04 April 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 7



Cooking at school — Lighting the stove — There are dangers in using kerosene to light a fire — Small fires avoided — Coal fires

Yesterday I spent a good part of my afternoon at school. This isn’t because I went back as a student, since my parents are quite firm in their resolution: they want to keep me with them. But Mademoiselle Fleuron, our teacher, has organized a cooking class on Thursdays, and I thought I’d treat myself by attending.

It’s really quite interesting, these little cooking lessons. They’ve installed a stove, with all its fixtures, in a sheltered part of the courtyard. The cooking equipment is nicely arranged all around, shining and in perfect order. They don’t have many utensils there, but everything they had on hand is perfectly suitable. They have, among other objects, a certain new kind of potato press that I’ve promised myself to buy for our home, with my savings. It’s a surprise present I’ll give to my dear Maman.

A modern-day “presse-purée”: What Madeleine craves.

So, yesterday, there were six of us around the stove, and it was Mademoiselle Fleuron herself who took the role of head cook. I was quite astonished when she said to us that her first lesson would have as its object to teach us how to light the fire.

“Light the fire! But we know very well how, Mademoiselle,” we cried.

“Well,” said Mademoiselle with a smile, “let Madeleine show us her talents in this field. We’re going to see whether she has anything left to learn.”

To be frank, I should say here that Maman had already given me good directions on lighting a fire quickly; since in the beginning, I went about it quite clumsily. There was so much cinder in the ash-pan, so much paper that I packed in and that didn’t catch; other times I forgot to open the stove’s damper, etc., etc., and my fire didn’t light at all. Thanks to Maman’s advice and example, I’ve hardly ever failed to light the fire since. So, when Mademoiselle Fleuron picked me for this job, I was quite happy.

The school’s stove is quite a lot bigger than the one at home, since it’s used to cook the meals for the students on the meal plan*, and there are many of them. But the size of the stove doesn’t increase the difficulty at all; so I boldly and without the slightest worry set about my task.

My friends and my teacher watched me; so I was full of zeal and self-esteem.

I started by removing the round lids that close the holes of the stove; with a little broom that I found there, probably for this express purpose, I swept the soot hatch, clearing away the ash inside and out, taking care to set aside the pieces of coal that weren’t completely used up. Then I filled the tank with water….

One of my friends interrupted my operation:

“Mademoiselle,” she said to our teacher, “why is Madeline filling the tank before the fire is lit?”

“It’s a useful precaution,” replied Mademoiselle, “and Madeleine is right. We see that her mother is training her with good habits. In fact, when the fire is lit, the tank gets heated, and if, at that moment, we pour cold water in, we risk bursting the stove, which cools down too quickly in that spot. At the same time, we must remember never to let the tank run completely dry, which would cause it to deteriorate.”

I continued my lighting. I had, on the grate, some paper and some kindling. I turned the damper vertically, that is to say in the same direction as the stovepipe, and I set the paper on fire. I closed the lid to the opening of the grate and, at the very moment when the wood caught fire, I arranged the coal, the medium-size pieces first. Then I heard a whoosh; the fire had begun to draw, and it was ready. I had nothing left to do but to mind it.

As I used the poker to stir up the coal, thinking I was causing the fire to rise higher, Mademoiselle said:

“Here, Madeleine, is a bad habit. You’re crumbling good pieces that will be absolutely wasted this way. What’s more, you run the risk of shattering or splitting the casing wall or the grill of the stove. You should touch the coal only very delicately, to distance the pieces of coal from one another and to aid the flow of the ash into the ash-pan. But you must never strike and break the coal in the grate.”

“Mademoiselle,” said a student, “with such a hot fire as this, should we be afraid that the chimney will catch fire?”

“With this kind of stove, there’s not much to fear of that,” said Mademoiselle. “But since the opportunity presents itself, let me teach you a means of putting out a fire of this kind.

“Open the damper halfway and throw several small handfuls of flowers of sulfur** onto the brazier. The sulfurous acid that is produced, looking like a greenish smoke, rises in the stovepipe and in the chimney; now, the gas of sulfurous acid doesn’t permit combustion. In these conditions, the smoldering of the soot that coats the chimney will stop and the fire will come to an end.:

“Can’t one use kerosene to light a fire?” I asked my teacher in turn. “We have a neighbor who told me to use no other method, and she assures me that it’s very convenient.”

A French fire station in Madeleine’s day

“Oh! No, for example, don’t ever do that,” said Mademoiselle Fleuron. “It’s quite obvious that it’s not very dangerous to soak a piece or two of coal and to set it on fire when it’s placed on the grate. But then you start relying on kerosene all the time, without stopping. What happens then? One day, when you can’t quite light the fire, no matter that you’ve tried two, three, four times, you get the can of kerosene*** and pour it directly on the coal that won’t light. Now, almost every time, there’s a little corner, which you didn’t spot, that’s begun to glow. Once the kerosene is poured on it, you get a burst of flame that rises up to the can and to the person who’s holding it. Some very great misfortunes have been due to that imprudence.”

“At our house,” said one student, “we cook on a potager****, with coal that we light using the embers from the oven.”

“That’s not a bad system,” said Mademoiselle, “and for a small household, it is perhaps the most economical. However, there are also some precautions to take: for example, keep the window half-open while the coal is burning. Wood-coal, as it’s burning, releases a gas that’s harmful and can even asphyxiate those who breathe it: it’s carbon monoxide.

“If a window is open, this gas escapes by the opening, and the danger is avoided.”

The stove was roaring away. It was time to start the cooking lesson. Each of us put tied an apron around her waist, rolled up her sleeves to avoid getting them dirty while working, and we awaited Mademoiselle’s orders.

To copy and to keep.

1. When I wish to light the cooking fire, I will take care to begin by cleaning it well, using a small broom designated for this purpose.

2. To light the stove, I will use paper, kindling or embers from the oven; but I will not use kerosene, which is too dangerous.

3. If a fire starts in the chimney, I will throw onto the brazier a few handfuls of flowers of sulfur, of which I will always keep a supply.

4. If I make a fire with wood-coal, I will take care to keep the kitchen window partially opened at all times, so that the dangerous gas which is released by the coal can escape outside.

Next Sunday: Madeleine and her friends learn to cook a pork roast — economically!

*The original text directs the reader to the glossary, where it’s explained that the meal plan is a public welfare project designed to encourage school attendance by poor children.

**The glossary defines this as “a very fine powder obtained by condensation of the vapors of distilled sulfur.”

***The glossary defines “pétrole” as “a natural mineral oil used in lighting.”

****Somebody will have to tell me if there’s an equivalent for this in English. The “potager” is a sort of stove, built into a counter that's usually covered in tile or brick. One places embers in a compartment in the counter; heat from the embers rises, warming a metal surface on the counter top, on which one places the cooking vessel. As you can imagine, the stove Madeleine uses would have been much hotter; it also had the advantage of a stovepipe, which the potager didn’t, as Mademoiselle makes clear. (The principal meaning of the word “potager” is vegetable garden.)


L. Ch.-Desmaisons, the author of La Première Année de Cuisine is vague about where Madeleine and her family live, and with good cause. Too much specificity might have alienated young readers.

Remember that, in 1895, a significant percentage (a third, I believe) of French natives spoke little or no French at all, and a majority wouldn't have identified themselves as French when you asked where they were from. So handing a book about a girl in Provence to a girl in Brittany really wouldn't help her to identify with your sage counsel on cooking. Whenever she wasn't looking up words in the dictionary, she'd be trying to add butter to the ratatouille and asking what kind of fish a “garlic” is.

Some regions would have posed particular problems for the author of a textbook for use in classrooms nationwide. Because Alsace was under German control at the time, any classroom instruction in French was verboten there. Since Nice didn’t become part of France until 1868, most Niçois probably still spoke Italian; in 1895, many (or most?) Corsicans would have spoken French only as a second or third language.

Even today, I get the sense that regional cookbooks sell to two audiences in this country: “patriots,” who want to uphold local traditions; and “tourists,” far more numerous, who find those same traditions exotic. They're all French, but they approach food from different directions.

We do know that Madeleine's father is southern, because she tells us that's how he developed the taste for spicy food that got him sick. This implies that the family now lives somewhere to the north of wherever “the south” is. But “the south” covers a lot of ground: are we talking Biarritz or Bordeaux or Béziers? Gascony? Provence? Desmaisons doesn’t say.

Madeleine lives near a train station, the local market operates every morning, and Madeleine tells us that there are quite a lot of students at the school she used to attend — so we know that her town is relatively big, certainly bigger than a village. But it’s not Paris.

The recipes hold a few clues, too. Madeleine doesn’t use much cream, so I doubt that she’s from Normandy or Brittany; her omission of hot peppers from the list of Papa’s favorite foods argues against his being from Basque country. Madeleine seems unaware of Lyonnais or of most regional specialties, and her horror of mustard argues against her being from Burgundy. That Tante Victoire doesn’t speak a regional language or dialect, as elderly people in many parts of the country would, is itself a clue.

My guess is that Madeleine lives somewhere in the Touraine, a bastion of the French language as we know it today. The area’s relatively varied economy would have offered Papa work other than farming, and though we don’t know what Papa does, we do know that he doesn’t raise the food his family eats. Also, the Touraine would place Madeleine far enough from the ocean that local fishmongers really might have resorted to trickery to make their wares look fresher. But because Madeleine doesn’t use much wine in her cooking, I can’t be sure.

The other great question is who L. Ch.-Desmaisons was. Male or female? What was the full name? While in later chapters the book may offer more clues as to Madeleine’s whereabouts, I daresay that I’ll be much longer in solving the mystery of the author’s identity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Potager -- so interesting! As described it sounds like a nuisance to use but I suppose one gets used to anything.

Potager to me also implies soup kettle, which sounds a bit like one of the warming arrangements on an Aga brand English stove, where one heats the entire behemoth appliance and uses different-sized burners, ovens, and kettle inserts to control heat and manipulate food. Not living in a damp country house I've never used an Aga but apparently there's quite a learning curve involved. I have also seen in some old American stoves (1940s or so) a similar kettle insert on the stove top, for stewing and/or deep frying.