You Don’t Eat the Right Leg
A strict gourmet wouldn’t blunt his teeth on the woodcock’s starboard drumstick or nibble hors d’oeuvres before dinner. In Montreal’s Club 55 it’s what Curnonsky says that counts
IN LA TOUR EIFFEL, an excellent French restaurant in downtown Montreal, I had dinner recently with Commandant Maurice L. Billard, founder of Le Club des 55, a group of half a hundred Gallic gourmets (or lovers of fine food).
We ate a delicious roast pork dinner, accompanied by a white wine, and terminated by coffee. Then, the meal over, I took out my notebook. About the same time, becoming thirsty, I reached for my wine glass
I had the glass halfway to my lips when an agonized voice broke out, “Please, no! Please!” Dropping the glass, I stared at my host. He looked as if he had been stabbed.
“Excuse me,” he apologized, “but really, you startled me.”
“But why?” I wondered. “What did I do?”
He looked at me in amazement. “What did you do? You nearly drank wine after your coffee! Toa gourmet coffee is the end of the meal, except of course for a small liqueur. But to drink ore’s wine after one’s coffee, Mon Dieu! that is terrible.” Ordinary humans are apt to be baffled by the attitudes of really devout gourmets like, for instance, the European gastronome who was visiting rich friends in the United States and was invited to meet Theodore Roosevelt at dinner. Asked later how he liked the President, be confessed that as far as he was concerned the chief attraction was a plate of tiny and extremely delicious oysters from California.
So sensitive are the palates of some gourmets that they refuse to blunt their teeth on any part of a woodcock but the left leg.
Why only the left leg?
Because the woodcock stands on its right leg.
Commandant Billard and his Montreal group don’t go that far—yet. If, one of these days, a really creative chef decides to set before them bécasse souvaroff, a delectable dish of whole woodcocks stuffed with foie gras, wrapped in bacon and cooked with truffles in Madeira, they will probably gobble up every last mouthful of it and lick their lips defiantly at their more choosy brethren.
“We of Club 55 are not cranks or snobs, like some of those others,” says Le Commandant. “We are just simple men who like our food well-cooked, nicely served, and accompanied, naturellement! with the appropriate wines.”
Club 55 was organized in 1948 when Billard (whose father was a French chef and whose mother a Cordon Bleu cook) got
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together a few of his food-loving friends and suggested it. Billard was born in Lorraine, went to live in Paris where he became an habitué of gastronomic centres and an enthusiastic member of many gourmet clubs. After serving in two wars he was wounded in 1940, went to England, underwent seven operations in seven years on his leg (which was finally amputated) and came to Canada a couple of years ago.
Apart from his military service his whole life had centred around good food, and soon he found himself publishing a French-language magazine, Gastronomie—The Magazine for Gourmets.
As editor-in-chief, Billard came in direct contact with that most deplorable product of Canadian kitchens— Canadian cooking. It shook him.
It seemed to him that Canada had wonderful food: meat, fish, vegetables, apples, berries of every kind and flavor. In Quebec, he knew, there existed thick soupe aux pois and crisp grandpères, those mouth watering little doughballs cooked in maple syrup. In the Maritimes there were lobsters and clam chowder; in the Annapolis Valley, “blueberry grunt;” on the Prairies, smoked Winnipeg Goldeye; in Vancouver, crabs; in Oka, cheese; in Saskatchewan, wild-rosebud jelly; in Val d’Or, stewed bears’ paws; and, in Flin Flon, that most authentic Canadian dish of all, beaver-tail soup.
All these specialties existed in Canada, but who ever tasted them? For that matter, who (even in the big cities) ever tasted any really good food of any kind? As far as Billard could see restaurant meals in this country ranged from fair to bad.
He got together a few similarly disappointed friends—well-known Montreal figures like Gerard Raymond, K.C., Leopold Fortier, Dr. Edmond Dufresne, Mario Lattoni, K.C.—and they decided to do something about it. They rounded up a group of doctors, lawyers, professors, businessmen and journalists, and Club 55 was born. Its mission: To inspire chefs to create and serve better meals and to teach Canadians how to appreciate the best in food and drink.
By dining out en masse once a month or oftener, each time in a different restaurant, and by insisting on gourmet fare themselves, the club hopes to stimulate the demand for good meals to such an extent that Canada—starting with Quebec naturellement! — will in time become a tourist’s paradise.
“We are extremely serious about this thing,” says energetic, articulate Billard who, incidentally, calls himself “le dictateur” of Club 55.
Fifty years ago the great French gastronome and philosopher, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, wrote: “Gastronomy is an implicit resignation to the orders of the Creator, who, having ordered us to eat in order to live, invited us to do so by appetite, sustained us by flavor, and recompensed us for it with pleasure.”
With this excellent philosophy in mind Club 55 dutifully sat down to its inaugural dinner while Chef E. J. Fontanier, of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, newly arrived from France, presented for their approval the following menu:
Le consommé des viveurs en tasse Le gratin d'homard Lucullus Le baron d’agneau sarladaise avec les haricots
Panaches maître d'hôtel La salade gauloise Les fromages
La bombe glacée Rothschild Les fruits La demi-tasse
Which translates roughly into a clear soup, lobster in a crusty sauce, a pair of hindquarters with legs and loins of lamb, string beans and wax beans mixed in butter, a salad, cheese, a molded ice, fruit and coffee.
To any innocent naive enough to murmur, “Clear soup, lobster, a roast of lamb . . what’s so special about
that?” I present Chef Fontanier’s recipe for the second dish on the menu. Le gratin d'homard Lucullus.
Take “some rather big lobsters” (about 2y¿ pounds each).
Cook them à VAméricain, to wit: Working with live lobsters, not the dead variety, sever and slightly crush their claws; cut their tails into sections; split the shell in two lengthwise and remove the “queen”—the little bag near the head containing some gravel. Put aside on a plate the intestines and the coral which will be used in the finishing of the sauce. Season the pieces of lobster with salt and pepper and cook in their shells by frying over an open fire in a saucepan containing a hot mixture of olive oil and butter.
When the meat is cooked and the shell a fine red color, remove. Tilt frying pan on side and remove fat. To lobster add two chopped shallots, a crushed clove of garlic, 14 pint white wine, pint fish fumet (this is a separate recipe which we won’t go into here), a small glassful of burnt brandy, one tablespoon of melted meat glaze (another separate recipe), 3 small fresh, pressed, chopped tomatoes, a pinch of chopped parsley and a tiny bit of cayenne. Cover the saucepan. Cook in the oven 18 minutes. Remove.
Checking UP on the Chef
Make a purée of mushrooms by rubbing 2 lb. of clean mushrooms through a sieve without cooking. Mix mushrooms with Sauce Bechamel (yet another recipe). Stuff this purée into the lobster shells.
Now cut the lobster tails in slices and decorate lobster shells with tails and truffles in alternate slices.
Cover with sauce à l'Américain (the stuff the lobster cooked in, only reduced to }4 pint and mixed with the intestines and the coral and a chunk of butter, the whole put through a strainer), mixed with 14 of its quantity of Hollandaise sauce (another recipe). Decorate with a trim of puff paste (another recipe), put in oven to gratinée and serve on crusty toast.
(Anyone who wants to know how to gratinée lobster is advised to look it up in Escoffier’s Cook Book, the bible of gourmets. It is a separate recipe, half a page long.)
Although they admit going overhoard for the occasional elaborate dish like this gourmets insist that they are not gluttons. “Gluttons slander the nohle name of gourmets,” they say. “We gourmets are simple people, happy people, long-lived people—perfectionists, if you will. But we are not pigs!”
To make sure that Cluh 55’s dinners are as perfect as possible (they cost $7.50 per plate; Billard stages a complete rehearsal of the meal a few nights in advance. A chef will look up from his stove to find le Commandant peering into the soup pot, sampling the roast, nibbling a bit of the dessert. Rather than l>e displeased by this sort of thing a good chef often welcomes it, probably on the theory, “Better a critical attitude toward my cooking than no attitude at all.”
Now that the chef and !e Commandant between them have planned a suitable dinner menu Billard moves on to inspect the wine cellar, for in a true diner de gastronome each wine must
exactly agree with the flavor of the dish it accompanies.
Billard likely knows the name, origin and vintage year of every bottle on the shelf; he knows which bottle should be carried to the table reverently, which should be used for mouthwash.
Gourmets speak a language of their own when it comes to wine. “The Château Contet 1924 is a perfumed, elegant marquise, getting on in years, but still gracious and eloquent,” they say. And, “The Pommard 1937 is a good but simple wine—a young peas-
Wine But No Women
To outsiders this sounds plain silly. To gourmets, however, it makes sense. “We mean that the Château Contet is a fine old wine and you can serve it nicely with a very special dish,” they explain. “And the Pommard 1937? Why, we just mean that it’s too ordinary to serve with anything fancy. Better save it for the cheese course.”
The menu chosen, the wines selected,
the maître d'hôtel briefed on how to serve gourmets, and the waitresses informed that the club wishes its plain green salad served at the table in a large wooden bowl, accompanied by oil, vinegar, garlic, and mustard from Dijon, the great day arrives. The table is set with a white cloth, the silver gleams, the crystal shines, and there are no ash trays on the table, for Club 55 has three rules:
1. Promptness is the courtesy of
2. A cocktail before a meal is a
3. Smoking before the coffee is
In front of each place is a menu written on thick parchment under the club’s coat of arms (a copper cauldron containing a rabbit, a pig and a chicken, surmounted by a lobster and dangling a bunch of grapes). Beside each place is a small white card bearing the words, EXCELLENT, GOOD and PASSABLE. At the end of the dinner each
member will put his checkmark opposite the word that he feels best describes the meal, together with any other comments, favorable or unfavorable, that he has to make.
As I was in Montreal for the express purpose of learning all about Club 55 I expected to be invited to its monthly dinner, scheduled for the swank Café Martin. But my attention was drawn to Article 10 of the club’s rules and regulations: Les dames ne sont pas
admises comme membres. Or, in equally prohibitive English, Ladies are not admitted as members.
This seems unfair—after BrillatSavarin’s glowing remarks: “Nothing is more pleasant than to see a pretty female gourmet at table. Her napkin is neatly adjusted, one of her hands rests on the table, the other carries to her mouth dainty little morsels, perhaps the wing of a partridge. Her eyes sparkle, her lips are glossy, her conversation is agreeable, all her movements are graceful . She is irresistible!"
At 8 p.m. I found myself standing out in the hall while an eight-course mouth-watering dinner was carried past me by pert waitresses in starched white aprons and a soft-footed maître d’hôtel glided by with bottles of assorted wines and liqueurs.
It was the kind of dinner of which Italian gourmets say, “Questo e un vero boccone di cardinale!” (a true feast for a cardinal!)
An Englishman once asked, “Why ‘fit for a cardinal’? Why not ‘fit for a king’ as we say in England?”
The Italians shake their heads. “No, no.” they say. “Kings are served too formally and too hastily. They can’t really enjoy their food. But those cardinals!—ah!”
Later I asked Billard how to cook some of the delicious dishes I had smelled but not tasted. “You must not ask me how to cook. I do not cook. I taste. Like my master Curnonsky, I’m simply a born gourmet.”
“Curnonsky?” I said. “Who’s this Curnonsky?”
Ever asked a die-hard Tory who Churchill is?
Curnonsky is the Frenchman who at 27 could reel off the names and vintage years of 12 different champagnes, blindfolded. Today at 74 he is the bald, paunchy, talkative founder of the French Academy of Gastronomes and president of 27 different gourmet societies. Before the war Curnonsky weighed 277 pounds. Today he is a mere 181. Some years ago 5,000 chefs got together and elected Curnonsky “The Prince of Gastronomes”; ever since that day he has been known wherever gourmets gather as, simply, “The Prin e.” He will often spend five or six hours just eating.
What to Do With Semolina
Although Montreal’s gourmets pledge first allegiance to Curnonsky they admit that Dr. Edouard de Pomiane, professor of the physiology of digestion at the Institute Pasteur and author of 25 volumes on gastronomy, is a close runner-up.
De Pomiane loves to cook. So exact are his movements that he can cook an entire dinner in tails and top hat, without an apron and without spilling a drop. Why he should want to is anybody’s guess.
When I pursued Billard for some cooking tips, he sighed. “In matters of cooking, you must consult my wife. Madame Billard is the cook in our family.”
And that’s how I met slim chic Madame Billard, who turned out to be the founder of a gourmet club of her own, Les Epicuriennes, Canada’s only club for female gourmets. Some of
its members are wives of Club 55 members; others are what French Canada calls les mattresses des maisons —mistresses of fairly prosperous homes, usually equipped with one or two ser-
Like her husband’s club Madame Billard’s Les Epicuriennes started up in 1948 and is dedicated to inspiring good cooking in Quebec. Unlike Club 55 it has a special guest at each of its luncheons. When Madame Francisque Gay, wife of the former French Ambassador, was guest of honor, she was served L’homard grillé et flambé, a dish that bears out Madame Billard’s oft-repeated remark that “It doesn’t have to be complicated to be good.”
Lobster, Grilled and Flaming:
Take a 1-lb. lobster for each 2 persons. Cut it in two lengthwise and pour melted butter on top. Put under the broiler and cook until tender. Remove. Quickly pour on more melted butter and a jigger of brandy. Pepper and salt it, and light it with a match. Bring to the table while it’s still flaming.
For the average Canadian housewife whose budget doesn’t include lobsters for dinner Madame Billard has another simple, more inexpensive recipe, for semolina pudding.
“Take a pint of milk and boil it with cup white sugar. Sprinkle into this 2 heaping tablespoons semolina (wheat hearts). Simmer % hour until thick, stirring constantly. Remove from fire and cool. Add 3 well-beaten eggs.
Caramelize a mold by mixing together 1 cup white sugar and a few drops of water and cooking until i( browns. Don’t stir. Shake it over bottom and edges of a pan and pour in pudding. Cook Lá hour more. Unmold. Serve very cold with caramel or custard sauce.
The would-be gourmet doesn’t have to pass any special tests to join Club 55. All he has to do is be an agreeable sort of chap, sponsored by two members, and of a profession that is not already over-represented in the club.
Beware of Severe Shocks
In France, the land of 400 cheeses, 38,000 different dishes (including 420 different ways of cooking filet of sole), it is much harder to join a gourmet club, says Billard.
One flustered gourmet was turned down because he suggested both soup and hors d’oeuvres at dinner (in France, hors d’oeuvres are served before lunch; soup before dinner—never are both served at the same meal). Another failure was the applicant who blundered that he would serve a red wine with the fish course.
Someone once suggested to BrillatSavarin that instead of going to all the trouble of preparing a meal, one might simply describe the dinner, and then have the cook rush in screaming that everything had burned black. The philosopher turned thumbs down on this suggestion. He explained that while the news of an entire dinner burning black might leave a nongourmet cold, to a real lover of good food it might well prove fatal !
The heights to which a real gourmet can rise can be plainly realized from the compliment passed by the famous Parisian gastronome, Grimod de la Reynière, who upon sampling a particularly delightful dish, closed his eyes in ecstasy and swore softly:
“With such a sauce I would eat my own father!” ★