Snatching victory from the jaws of exasperation

posted 10 March 2005

Saturday night, we entertained Laurence's boss, Patrick Mayzaud, for dinner, together with Laurence and Patrick's wife Odile, a high-school science teacher. I got up early to bake a lemon chess pie (with local lemons but cornmeal imported from Tallahassee. It came out perfectly, but I had to leave out the cinnamon--didn't have any. I planned to get some during my morning's shopping and just sprinkle a little over the surface at serving time.

After breakfast, I set off for Beaulieu, trailing my little shopping trolley behind me. David staid home because he wanted to wash the floors while I wasn't there to track them up, to change out the bedlinens while reception was open, to sweep up the shards of the crumb saucer the birds nudged off the balcony table onto the tiles, etc. That increased the number of errands I had to run, and the chance that my purchases would exceed the capacity of my trolley, but I thought I could do it and still get back before Nancy Reed showed up for lunch at our place and an afternoon's sightseeing.

First, the Marché U--they were out of ground cinnamon. Okay, I'll get some from the spice guy in the open market. They had everything else I'd planned to buy there (including cooked shrimp; no time to get them from the open-market fishmonger, even if he had any left, and cook them myself), but they were mobbed. After a long wait I finally got checked out, the trolley loaded, and set off for the open market. The good vegetable people (the ones with the dog who sleeps in a banana box) were back from vacation, and their frisée lettuce was beautiful, but they only had one, and I was afraid I would need two. No time to go through the long check-out at Marché U again--I'll stop in at l'Entrecôte. Their leeks were uncharacteristically ratty looking, but no problem, I didn't need those until later in the week. They were also mobbed, but after another long wait I got checked out and headed for the cheese and cold-cut guy--drat, he was out of that nice brebis I had wanted to serve--good thing I'd picked up some tomme de Savoie on spec at Marché U. Next the spice guy. Another long wait, while an Italian group, apparently in town for the day to shop, bought their spice mixtures for the month, asking the spice guy the composition of each mixture, soliciting his advice on various pasta dishes, mourning the absence of his terrific omelet mixture, shouting across the market to an errant member of their group--Mario! Is this enough red pepper? Finally they got almost everything they wanted, and the spice guy promised to make them some more of the omelet mixture once he had helped these nice ladies (meaning me and the several matrons lined up behind me by this time). Yes, he had ground cinnamon, but only a little left (by which he meant about half a pint); I bought 50 centimes' worth--one small scoop--and set off for the post office, feeling by this time like Peter Mayle's wife in A Year in Provence, trying to buy veal while everyone in the shop joins the argument with the butcher and his wife over how to make piperade. On the way, I dropped into l'Entrecôte for more frisée, but they didn't have any. Escarole, then? None of that either--just tender little lettuces that wouldn't stand up to the braising I had in mind. Well, one would have to do; at least it was a nice big one.

At the post office, I stood in line for a good 20 minutes, mostly behind people who knew what they wanted, but we were all held up for quite a while by a little old man who wanted to mail some object he had brought in in a plastic bag. He couldn't understand why the box for it was so expensive, and the clerk couldn't seem to make him understand that the postage was included in the price of the box and that, once he bought the box, he wouldn't have to put stamps on it. He finally bought it and moved aside to pack it, but he couldn't figure out how to put the box together, and the clerk had to instruct him, in pantomime through her bullet-proof glass. All in all, everyone was very patient with him, even me.

Once I got the international envelopes we needed, I just had to stop by a bakery for a dessert for lunch. I had plenty of time to puruse every item in the case and make a well-considered choice while a little old lady engaged in long negotiations over a birthday cake she wanted to order for he following day. She made the clerk recite, in order, all the layers in each of the various chocolate cakes (Well, madame you can't make it solid chocolate ganache, because that becomes cloying, so we start with a layer of génoise cake, drizzled with almond syrup, then a layer of ganache, then coffee cream . . . and yes, we'll put a happy-birthday banner on to . . . . no, the shiny glaze on top is very thin; it just covers the second layer of almond paste) and promise how many they would serve (Eight, you say? Well, I don't know; it seems small. Ten? I don't know; is it really larger? It's wider, but it doesn't seem as tall . . . .). Once she finally chose a cake, she had to order the rest of the baked goods for the meal: five cheese puffs, and a quiche for five--no, four, because Étienne doesn't like quiche--and some of that nice tourte de blettes, but only for three because it would be the appetizer and Jean and Marilou couldn't come that early . . . . Finally, I got to buy my three little squares of chocolate "opéra" cake and head for home. By this time it was noon, and Nancy had been due for half an hour. But in the end, everything fit in the trolley, except the bakery box, which had to be hand carried anyway.

Late though it was, I was stopped dead in my tracks on the way across the résidence parking lot by the Natural History Phenomenon of the Week, if not the month--39 identical fuzzy caterpillars (I counted them), each almost as long as my little finger, trucking along across the gravel, going somewhere in a sinuous convoy, nose-to-tail. The things you see when you don't have a camera! Hey, birds, better not mess with us! We're not 39 tasty morsels exposed on open ground--we're a vicious bird-eating snake! Luckily, Nancy was late, so despite the pause to stare open-mouthed at caterpillars, I had a few minutes to put groceries away and set out the the promised lunch pâté and cheese before she showed up.

After lunch, Nancy drove us up to her neighborhood in Nice, called Cimiez, where we visited her parish church to look at the 16th century paintings, then toured the Matisse museum. Afterward, we finally got to see her apartment and meet her cat, a Russian blue named Fox. She knew I had to be home promptly to cook dinner, so after a cup of tea, we headed back to Villefranche, where I started on dinner only about 20 minutes later than I had planned.

Here's the menu:

Hors d'oeuvres: purchased patées and bread, marinated olives
First course: orange salad
Main course: vol-au-vent of shrimp Viennese, with sautéed frisée lettuce
Cheese: crottin de Chavignol, tomme de Savoie, the last of the brebis I got last week at the market
Dessert: lemon chess pie

The pie was done, everything else well in hand. Only the vol-au-vent was a bit tricky--a giant-sized puff-pastry patty shell. I got out the two disks of purchased puff pastry--one for the base and one for the rim and lid--and assembled them as directed by Fanny Farmer. First problem--they were too big around to fit in the oven. Okay, an oval vol-au-vent; they don't have to be round--I trimmed appropriately. The oven here won't go as high as the 500 degrees Fanny recommended, but I set it as high as it would go, around 450, and hoped for the best. David got out some of our new wine glasses, and as he washed and dried them before first use, one shattered in his hand, filling our only clean and presentable dishtowel with tiny, glittering shards. At least it wasn't blood. And the power staid on--we learned last week that turning on all four burners and the oven plunges the apartment into darkness..

According to Fanny, I should reduce the oven temperature 25 degrees every 5 minutes, but the oven is so small that the exposed upper heating element is too close to the food. By the time the first 5 minutes had passed, the top surface was brown. I tented it with foil and lowered the temperature. Five minutes later, the lid (on the lower rack) had burned black--too close even to the covered lower element. Okay, an open-face vol-au-vent. I set the timer for another 3 minutes but forgot to push start. Somewhat later--six minutes, maybe--the whole thing was burned black. David was rather surprised at the language I used. Quick mental inventory of the kitchen--no potatoes, no rice, no couscous, pasta not really the right sort of thing. We still had an hour. David agreed to make a quick run to Marché U for more puff pastry and some back-up rice while I worked on the other dishes. Only after he left did I discover that I couldn't find the jar of dill I was sure I had bought--no way he'd have time for another shopping run (and a good thing he wasn't there to hear the language I used). Fortunately, the dill had just fallen down behind another package.

When David got back, I quickly assembled another vol-au-vent, guessed at a more appropriate oven temperature, tented it early, and watched it like a hawk. Surprisingly, it rose higher than the first, turned a beautiful golden, and got nice and crisp sooner than I would have guessed. I was even able to do the step where you remove the lid, pull out the undercooked pastry inside, invert the lid on another rack, and continue baking to crisp the inside surfaces. At this point, I was in possession of a lovely oval vol-au-vent (which I intended to fill to gracefully overflowing with a semiliquid mixture) that was at least four inches wider on each side than the largest plate we had; I could only hope that the platter Laurence had promised to bring would be large enough.

I was running a little behind, but the guests were a little late, so I was just neatening up the kitchen when they arrived. Odile (who turns out to be a real live wire) swept into the room, kissed us soundly on both cheeks, and (taking the role of senior lady present--in standing if not actually in age) declared that we should not stand on ceremony, that we should all address each other by the informal "tu," that she loved the architecture of our building, and that we had a superb view. From that moment, the whole course of the day seemed to change. Laurence's platter was exactly the right size. I happened to have kept a large glass jar (I think it came with cassoulet in it), so I didn't have to press the water carafe into service as a vase for the flowers Odile brought. We had just enough dishes and silverware for all the courses. The one head of frisée turned out to be large enough after all. Conversation flowed, in French and in English. The lemon chess pie was a huge hit. All in all, the dinner was a triumph. We're invited back to their place for next Saturday.

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