our most neglected treasure: FRENCH COOKING
While trenchermen of nine provinces search hungrily for glamorous goulashes and piquant pizzas, the tenth happily carries on its three-hundred-year-old love affair with the finest food of all. Come to Quebec and sample
Every body seems to be finding a new restaurant these days. And it usually turns out to be an Italian spot with pizza and espresso coffee, a Hungarian goulash dispensary, or even, so help me, a Japanese teahouse. But when I want to really let myself go, I call up one of my French-Canadian friends and drop a broad hint. Or, if I have no luck there, I take a couple of dollars out of the sock and head for a French restaurant. For the crazy fact is that with all our enthusiasm over newly discovered Italian, Hungarian, Japanese, Chinese, Jewish and German cooking, we are overlooking the best bet of all: the cooking done by more than four million of us who speak French.
I have lived a dozen years now in Quebec, and I have come to hold a deep respect for the culinary prowess of French Canadians, the inborn wisdom and the flair that they bring to cooking. With them, cooking is an art that has no parallel in English Canada. Quebeckers have a special reverence for food. I once heard a Montreal maître d’hôtel reprimand the food editor of an American fashion magazine for smoking between courses—it spoiled the taste of the food. And the great chefs of French Canada are household names, with their own partisans, but disdaining the fan clubs and autographed photos that would reduce them to the level of sports or movie stars. When the Montreal branch of the Prosper Mon-
tagne gourmet club recently held a dinner at the Queen’s Hotel, the event received three full columns in Canada’s largest French-language newspaper, La Presse. Chef François Duprat’s signed menu was reproduced, and each course was lovingly described. At the same dinner, another
noted chef, Edouard “Papa” Lclarge of the 400 restaurant, was raised to the rank of chevalier of the Prosper Montagne club for his efforts in disseminating a taste for good food in the community.
The whole approach to food in French Canada is different from that in English Canada. It is culinary pleasure first and nourishment afterward. I learned this distinction some years ago at the Kerhulu restaurant in Quebec City when, suffering from a hangover, I ordered a full-course meal and then found I could not face it. Since the meal had given me no pleasure, Madame Kerhulu refused to accept payment for it, even though the food was perfect.
Food is part of French-Canadian folklore, culture, and even Quebec government policy. A poet of fifty years ago, Emile Nelligan, is best known today for a verse that was turned into a folk song, extolling the virtues of wine with food. Poet Jean Narrashe is remembered for his poems about food, and a ribald raftsmen’s song about pork and beans is very popular. So, too, arc a couple of other songs; one about a priest who loved his sauce so much that he climbed right into it, and the other about a priest who was adept at making bread. Another song, Le Festin de la Campagne, describes a full meal in verse, and the novel Les Anciens Canadiens, by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, gives pages of colorful meal descriptions.
Dissect two broilers (two pounds each) or a four-pound roasting chicken and sauté with one small chopped onion in olive oil until nicely brown; place in a casserole dish. In the frying pan used to sauté the chicken, roast half a cup of rice with one chopped onion, two cloves of garlic, pinch of saffron, dry red peppers, chili powder. Then put rice over the sauteed chicken, garnish with two sliced green peppers, two sliced red peppers, two chopped tomatoes, one and a half cups of chicken broth and cook in a moderate oven until the liquid has been absorbed by the rice.
Make a bed of one cup chopped celery and three quarters of a cup of chopped parsley in a baking pan. Place eight smelts on this bed and cover with pats of butter, a layer of one cup of sliced mushrooms. Sprinkle with one quarter cup of roasted bread crumbs, a pinch of rosemary, thyme, oregano, freshly ground pepper. Drown in one and a half cups of sauterne and cook in a preheated oven at five hundred degrees for ten minutes. Serve with balance of the sauterne chilled.
Two formidable encyclopedias, Larousse Gastronomique and Escotfier’s Encyclopaedia of Gastronomy, both as thick as the Oxford English Dictionary, are basic texts in many Quebec homes. Another favorite is Jean Halleure’s Madame Lst Servie with the recipes all in illustrated verse. The earliest FrenchCanadian cook book, Cuisinière Canadienne. dates back to 1840.
continued on page 53
French pea soup Spiced pork pie Braised pigs’ feet and pork meat balls in brown gravy flavored with cloves Roast pork and brown potatoes Maple-sugar tarts Country bread
Clear consommé served with hot pigs in blankets Liver-and-pork pâté with trullles Black Greek olives Sweet radishes Garlic sausage Cucumber slices Celery
Marinated button mushrooms Canadian caviar
Fresh baby Gaspé salmon in aspic served with fresh-cooked grey shrimps Veal kidneys
with mushroom white-wine sauce served on flaky pastry shells Capon
seasoned with garden-fresh tarragon, garnished with water cress, and young new potatoes in buttered parsley White-wine sauce with mushrooms Fresh artichoke
served with capered butter sauce Choice of Roquefort, Brie and aged Canadian white Cheddar Boston lettuce salad with garlic and vinegar sauce Home-made rum cake with Angelica served with flaming rum Coffee
Basket of fresh fruits in season
Our most neglected treasure: French cooking continued from page 15
“Cheap wine for cooking? Non! Food is only as good as the wine
you use to cook it with”
The cooking of French Canada is internationally recognized. At the international Culinary Art Salon in Herne, Switzerland, in 1954, the only entries from North America were two four-man teams from Quebec. They carried off honors and medals in competition with teams from Switzerland, France, Belgium, Great Britain, Italy, Sweden. Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia. Two annual culinary-art salons held at Montreal and Quebec City are ranked by experts with those at Paris and New York. And last October the gourmet buffet served at Montreal's Botanical Garden for the International Convention of French Language Journalists, among the toughest critics in the world, drew their extravagant praise.
At $1,00(1 a plate food aids charity
Gourmet clubs help to maintain this fine-food standard. In Montreal the Prosper Montagne club and the Eseoffier society, both strictly limited to eighty members, hold dinners twice a year at twenty dollars a plate, with menus that are staggering for the variety of food and wine. Along with the culinary-art salons, they award medals to great chefs. Smaller towns such as Victoriaville, Joliette and Louisville also have gourmet clubs, and the Marco Polo club entertains visiting explorers to gourmet meals.
The Quebec government supports all this activity, and the director of hotel management and training in the provincial Department of Trade and Commerce, Marcel Puvilland, oversees the standard of food and service in all commercial places. There are provincial training schools for chefs and for amateurs, as well as for hotel and restaurant staff.
Even money for charity is raised with food. This year seventy people sat down to a gourmet meal at Montreal’s Au Lutin Qui Bouffe restaurant at a thousand dollars a plate to raise funds for the Palestre Nationale, a Quebec equivalent of the YMCA.
This meal, of course, included seafood. which is properly esteemed in French Canada. According to Montreal fish importers, more oysters are consumed in that city than in all the rest of the country, and the per-capita consumption of fish in Quebec is the highest in Canada. Hut whether it is fish, fowl or meat, food in French Canada is an important part of the joy of living. And this joy can be translated in two different languagesthat of the mother country, French cooking, or the patois of native habitant cooking.
Best known and most popular is the French cuisine, which has been imported directly from France. It is distinguished by a subtle use of wine sauces, garlic and herbs, table service at which many of the dishes are finished before the eyes and nose of the guest—a device designed to set their taste buds drooling in anticipation—and the careful selection of the right wine with each dish. Both eye and nose appeal are part of the presentation. Generally, meats are cooked much less than in the Anglo-Saxon kitchen. For instance, lamb gets ten minutes to the pound as compared to twenty minutes in our ovens.
Less popular is French-Canadian habitant fare, based upon a more primitive style of cooking that grew out of the early Spartan living of the farmers of New France. They had no wines and no garlic. Their only spices were cinnamon and cloves. They saved their cattle for milk and for plowing and they used pork as the main meat basis for food that was heavy and full of calories but could be quickly worked off in the fields and the woods. They also made wide use of simple long-keeping vegetables like peas and beans, and the plentiful coarse fish of the streams and sea. Grain-destroying pests like the passenger pigeon went into their famed tourtière pie. The farmers depended on salted fat pork that would keep for months, and used maple syrup and molasses heavily for desserts. They even poached eggs in maple syrup. All this heavy fare has been refined over the years until today it has become an exotic branch of the Quebec cuisine. Country hotels and restaurants that serve it are growing in numbers and popularity.
But fine cooking is not confined to professionals in Quebec. In French the word “amateur” in cooking means someone who rates with the professionals but who cooks for a hobby. And there are great amateurs of cooking in French Canada, both men and women, whose reputations rank with those of the finest chefs.
One of the best amateurs 1 have ever met is Annette Zarov, a short, merry, round-faced and chubby French-Canadian girl who is a first-class portrait photographer as well as an inspired cook. She has strong views on food, like most French Canadians. She thinks the English have a lot to learn about cooking.
"They are too methodical,” she says. “They follow recipes too blindly. I have my Larousse Gastronomique, but 1 use it the way a Witness of Jehovah uses the Bible, as a basis for improvisation. They don’t know how to marry flavors either. Look at their Yorkshire pudding, a mixture of eggs and flour with roast beef. They ask for indigestion. But mainly they lack gastronómica! imagination.”
She thinks the supermarket is the enemy of fine cooking: "The personal contact between the merchant and the customer is gone. Instead you have to deal with a nitwit clerk who doesn’t know a broccoli from a cabbage.”
When Annette Zarov goes shopping, she first visits a good fruit-and-vegetable shop or goes down to one of Montreal’s numerous farmers’ markets such as Bonsecours, St. Lawrence or Atwater. There, when they arc in season, she looks for vegetables such as fiddleheads, an edible fern; the spinach-like sorrel; okra, which looks like a cross between a green pepper and a green bean; lima beans, vegetable marrow and soft lettuce.
From early spring until late fall she buys fresh vegetables. “In the winter we are at the mercy of frozen vegetables and American stock that has been picked before it was ripe,” she says bitterly.
The vegetables selected, she then looks for her meat and fish. For fish, she shops at a little place in 1.achine run. appropriately. by a Mr. Sole, who has a good stock of what she calls the "elementary fish.” Sometimes she gets fresh turbot there. Or if she seeks more exotic items, she visits Waldman’s. off the Main, as that downtown area of St. Lawrence Boulevard is called by Montrealers. There she buys a fine native caviar at five dollars a pound.
Smelts in a bed of parsley
She gives a grudging nod to the supermarkets for beef. "They usually handle red brand, and I often pick up my meat there, along with grocery staples. But they have never heard of a capon, and they don’t know how to keep cheese.” she says. She buys her capons at an elegant food shop on St. Catherine Street, called Dionne’s, and she buys her cheese at The Cheese Shoppe on Union Street. For coffee she goes to Van Houtte’s, the coffee importers, and for rice she patronizes a Syrian shop on the Main. In the same district she finds shops where she can buy full pickled herring in the barrel, dill pickles in the barrel, barleylike casha and saffron. She goes to Chinatown for dried mushrooms and herbs.
Many of these food items, which English Canadians either scorn or spoil when they try to cook them, become in the hands of French Canadians an experience to remember. The first time I ever enjoyed smelts was when they were prepared for me by Madeleine Marois, a television production assistant at the CBC in Montreal, who likes to finish a busy day at the studio by inviting friends home to sample one of her specialties.
It looked a simple enough dish too. and quick. She used a baking pan, making a bed of finely chopped celery covered with fresh chopped parsley. Over this she placed a dozen smelts. She covered the smelts with pats of butter and a layer of mushrooms, sprinkled with bread crumbs and herbs, drowned the fish in a good white sauterne, and placed the dish in a preheated oven at five hundred degrees for ten minutes. She served it with the rest of the sauterne chilled.
I was puzzled that such a dull fish could taste so delicious. She told me that the secret was the good wine. “I notice that when English-speaking people use wine for cooking they will use a cheap sherry. But your food is only as good as the wine you use,” she said.
Amateur chefs like Miss Marois seem to be able to combine careers with cooking. Lucette Robert, one of the busiest women 1 ever met. reviews movies for Le Petit Journal, and her column in La Revue Populaire, Ce Dont On Parle, is a Who’s Who of French-Canadian society. She gets around to just about every theatrical and social event in Montreal, but still manages to set one of the most spectacular tables in the province: beautiful to behold and equally so to consume. She does her own shopping and she’s tough to please. Her rabbit pâté is commonly acknowledged by Montreal gourmets to be beyond comparison. Yet she is always finding fault with her own cooking, seeking a perfection beyond ordinary understanding.
This divine dissatisfaction, which may well be the real secret of fine FrenchCanadian cooking, is not confined to women. 1 recall an occasion when Gaétan Major, a young Montreal advertisingagency executive, undertook to show me how French Canadians prepare a steak. Now. when it comes to steak I share the chauvinism of most western Canadians (I was born in Olson Coulee, about twenty miles out of Macleod. Alta.) who with reason regard steaks as a specialty of the west. In eastern restaurants we suffer the violations of good meat which are served to us under the name of steaks, consoling ourselves with the thought that it probably wasn't good western beef in the first place. But a French Canadian showing me how to fry a steak seemed to me at the time the ultimate in futility.
When I arrived at Major’s home, he was in the kitchen and in a bad temper. "The damn butcher.” he told me. "You can't trust them on the phone.” And he showed me what looked to be a pretty formidable cut of sirloin, about an inch thick. "I asked for it two inches thick." he explained. Then he went to the phone and called the butcher, complaining angrily to him in fast and colloquial French. He came back and broke out a bottle of Saint-Emilion Bordeaux wine.
"Let's have a go at it just the same." he said in a dispirited voice. Then he took a sharply pointed kitchen knife and stripped out each tiny sinew and connective tissue, like a brain surgeon performing a delicate operation. He put a dry iron frying pan on the stove and let it get smoldering hot. He put another pan on a second burner and rubbed the frying surface with a garlic clove and dropped a piece of fat from the meat in the second pan. The fat began to splutter.
He dropped the steak into the first pan and there was a searing noise and smoke curled up as the meat hit the hot dry surface. He flipped the steak over, and then added butter to the fat in the second pan. He turned down the heat under the steak and poured off some of the steak juice into the second pan, into which he poured some Saint-Emilion wine with salt and pepper. This bubbled and thickened as he stirred the wine into the fat and butter and meat juice. Meanwhile he had sliced up a long loaf of French bread, set a couple of wine glasses at the table, and warmed up two plates over the stove. In a few minutes we sat down to a steak covered with wine gravy. The steak melted away under our knives, and we sopped up the tangy gravy with French bread. Again my thoughts went back to moments of youthful bliss and an ecstasy that 1 had believed long since to have left behind me.
“With champagne, caviar and fresh orange pie it was a feast worth $150 for eight people”
We were just finishing our orgy when the delivery boy arrived with another steak, this time the required two inches thick. We ate that too. I have never since disputed the prowess of a French Canadian with steak.
Rut Gaétan Major and most Montreal gourmets nod reverently when the name of François Rozet is mentioned. Rozet, a tall handsome man with curly hair, is a character actor on French radio and television who came to Canada from France about fifteen years ago.
Rozert is noted for his homard amoricaine. (This variation in spelling is used by the French who don’t care to acknowledge the inspiration of American tourists for the dish.) 1 watched him prepare it. Wearing a large white apron and blue sweatshirt, with a blue knitted French fisherman’s cap on his head, he spent three hours chopping up live lobsters into pieces, cooking the lobster on the stove in butter and olive oil, draining it and burning the lobster dry by igniting most of a bottle of cognac poured over it, then simmering the lobster in a mixture of garlic juice, French scallions, consommé, tomato paste, seasoning and a couple of bottles of good French Bourgogne. Finally he made the sauce by boiling down the mixture to half its quantity and simmering it on the stove. All this led to a meal that was classic in its expensive simplicity.
With wine, champagne, cognac, mounds of fine caviar and a huge tarte à l’orange—a pie made with fresh oranges and soaked in rum—the feast cost $150 for eight people. Half of this was for the drinks, half for the lobsters, caviar and pie.
It is the gifted amateurs like Rozet who keep the professional chefs in Quebec on their toes. Annette Zarov declares: “When I go out to eat, I expect to eat better than in my own home. After all, it costs more.” And when they go into a restaurant, they seem to be looking for something wrong.
Along with most English Canadians, I personally shrink from scenes with waiters, and unless a dish is flagrantly wrong 1 take what I get and shut my mouth. Which, again, may be part of the reason why restaurant food and home cooking in English Canada falls far below the standards of Quebec. But the great chefs of Quebec, professional and amateur, welcome criticism. Paul Boetch, the forty-six-year-old Swiss chef who presides over the gleaming stainless-steel kitchen of the Hotel de LaSalle, goes forth to meet it. He prides himself on his ability to fill any unusual requests for food, and he has a standing offer with guests that if his dish does not completely satisfy, the meal is on the house. Thus he has concocted such unusual fare as fishmonger’s steak, Swiss Bratwurst, Brazilian paella and Mexican arroz con polio without batting an eyelash.
I visited him recently at his desk in an alcove behind his kitchen. A trim man with black hair, snapping brown eyes and a black mustache, he was chuckling over a note when 1 met him. “Read this,” he said. It was on the hotel stationery, in a feminine hand: “Dear Paul, scramble the eggs well. They are for your pet, Juliette.” He tucked the note carefully away in his desk. "You know, the singer on the television show." he explained.
He showed me through the kitchen which serves an average of fifteen hundred meals daily. We visited the laundry where the hotel linen is washed and ironed. The head laundryman was sorrowfully studying a stained tablecloth when we came in. “I could get these stains out a lot easier if Chef would tell me what he puts in the sauces,” he told me, "but it is a professional secret.” Boetch smiled, but offered no help.
A different attitude to Paul Boetch's idea of giving the public what it wants is displayed by Papa Lelarge at the 400 or Quat' Cent, as it is called by the many radio and television artists who regularly meet there to gossip and gorge. At the 400 you eat what is on the menu and you eat it the way Papa Lelarge prepares it or you can go and gnaw a hamburger somewhere else.
The 400 is run in this wonderfully high-handed manner by a man who entered his apprenticeship at fifteen under the immortal Escofficr at the Savoy Hotel in London, and who ran his own restaurant for fourteen years in Paris, patronized by France’s greatest gourmet. Curnonsky, president and founder of the Academy of Gastronomes and honored by the title of "Prince of Gastronomes.” The 400 seats only a hundred people, but Papa Lelarge averages four hundred meals a day there by hustling the guests unmercifully at lunch hour. At night, on the other hand, he likes them to stay for hours, and waiters, who are quick with the tab at noon, are instructed to present the bill only upon demand at night.
I dropped into Leo Dandurand’s Cafe Martin one day. and in the basement kitchen I met Roger Delfour, the thirtyfive-year-old Paris-born chef who has spent twenty years in his profession, lie admitted that the tastes of Canadians often puzzled him. In winter they ordered cold vichysoisse. but in summer the greatest demand was for hot onion soup. “One day last August, the hottest day of summer, our air conditioning failed,” he told me. “But do you think the demand for onion soup fell off? On the contrary, we made a record amount of it!”
Later I chatted with Paul Dandurand, the small, dapper young man who runs Drury’s. He had the typical FrenchCanadian interest in food and told me that he thought one of the most interesting restaurants in Montreal was the east-end Chez Pierre, operated by the eccentric owner, Lisette LeRoy, like a large private home. She shops in the market herself for the food and views the outside world with barely veiled suspicion. Once Dandurand lunched there w ith a friend and found when the modest bill arrived that neither of them had any funds. He offered to pay with a cheque.
"Oh. no. no. no. no!”, the proprietress waved off the proposal. "Oh, no. no. no. no!”
So, leaving his friend for security, Dandurand slipped next door to Cousins, the French bakers, where the DruryCafé Martin account runs to several thousand dollars weekly. There he was tibie to borrow' three dollars to pay his bill at Chez Pierre. "But it is still the best dollar-and-a-quarter lunch in town.” Dandurand maintains.
The original Pierre, whose mustached photo hangs on the restaurant wall, died about twenty years ago. but not before he had trained the present chef. Carlo Gurievich, who is still in his early forties and who came to Chez Pierre as a youngster. The menu carries the restaurant's creed on its front cover: "Gourmets? Oui! Gourmands? Non!”
The exciting fare of haute cuisine which you can enjoy at a dozen fine restaurants in Montreal like those of de LaSalle, the 400, Café Martin, Drury's, Chez Pierre, the Ritz Carlton, the Windsor, the Queen's, is duplicated in Quebec City by the Kerhulu, the Pavilion Fleur de Lys, La Chaumière, the Sapinière and a half dozen other fine dining rooms. But that is only half the adventure in eating for an English Canadian in French Canada.
Let him stop at a little out-of-the-way place like the Auberge Handheld, a small hotel at St. Marc sur-le-Richelieu. about thirty miles northeast of Montreal. There he will find habitant food at its best.
Conrad Handheld (in spite of his name he has a hard time wdth English) is an ambitious young man in his early thirties, and his bright young Montreal-born wife—she will never be accepted in St. Marc as a real St. Marquoise—offer food of the region. A typical meal opens with hors d’œuvres of the house, including a home-made pâté which is an inspired blend of pork, chicken, duck and rabbit livers. Then comes homemade pea soup according to Micheline Handheld’s owm recipe—you sauté the salt pork and onions together before you add them to the peas (with freshly chopped chives). Micheline complains about the peas; they come from the local Liberal organizer and Conrad is a Union Nationale supporter; she thinks she gets the worst of the crop. Next follows a slice of the celebrated tourtière pie, which was once made with lean pork and served with homemade relish. Ragoût de pattes et de houlettes is the main course, with pigs’ feet and pork meatballs, and it is served traditionally with boiled potatoes and pickled beets. A simple green salad with tarragon follows—and finally tartelette au sucre, made with a mixture of fresh cream, maple sugar, brown sugar and crushed almonds, topped with whipped or ice cream. Washed down with a modest Bordeaux and ending with coffee, it is a thoroughly satisfying meal and helps to explain why the French have survived the Iroquois, the English and even the Americans.
In Quebec today the Liberals claim that Premier Duplessis is giving away the province’s natural resources to the American. He claims that his Liberal opponents want to sacrifice provincial rights to the federal government. But both sides would surely agree that in French-Canadian cooking they have a priceless asset with which they may one day obtain the homage of the whole North American continent. They got mine, anyway,