Monday, September 15, 2008

Île flottante

I went to lunch at the cooking school the other day. It was a floral menu, and by that I do not mean that the food was arranged on the plate to look like flowers, or that we learned how to make sugar-paste roses. We cooked with flowers; jasmine, to be specific. First course was pan-seared foie gras with sauteed leeks and a reduction of confiture de jasmin and balsamic vinegar. Main course: breast of guinea fowl stuffed with jasmin flowers and more jasmin jam. Dessert: île flottante, that Frenchiest of French desserts, the poached meringue islands floating in a sea of jasmin-scented custard. The whole meal seemed like something a courtier on the make would have served Cathérine de Médicis.

When I'm at the cooking school, my grandfather Marron is never far from my mind, and on this particular day he brought a friend along. Madame Trollat was the manager of the hotel in Paris where Grandpa Marron stayed twice a year for several weeks at a time, a dozen years in a row. He was a good customer, and I suppose that's why the hotel staff in general and Madame Trollat in particular put up with his total absence of French (French, for him, consisted of speaking English loudly) and his stealing the demi-baguette from his breakfast and making a ham sandwich for lunch in his room every day.

Once every trip--at the end of the trip--Grandpa Marron would take Madame Trollat to dinner. Not just to dinner: to the Tour d'Argent, a restaurant so famous and expensive and fancy that the recorded commentary on the bâteaux mouches still refers to it. (The dollar was stronger then.) I met Madame Trollat once, fairly late in my grandfather's career as a sometime Parisian, and I remember her as a tallish woman with strong features and a chignon--her long, carefully tinted hair done up always in a perfect, seemingly hairpinless French twist. After Grandpa Marron had called her Madame Troll (the thing that lives under the bridge) at (the preposition) for several years, she taught him how to pronounce her hame: Twah-la (rhymes with voilà). She told Grandpa Marron that when she retired from the hotel, she was going to go back to her native village in la France profonde; she already spent August there every year.

The evening of their dinner date, Madame Trollat always appeared in the foyer of the hotel wearing her fur. Grandpa Marron, the farmer's son from New Jersey, would follow her out the door and into the waiting taxi. The way he always told it, Madame was an adventurous orderer, eating all those bizarre things that Americans find so intimidating on a French menu. But she always took the same thing for dessert: île flottante. It's one of those incredibly, impossibly French concoctions of eggs and milk. The ingredients are all the same as your grandmother's custard and yet the way they are put together results in something that doesn't just keep body and soul together, it gives the soul reason to want to stick around a while longer. Grandpa Marron said he never ordered it; he was a mousse au chocolat man himself, and I always had the impression that he thought île flottante was too French for him to be able to carry off. (I can only imagine how he might have pronounced it.) But every year that's what Madame Trollat ordered.

That's what I was thinking about as I ate my dessert at the cooking school. Time was when every French daughter learned how to make île flottante, the way that Americans learn how to make scrambled eggs, or grilled cheese. It's a classic recipe, and there's really only one way to make it, so I don't imagine that my portion was very different from what Madame enjoyed 30 years ago. Except that mine was scented--ever so delicately--with jasmine.

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