I was coming out of my lift when the landlady accosted me. “Have you eaten breakfast?”
I nodded, “Yes, thank you.”
“What did you have for dinner yesterday?”
“Two boiled eggs and a croissant.”
“And for lunch?”
I hesitated and her eyes narrowed. “Half of a pan bagnat,” I replied.
“Tsk, tsk, this will never do,” she answered, “You must have something hearty or you will starve! I cannot let you go on like this under my care.”
“I’m not much of a cook,” I said to her, shrugging my shoulders in apology.
“Come,” she said, “I shall teach you how to make a soufflé. Very easy and it fills you up.”
I was a college graduate house sitting for a friend in Nice, France for two weeks. She lived in a pale pink Belle Époque building under the care of an inquisitive elderly woman who was convinced that I needed her motherly intervention. Since my first day she had been making sure I knew how to survive. First she asked if I could do laundry, then change tender. Two days later she wanted to know if I had ever cleaned a bathroom. Now I was going to get a cooking lesson.
Madame Bessette was spindly and spry so I had a job keeping up with her through the shadowed alleys. We sped through the courtyards and passed the cafés just opening their doors. Proprietors were sweeping their front sidewalks and homeowners fluffing their rugs out of windows. The city was chirping to life as we wound our way to Cours Saleya. Here the neighborhood had already been buzzing for an hour. Striped awnings hugged each other in rows as Niçois huddled around the legumes, fruit, and flower stalls. In the Mediterranean light everything popped with jewel tones: ruby tomatoes, emerald beans, pearl onions, and amethyst eggplants. My landlady dove in and out of the crowd like a tardy bee heading for its hive. I wanted to grab the back of her grey skirt so I wouldn’t lose her.
I shouldered past grandmothers and house wives haranguing over produce, trying to keep Madame Bessette’s grizzled bun in sight. A bulldozer shaped man lugging crates of pink Gerber daisies cut between us. I reeled back then tried to squeeze behind him. I could not find Madame and teetered like a drunkard until a sharp elbow shoved me against a box of artichokes. They began to fall and I splayed out my arms to catch them. I looked up to apologize and saw her standing, hand on hip shouting contentedly at the rotund man behind the stall.
“This,” she said, “is Monsieur Rennard. He has a farm in Var where he grows the best artichokes.” She took the one I was holding and placed it close to my face. “Look at that color, smell that!” It smelled of damp earth to me but I nodded politely.
“But of course, madame, it is the soil,” the farmer replied, “what you put into the soil, you get out. We listen to the ground, we ask it what it wants, and we give it love. Then it gives back more than we ask of it.” Madame Bessette purchased four of the thistle looking vegetables and we said our goodbyes. We headed for another stall on the side of the market where a woman in a kerchief sells eggs and honey.
“Bonjour Magda, ça va?”
“Bonjour Heloise, mustn’t complain.”
“How are the bees?” asked my landlady.
“The bees take care of themselves, it’s the chickens I have to worry about. They are so particular about what they’ll eat, the prima donnas!”
“Nobody has eggs the size of yours. You must be doing something right? There is a rumor you feed them strawberries and fermented milk.”
The covered head tilted to the right. “Perhaps, perhaps…I can’t give away all my secrets can I?” We hovered over the selection, columns of fist sized brown and speckled eggs nestled inside straw beds. My proprietress cradled a few in her hands, examining their shells before she agreed to buy six of them.
We returned to Madame Bessette’s apartment, so similar to my own but with a decor that married well with the aged ceiling and cracked walls. “Look,” she said to me in the yellow-curtained kitchen, “we have our eggs, our artichoke, our fresh cream and butter. Smell this cream, see how rich it looks?” She propped the glass bottle towards my nose and I caught a whiff of sunburnt hay before she poured it into her bowl. “I still get mine delivered by hand, you can’t trust those stores to give you anything good. Who puts real cream inside a cardboard parcel?” I grinned fondly at her and wondered what she would do if she ever peeked inside my fridge of packaged supermarket foods.
She stirred, she whipped, she placed the porcelain crocks in the oven. As we sat at her oak dining table, she told me how her father would teach her to prepare soufflés and her grandmother to garden. “At my grannie’s farm I would feed the pigs with her, shell peas, collect eggs, clean out the coops…everything had to be done a certain way and everything had its own fragrance. I can still recall how the peas smelled like rain and the cabbages like vanilla. Nowadays nothing seems to have the same aroma I remember from gran’s garden.”
I dug into the soft interior of the soufflé and tasted a forkful of melted cheese and flaky crust. Here were all the stories, all the places, and all the hands that had taken part to create my meal. On my plate, within this baked dish, was where it came together, where the individual dots connected. As I ate I thought of Monsieur Rennard talking to the earth and his flowering plants. I imagined hens softly clucking in pleasure as Magda plied them with fresh-cut berry slices. I pictured the unknown milkman dropping off the cream, bottles clinking in his tray. I conjured Madame Bessette as she chopped and peeled and grated in her cramped kitchen. I smelled once more the aroma of freshly turned loam after the rain, piney nests, and cut straw as the tales played out in tender bits of artichoke and juicy soufflé. While savoring the baked egg and cream concoction, I tasted the passion and devotion that created each ingredient. Complexities of landscape, climate, and human endeavor swirled in the puffed layers of my lunch.
BT’s ARTICHOKE PASTRY SOUFFLÉ RECIPE
Serves 4 Total Time: 2 hours [1 hour 30 minutes preparation; 30 minutes cooking]
WHAT YOU NEED
4 large artichoke hearts
4 eggs separated
4 pastry sheet squares
1 cup (250 ml) cream
¼ cup (60 grams) unsalted butter
4 Tbsp (30 grams) flour
¼ cup (25 grams) grated Gruyère cheese
Salt & black pepper
WHAT TO DO
1. If you have purchased whole artichokes, trim their stems and cook them in boiling water for 1 hour or until the leaves are tender. Drain the artichokes, remove all leaves and choke. Puree the heart, or fleshy center, in a blender until you achieve a smooth paste consistency.*
2. In a small pot melt the butter at medium heat. Add in the flour, whisking until the mixture is smooth. Continue to whisk while adding in the cream. Season the sauce with salt and pepper. Whisk until thick.
3. Take the pot off heat and add the Gruyère cheese. Whisk the mixture again until the cheese melts then let the pot rest at room temperature for 10 minutes.
4. Add the egg yolks one at a time, stirring until the yolks are integrated into the sauce. Add the artichoke purée and stir once more for a consistent texture.
5. In a large bowl, beat the four egg whites until they look foamy. Add a little salt and continue beating the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Fold the meringue gently into the artichoke sauce, so that it does not break.
5. Grease the four ramekins with butter and dust them lightly with flour. Line the baking dishes with the pastry squares making certain that there is extra portion sticking out over the ramekin. Fill the lined crocks with the artichoke mixture and loosely cover the top with the ends of the pastry sheet.
6. Cook in a preheated oven at 350 ℉ (180 ℃) for 30 minutes or until the dough is golden-brown. Let cool for 10 minutes and serve in ramekin or remove and set on a plate.
* BT Tip: To save time, you can purchase artichoke hearts which are usually sold in oil or water.