The other day while I worked my way through the complexities of Julia Child's blanquette de veau recipe, I was reminded of a much simpler version of the savory veal stew that I learned to make in Paris in the cooking class of Suzanne Bergeaud.
Mme. Bergeaud gave lessons in her fifth-floor apartment on Rue Babylone, in the 7th Arrondissement near Les Invalides. It was not a fancy address, nor was her kitchen even remotely "designer," but to our small group of American women who subscribed to her six-week courses, it was a destination of delight.
We would arrive completely out of breath at her door, after circling up the five flights of steps. There were never more than five of us - the maximum number that could squeeze into her tiny kitchen to perch on wooden stools. We would arrange ourselves carefully to avoid put-ting our elbows on the gas stove or getting sprayed by the sink.
She would begin at once, speaking in rapid-fire French and describing the menu for the day. Sometimes these first comments would be lost on us. But when she added demonstration to her words - and made each of us help - we managed to record the recipes and the household hints with which she punctuated the lessons. She had written them all down in a self-published cookbook, we discovered, called "Les Secrets de la Bonne Cuisine Franaise" ("Secrets of a Good French Kitchen").
But it is my blue spiral notebook that I refer to rather than her book; for even now, 20 years after leaving Paris, it recalls those cheerful and somewhat chaotic mornings chopping and mixing with my friends.
Mme. Bergeaud's courses were divided into four levels, beginning with "Familial" and "Reception" and ending with "Reception III." She was clearly in her element at the "Familial" level. The daughter of a wealthy family from Normandy, she had learned to cook at the skirts of the household servants. Her mother, she said, never entered the kitchen. It was the Norman influence that gave her recipes some of their crme frache accents; but it was the demands of running a more frugal Paris apartment that produced her practical cuisine based on fresh, but not exotic or expensive, ingredients.
Hers was a kitchen without automatic appliances. The only nod to modern tools was a wall-mounted manual can opener, but I don't recall ever seeing her use it. Even those canned staples I thought no one lived without - tomato sauce and chicken stock - were fresh in her kitchen.
In a snapshot one of us took during class, Mme. Bergeaud is holding a small paring knife and half a Camembert, demonstrating, if I remember, how to peel the cheese before buttering it and rolling it in fine bread crumbs for use as a simple appetizer. She is smiling, with her head thrown back, enjoying her own performance. Her short gray hair is uncoiffed. She is wearing a psychedelic blouse swirling with white and red flowers, and a bibbed apron with plum and white stripes.
Behind her, mounted on the wall over the sink, is a gas-fired hot water heater. Next to it on a board shelf sits a container of Ajax cleanser. A dish towel and some plastic bags are hung to dry from red clothespins attached to a cord strung along the front of the shelf. Underneath, stacked in the sink, are the day's accumulation of dirty pans. The visible corner of the apartment-size stove is grease-spattered. It is not exactly a Martha Stewart moment.
High on the wall is a window with an inward-swinging pane. The first time I went for a lesson I watched with dismay as she opened the window, pulled a hot cake from the oven and slid it out the window, then closed it! I remember gasping, "She just threw the cake away!" But, no. There was a shelf outside, perfect for cooling cakes.
MY notebook is stained with samples of classic French sauces, pts, and desserts, which Mme. Bergeaud taught us to make with confidence. She gave us a sense of the potential for these basic recipes, so we could vary them as ingredients or taste dictated.
Our lessons ended at noon, and this was not a whimsical deadline. Her husband came home precisely at 12 o'clock every day for his dinner, and we were expected to have finished sampling what we had cooked and be ready to leave by the time we heard his heavy steps laboring up the five flights. About 20 minutes earlier, we would have been reminded of the time by Mme. Bergeaud's sudden shift of attention from the food we were preparing to the potatoes she was peeling for their dinner. Then she handed out tiny portions of our morning's work on cracked plates with mismatched forks and she saved the rest for their own meal.
On our way home, my friends and I would stop at the market to buy ingredients for the dishes we had just cooked. Having been tempted by the samples, we were eager for more.
The other day, as I hurried to finish the many steps in Julia Child's blanquette de veau, I recalled my worn spiral notebook and Mme. Bergeaud's straightforward instructions for the same dish.
Now, I thought, putting the final touches on Julia's chef-d'oeuvre, who's to say which one better qualifies to be a "secret de la bonne cuisine Franaise"?