Quebec’s inimitable gourmets
Nowhere this side of France will you find a more haughty and exclusive group of clubs dedicated to the delicate art of good eating
It happened nearly ten years ago at the Club 400 restaurant in Montreal, but gourmets there still chuckle over it and retell the story. It seems that Henri Fiset, lawyer and noted gourmet, had ordered a Sole Véronique, which takes about twenty minutes to prepare, and was just about to enjoy it, with a good bottle of Montrachet, when another lawyer-gourmet, Bernard Nantel, paused at his table to chat. Fiset interrupted Nantel in the middle of his greetings; “Excuse me,” said Fiset, “but this dish has taken twenty minutes careful preparation and I must eat it at once. I will speak with you later.” Insulted, Nantel stalked off, and he hasn't spoken to Fiset since.
The other day I asked Nantel about the incident. His face froze and he said curtly: “For me, that man is dead.”
And Fiset later explained: "If that gentleman whose name I can't recall was insulted by me, let me tell you that there would have been near-murder if he had lifted an old red wine to look at the label as he did with my white wine that day. Fortunately white wine has very little sediment.”
In the whole of North America such an incident could only happen in Quebec province, where cooking and eating rank among the higher forms of art and where gourmets band into clubs that are more fun and a lot more exclusive than music clubs, hunt clubs, bridge clubs, chess clubs or stamp clubs.
There are more than fifty gourmet clubs in Quebec province, ranging in size from 100 members down to five.
Of these thirty are exclusively male, twenty have mixed membership, and one is exclusively female. While there are gourmet clubs elsewhere, such as New York’s Amis d’Escoffier, Quebec has far more of them per capita than any other province or American state and for austerity of standard and strictness of rule the Quebec clubs cannot be matched this side of France.
Even as golf, tennis and bridge clubs have their champions, so do gourmet clubs. The individual who can prepare great food or has the taste to judge great food and wine can, in Quebec, walk in the company of the famous.
There's Gérard Delage, for instance. Fortyish, of medium height and trim of figure, he is Secretary-General of the Quebec Hotel Association. As such he had an active hand in the formation of the three largest gourmet clubs. These are the Prosper Montagné, Les Amis d’Escoffier and Les Compagnons de la Bonne Table. Each has at least sixty members. The first, affiliated with the parent club in Paris, is limited to Montreal membership, the second extends over all of Quebec, and is affiliated with the New York club of the same name, and the third is also province-wide and is dedicated to the glorification of Canadian dishes. Delage is a lawyer by profession (lawvers, doctors, hotelmen and journalists are the most numerous members of the big clubs) and consequently he is ideally suited to assure that the strict gourmet rules are observed at the six major gourmet banquets he attends annually. These rules include: no hard liquor before the meal, no smoking before dessert, and no bread, butter, water, salt or any condiment on the table, since each dish is supposed to be perfectly seasoned in the cooking. No politics, religion or business affairs may be discussed aí the table, a rule that apparently leaves food, wine and sex as the sole subjects for discussion. This arrangement seems to suit all the members perfectly.
While all genuine gourmets agree on these rules —in fact their observance mainly separates a gourmet gathering from just any table of friends sitting down to enjoy a good meal—they are divided on other issues, such as the inclusion of women in gourmet clubs. Speaking for the "antis." Delage told me: “It is impossible to appreciate a fine gourmet meal and an attractive woman at the same time. Either demands your full attention."
Madame Juliane Billard, an elegant matron with an organizing talent, has answered this attitude byforming Les Gourmettes Internationales, unique in the world for the fact that it is made up of thirtywomen, twenty of whom represent different countries w'hich have consulates in Montreal. Each month the ladies meet for a gourmet luncheon based upon the cuisine of the host member: twice a year they invite their husbands to a gourmet dinner (at which the husbands pick up the tabs). Mme. Billard is the w'ifc of soldierly Commandant Maurice Billard, editor and publisher of Gastronomie. a monthly magazine printed in Montreal and subscribed to by 10,000 gourmets in 17 countries throughout the world.
A gourmet with no fixed views on the suffragette question is Maurice Coupai, a young Montreal businessman, dapper, slim, brisk, w'ho belongs to three different clubs, one of which is mixed. Coupai, w'ho is often called on to act as judge in such events as the annual Salon Culinaire in which Quebec's top chefs compete for prizes, earned undying fame in gourmet circles by hiring a group of Indians at Oka to fish the small streams of the area for crawfish. Coupai served forty dozen of the tiny crustaceans at a notable gourmet gathering and went down in gastronomical history as the originator of a new' and exotic dish.
His good friend, the formidable Henri Fiset, is actually a soft-spoken, gentle man in his late forties, with a graying mustache w'ho. like many gourmets, is trim of figure. He admitted to me cheerfully that fine foods and w'ine were his favorite hobby. “There comes a time in your life," he said reflectively, “w'hen you realize that you are not going to measure up to all the dreams and ambitions of your youth. Then a concern with gastronomy is a pleasant and harmless pursuit which becomes more and more intriguing as you become involved. And you can taste its rewards for yourself.”
Fiset does not believe in large gourmet clubs. “1 have belonged to several, including the Prosper Montagne Club,” he said, "but I resigned, because they lack the intimacy of a smaller group. On the other hand 1 admit that it would be impossible for a small group to enjoy the kind of gourmet dinner you obtain with the larger club. It is a matter ol cost. The vintage wines
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might cost as much as ten or twelve dollars a bottle, and five or six diderent wines may be served during the course of the meal.”
For this reason, he pointed out, the cost of a gourmet meal varies sharply with the number of people involved. Thus, a meal that might cost as much as $75 each for two persons, may drop to $40 each for four, $20 each for eight. He thinks the ideal size for a gourmet club is between eight and twelve.
The gourmet world, Fiset told me, has its poseurs and frauds. A certain organizer of gourmet dinners quarreled with a noted restaurateur and spread the story that the latter used dripping instead of butter in his kitchen. The restauraunt owner retaliated with the story that the alleged gourmet did not know his wines; once he had been served a cheap white burgundy flavored with maple syrup and thought it was a Chateau Yquem. With a twinkle Fiset concluded: "The pity is, of course, that both stories were true.”
He recalled another incident: “The same restaurateur gave a dinner to some sixty connoisseurs, at $1 I a plate, and the pièce ele resistance was roast venison with pepper sauce. The host acted very nervously through the meal, as though he expected a police raid, for it is forbidden to sell deer meat. All the guests were sworn to secrecy. I suspected the deer, however, and about a year later I taxed the restaurateur with deception. He cheerfully admitted he had fooled just about everyone with marinated roast beef and pepper sauce. It shows that a flavor of illegality improves the dish greatly.”
You don't need to belong to a gourmet club to qualify as a gourmet. Fiset contends, and he does not agree with the conventional ban on women.
“A gourmet is simply a person who can appreciate well-prepared food with the appropriate wine in good company,” he said. "It is nonsense to believe that women are unqualified. Some women are really brilliant connoisseurs. The wife of Maurice Coupai is absolutely unerring in her judgment of wines. When I think I have discovered a good prospect at a reasonable price, I usually have her sample a bottle first. If she agrees, I stock up.”
Just as opposed to exclusively female clubs as Fiset is to exclusively male clubs is Henriette Gauthier Dulliani, public relations director at the Sheraton-Mount Royal Hotel and widely respected among gourmets for her prowess in the kitchen. The tall, willowy and vivacious blonde told me cheerfully: "I would rather be surrounded by thirty hungry gourmets than thirty hungry ‘gourmettes’. Good gracious! How in the world can a woman work up an appetite unless there are men around?”
One of the gayest gourmet clubs in Montreal is "Les Panseurs,” presided over by Dr. Romeo Boucher and his wife, Lorraine, also a doctor, who publish the lively twice-monthly medical journal, “L’information Médicale et Paramédicale.” "Les Panseurs” derives its name from "panse” meaning “belly” and is intentionally meant to be confused with “penseurs.” meaning “thinkers.” A small genial man with a round wrinkled face and merry eyes, Boucher is reputed to have the finest private cellar in Canada, and he told me that he had started it in 1926. His oldest wine now is a Chateau Yquem of 1910, a superlative sweet white wine. Next in age is a red Bordeaux, a Cheval Blanc of 1914, and then a red Burgundy, Nuits St. Georges 1917. He says that despite all precautions he expects one bottle in four to have become undrinkable when he opens his really old wines. “The way to build up a cellar,” he says, “is to buy a good wine and put it away. Buy separately for current consumption." He accumulated his cellar that way and by adding to it from the sales of other cellars. He is always looking for an inexpensive wine with possibilities; he considers the red Mouton Cadet Bordeaux of 1953 is a real buy at its current price. “But wait for the wines of 1959, he says with sparkling eye. “They are not on the market yet, but they are reported to be the greatest wines of our generation.”
He told me about the Club des Panseurs, which is composed of four couples. "We usually start with champagne as an aperitif. By the time we sit down to the table, the conversation is sparkling. During the meal one particular wine will be served with the label concealed. Whoever first correctly names the type and the year wins a medal, which must be worn at all public appearances until we meet the following month and it comes up for competition again.”
I asked Boucher for the names of the other club members, but he answered: “That might not be discreet. Sometimes another member brings a partner who is not his wife.”
I asked: "But what happens if she wins the medal?”
He replied gallantly: "We kiss her on both cheeks and she wears it proudly.”
Shortly after my conversation with Boucher, through the kind offices of Gérard Delage I received an invitation to attend a gourmet dinner of Les Compagnons de la Bonne Table. I was elated.
Neither food nor drink passed my lips during the early part of that day and I was as nervous as a bride when I presented myself at 7.30 p.m. in one of the salons of the Queen’s Hotel where the company was to foregather. Looking back and going over my notes, I realize that my memory of events earlier in the evening was much sharper than later. Anyway,
I was one of the first on hand, I know that. Fortunately there was a familiar face or two ahead of me. Gérard Delage greeted me, and Stan Ferguson, the tall slim alert young manager of the Queens, whom I’ve long considered one of the very best of hotelmen. Both made me wel-come, and if they thought I was unfashionably early, they said nothing. Pretty soon other Compagnons arrived, and I recognized the great Albert Frossard, dean of food and service authorities; the proprietor of the Queen’s, Adelard Raymond and bustling friendly Roger Champoux of La Presse, whose lyrical descriptions of gourmet club dinners arouses the appetites of a million readers.
Others kept coming in, and I noted that there wasn't a really fat man in the house. They ranged in age from the early thirties to the late sixties, but most of them seemed to be between forty and fifty and the company was overwhelmingly French-speaking. Garner Havers of the Sheraton-Mount Royal and Gordon McMichael of the Laurentian Hotel were notable exceptions.
We stood around chatting while waiters served us with what was termed on the menu: "la procession des amuse-bouches,” which might freely translate into “amusing little snacks to keep your mouth busy.” These were tidbits of cod liver, a pork pâté called cretons, pastries stuffed with meat called pepitas, other pastries called rôties galloises. New Brunswick tuna, a meat pudding with a chicken stuffing, pâté de foie gras, thin slices of ham, and shrimps and smoked salmon. All of it was native Canadian food.
The club's all-Canadian policy does not extend to wines; the Compagnons drank imported vintages. There was a Chablis Poulet & Fils 1953, a light rosé Ackerman-Laurence. a dry Amontillado Tesoro sherry, a white Chateau Montcontour, vouvray. a Gravisec Louis Bert, and a dry Alsatian wine. Vin de l’Abbaye, caves des vieux donjons 1955. In the interests of honest reporting, I tried them all. They tasted swell. I had just decided to concentrate on the Alsatian wine, meanwhilenoting that the decibel rate of the con-, versation level was gradually rising, when I observed adjoining doors being thrown open, and a long table centred below an enormous glittering crystal chandelier, met my gaze. Music sounded from the
richly red-paneled banquet room, and the Compagnons began filing through to take their places. Forty-four of us sat down to the serious part of the evening.
In the back of my mind I think 1 had always cherished the colorful picture of a gourmet meal as a gathering of people all about the same size and shape as Charles Laughton, tearing into the food as he did in the movie of Henry VIII, quaffing great draughts of wine and throwing the half-eaten drumsticks carelessly over their shoulders for the hounds and the peasants to gnaw gratefully. But
as I looked around me at this gathering, I thought instead of a giant operating table at the Neurological Institute and a great battery of surgeons, all looking exactly like Dr. Wilder Penfield, keen, austere, and about to perform a critical operation, and intensely absorbed in the challenge. The impression vanished as the conversation burst forth again, and a waiter filled my glass with what the menu told me was Le madère casa dos vinhos da Madeira, which was a dry sherry-type port I had never tasted before. What am I saying? As I looked down the menu
I could see that with the exception of the champagne there wasn't a single wine that 1 had ever tasted before.
With the port came a light consommé, “aux perles du Japon,” which simply meant that it contained large pearl-shaped balls of tapioca. The soup vanished quickly before my sharpened appetite. Then came the second plate, supreme du doré, a fillet of pickerel bathed in a sauce of cream, butter and mushrooms. No lowly pickerel ever attained such heights before, and, accompanied by a dry white Alsatian wine, Riesling Willm, 1953, it melted as
by magic from my plate. Wise and serious comments were being passed around me concerning the subtle blending of the sauce, the tlakiness of the fish, and the acute perception behind the choice of wine to achieve just the right degree of dryness to bring out the ftdl flavor of the dish. It was completely over my head.
The third dish was buffalo rump, accompanied by a red Bordeaux wine. Chateau Haut Brion 1952 Premier Grand Cru Classé, which is head of the class. The meat had been cubed into chunks two inches square, marinated in red wine for two weeks, dried, pan-broiled and then served in a gravy made from the marinade. The buffalo melted in my mouth like butter, and the soft and generous Haut Brion wafted it on to join the fish.
I was in a reverie of delight when suddenly a bell clanged, cutlery was laid down, and silence fell over the table. It was time for the Initiation.
This ceremony, called “Le Coup de la Gamelle,” involved the selection of a number of those present to be given a chain similar to those which wine-tasters wear around their necks. Attached is a cup, and this is filled with that formidable Quebec concoction. Caribou, composed of two-thirds red wine and one-third whiskey blanc. This the initiate promptly gulps to the cheers of the other Compagnons. I was among the initiates, and I downed my caribou manfully. The notes I made thereafter were no help at all.
Anyway, I do remember that the fourth course was guinea hen. stuffed with wild rice and served with creamed spinach and potatoes trimmed to the size and shape of olives and fried in butter, and a robust red burgundy wine. Pommard of J. Thorin. vintage 1949. It was a delicate dish but I showed it no mercy, and the waiter continued to fill my glass with Pommard as I sailed through the next dish, which was called “L’oreiller de la belle Françoise.” The pillow of the beautiful Françoise was a pâté in jelly, served with a dandelion salad and was the best pillow I ever ate.
Then came an “interlude of three fine Canadian cheeses: the creamy white St. Basile which is made by a temperamental farmer near the village of St.Basile, south of Montreal (he bothers with his cheesemaking only when winter prevents him from working outdoors); the blue roequefort-Iike Hermitage cheese made by the Benedictine monks, and the yellow-creamcolored Oka made by the Trappists. With the cheese came a really great wine, L’Hospice de Beaune, Patriarche Père et Fils, 1949, a red burgundy. It was a warm, full-bodied noble wine which announced with the first sip that the champion had arrived. I treated it with all the dignity and respect that I could muster.
Then the lights Were dimmed, and waiters arrived with dishes of pickled pears flaming in kirsch. Accompanying the pears was one of the great champagnes of recent years, Pommery, brut, 1949. This was followed by coffee in demi-tasse and huge snifter glasses to honor their contents, Grande Fine Napoleon, the ultimate in cognac.
Alternately I sipped my coffee, black, and inhaled the fragrance of the cognac. Then cigars were passed around, CoronaCoronas. The waiter lit mine and l puffed manfully. The thought came to me: I didn't really want to be a millionaire — I just wanted to live like one, and this was surely it.
In a beautific glow, after about three more cognacs, the Compagnons broke up and we wended our separate ways home. When I got there I found my wife happily eating yoghurt and wheat germ with prunes. ★