Before Mario arrived to do the season, M. Caille’s brother-in-law, Monsieur Tomas served as chef. He was a nice enough man. I learned two dishes from him that I cook to this day.
The first evening I was to be his assistant, I arrived five minutes late. Incensed, he made a statement that I shall never forget: “L’heure, c’est l’heure. Avant l’heure, ce n’est pas l’heure. Apres l’heure, ce n’est pas l’heure. L’heure, c’est l’heure.” (Time is time. Before the time is not the time. After the time, is not the time. Time is time) A bit of working class poetry.
The two dishes that Monsieur Tomas taught me were pets de nonne (Nuns’ Farts) and Beignets d’Aubergine, Sauce Tomate. Pets de Nonne very much fit the French character. The French Revolution was all about depriving the aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church the power that they had formerly wielded. For hundreds of years, many peasants had suffered or died at the hands of these two groups, so there is a lasting bitterness, especially among secular French. Of course, there are still many church-goers; they tend to be anti-semitic, anti-Muslim, and highly patriotic. Not too different from the U.S.
During the Terror, most of the aristocracy was beheaded, so the bitterness toward them is less strong as they ceased to exist (with a few scattered exceptions). But toward the church, and any organized religion for that matter, there is a feeling of suspicion. This explains why there has been so much controversy over Muslim clothing, especially facial coverings. Even the public wearing of the cross is controlled.
Pets de Nonne are, as one might expect, airy, sweet, and fruity. They are made of pâte à choux that is dropped by spoonfuls into hot oil. Cooked at around 350 °F, the farts turn themselves over as the portion submerged in oil loses weight and the fart flips. When crunchy, they are removed, slit open, filled with just a little jam, and powdered with confectioner’s sugar.
In addition to nuns’ farts, I also learned how to make beer battered eggplant slices and a basil-scented tomato sauce. This technique is transferable to a host of vegetables. One of my favorite vegetable beignets is made with zucchini blossoms and mozzarella. This, too, I serve with a tomato sauce.
Once Mario was on board, M. Tomas disappeared. His wife, however, Mme Tomas, continued to work with us. She was in charge of breakfast. Hôtel des Bains had about 30 rooms, so there was a lot of room service to do. Mme Tomas oversaw the boiled milk for café au lait, the cleanliness of the silver, the trays, etc.
Every afternoon, Mme Tomas made fromage blanc. This consisted of mixing an old batch of it into fresh milk and allowing it to ferment. She had her own cupboard behind screen doors so that flies couldn’t get to the food. Fromage blanc is just clabbered milk.
She also made crottes de chèvre. Literally translated, this means “goat turds.” And now for a segue. The French are not afraid of using highly graphic words in their speech. One of the first I learned to use was “con”. Literally, this means “cunt.” Con is used in everyday conversation by all socioeconomic classes. It is innately sexist, of course, like the word “hysterical” which refers to the same part of the body.
Another graphic word, used less in polite circles but highly favored among kids is dégueulace. Dégueler means, literally, to vomit. Anything that is déguelace is something worth vomiting over.
Anyway, back to the turds. These are typical French goat cheeses, made by adding bacteria to warm goat milk, separating the curds from the whey, scooping the curds into small perforated forms, allowing them to drain, then letting them age. Her cupboard was full of crottes in various stages of ripeness. After several months, these cheeses become rather hard. But they retain their goaty character, which comes from three fatty acids found in their milk: caproic, capric, and caprylic acids.
Mme Tomas also had Mario and me make a few extra things for her. One was apple sauce. We peeled and cored thousands of apples and cooked them into a purée that we sweetened. The apples were the classic Reinettes, which remind me of “Pink Ladies”.
One day, we received several cases of pig heads. We boiled these in large pots with vegetables, herbs and spices. Once cooked, we pulled the heads apart, chopping the snouts and cheeks into pieces. We concentrated the liquid, seasoned it, added vinegar, and then poured it over the pig head pieces that we had arranged in molds. When cold, we had Fromage de Tête, or Head Cheese. This became one of my favorite foods. Not even a year later, I was visiting my German Aunt and Uncle in Trier. Tante Maria took me out to the fancy restaurant across from the train station and I ordered the cheapest item on the menu (as I was trained to do) which turned out to be head cheese (Kopf Käse). Tante Maria was amazed. “You like that??”, she asked.
Years later, that is, about 25 years later, I would put head cheese sandwiches in my daughter Linnea’s school lunches. She was very happy to eat it. One day, a friend said to her, “Do you know what is in head cheese?” Linnea responded, “No”. Her friend said “Pig’s head!” Linnea never touched it again.