waitress, as if her presence had sustained me through duress. We discussed food and wine. I wondered bemusedly why I had been frightened.
The marc was gone. I went into the crowded bedroom for my jacket. She met me in the darkening hall when I came out, and I paid my bill, a large one. I started to thank her, but she took my hand, drew me into the dining room, and without words poured more spirits into my glass. I drank to Monsieur Paul while she watched me intently, her pale eyes bulging in the dimness and her lips pressed inward as if she too tasted the hot, aged marc.
The cat rose from his ferny bed, and walked contemptuously out of the room.
Suddenly the girl began to laugh, in a soft shy breathless way, and came close to me.
‘Permit me!’ she said, and I thought she was going to kiss me. But instead she pinned a tiny bunch of snowdrops and dark bruised cyclamens against my stiff jacket, very quickly and deftly, and then ran from the room with her head down.
I waited for a minute. No sounds came from anywhere in the old mill, but the endless rushing of the full stream seemed to strengthen, like the timed blare of an orchestra under a falling curtain.
She’s a funny one, I thought. I touched the cool blossoms on my coat and went out, like a ghost from ruins, across the courtyard toward the dim road to Avallon.