Monday, September 20, 2010


The Chalet Malakoff is located on edge of Megève, on the road to Sallanches. It is a large structure, capable of housing about 50. The director and his wife were warm and friendly. They were members of the French Communist Party. The Chalet was owned by the town of Malakoff, many of whose inhabitants worked at the nearby Renault factory.

This was an école de vacances, a vacation school. I presume it was paid for by the city of Malakoff. An entire elementary school class plus teacher got to spend 30 days at the chalet. Every morning, they studied. Every afternoon, they skied or did other physical activity.

I worked as the sole assistant to the chef, M. Boisvert. He was short, round, with closely cropped hair. He had recently retired from teaching at a hotel school and he and his wife had bought a house near the chalet. He was a bit of a stingy guy. He sold egg shells and vegetable peels to a local farmer who paid in heavy cream, which went home with the chef. André, the plongeur, and I were instructed to never use the potato peeling machine but to peel the potatoes by hand and to save the peels. From an environmental standpoint, this was admirable, as the machine ground the skin off and mixed the grindings with water, which of course ended up in some stream, untreated. However, we weren’t hand-peeling for the benefit of the environment. We were doing it so the chef could have cream for his coffee.

Every morning, I descended from my attic nest to start up the kitchen fires and to make breakfast. This involved toasting slices of stale baguette on the plaque or steel hot-top. I also had to start brewing the coffee and boiling the milk for café au lait. I made the coffee with chicory root and coffee. This was 1972, only 27 years after the war, and people were still drinking their coffee adulterated with chicory.

I also had to set up the coal stove. This was quite the contraption. The fireboxes were flanked by two ovens, and the heat from the burning coal was diverted to the ovens, then to the plaque or hot top, then finally to a large tank of water over the stove. Thus, lighting the stove also heated water.

Setting up the coal stove involved adding crumpled paper followed by kindling and then by. Once the coal was going, that stove was cooking!

I learned a few basics from the chef. We made brioches, for example. He made them the traditional way, which was first to mix a paton consisting of flour, water, yeast. We kneaded this by hand, then rolled it into a ball, cut the sign of the cross onto it, and lowered it gently into warm water. When it had resurrected—risen to the top—we kneaded eggs and salt into it, and then soft butter. I never made brioche this way again, as it’s completely unnecessary, given that we have mixers to make light the work. And with today’s genetically superior yeast, the paton method is quite unnecessary.

I also learned how to make genoise. We made a lot of it, so I got a lot of practice. Because of that knowledge, I have never since looked up a cake recipe. Instead, I modify Chef Boisvert’s recipe. If I need to make a hazelnut torte, I use his recipe.
It boils down to this ratio: 1 egg, 1 oz sugar, 1 oz flour. That’s it. A single cake pan takes 4-6 eggs worth of batter.
Put the eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl. Beat over hot water (I prefer open flame for convenience) vigorously, using a piano wire whisk until you get a stiff foam. Do not exceed 120 °F. Transfer to a mixer and whisk until the foam is stiff and falls off the whip in a thick, gloppy ribbon. The foam must be cool.

Fold in the sifted flour, one-third at a time. Do not over-fold.

I use this same recipe to make sponge (Biscuit in German), but the method is different. With the sponge method, one separates the eggs and the sugar and beats the yolks with half the sugar and the whites with the other half to stiff peaks, then combines them and sifts in one-third the flour, etc. For nut tortes (e.g., hazelnußtorte), I replace half the flour with nut’s flour.

I never add butter—to either Genoise or to sponge. The yolk has plenty of fat and butter just weakens the foam. I think adding butter comes from the days when people ate Genoise by itself—for example as biscuits à la cuillère or ladyfingers.
André, the plongeur, made cooking at Chalet Malakoff quite fun. Although he drank like a fish and often couldn’t put two words together, his favorite activity was to pick up a ladle, hold the bowl portion to his ear and yell, “Alloooo! J’ecoute!” But I will remember him best for teaching me chansons paillards, or straw songs, meaning just about the dirtiest ditties you can sing—all in argot or slang.

Here’s a clean poem he taught me, based on Jean de la Fontaine’s Un Riche Laboureur…

Un pécor, sentant ses calleches rallecher
Fit venir ses lardoons et leur jacta en lusde
“Dujonc est planqué dans la fouille”

A rich laborer, feeling his end imminent
Told his children to come to him and spoke to them privately
“Money is hidden in the land”

Hardly a single word isn’t slang.

He also liked to say, “Vive la guerre qu’on se tue!” or “Long live war so we can kill each other!”

He told me that certain French were collaborators. He whispered that M. Boisvert was pro-Vichy. He also informed me that at the end of the war, when the Americans were leaving, they would pile boots and rations into enormous hills and light them with gasoline. This instead of distributing them to the local populace, who were starving. No use having people like you. This was one of the first times that I realized that Americans are no worse/no better than anyone else and that sometimes innocence is as much a sin as intentional malfeasance.

My best memories of the Chalet Malakoff are of things done in the off hours. For example, I had Mondays to myself. So, I lashed skies to my motorbike and tootled up the road to the foot of the slopes.

The first time I went skiing, I took a crossbar up. Of course, you usually share it with someone, so I shared it with this cute British bank teller. However, being a total novice, my skis caught in the icy tracks and I fell over, causing her precipitate decline as well. Instead of swearing at me like a sailor, though, she suggested I take skiing lessons.

Well, in those days, banks—and their tellers—were highly respected. So I took her advice. I paid for one set of lessons, and after that decided that I was good enough for the slopes. The rest of the season, from January through March, I skied every Monday. And, I got good at it, although I never attempted the Olympic slope. I had my share of accidents: flying forward when my ski tip caught on some ice and then watching the ski sail off by itself, eventually entering the woods. Eventually, I had to switch skis because the metal strips that were screwed into the wood had torn away, as the wood had rotted and the screwheads had worn off.

A second memory of Chalet Malakoff is of reading in the library. They had quite a collection of Jack London books, most of which I read. The third memory is of reconditioning a reed organ that I found in the attic. Its bellows had cracked and were non-functional, so I enclosed a vacuum cleaner in a lemon crate to mute the roar, and played a concert of JSB Two-Part Inventions, which are quite suitable for short keyboards.

In March, with the season soon ending, Chef Boisvert got me a job with the local culinary celebrity, Chef Lauriot. He was going to open up his summer establishment in Verdun sur le Doubs, a charming, medieval town at the confluence of the Doubs and the Saone rivers.

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