1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

continued (page 2 of 6)

We put a clean cloth, red and white, over one of the carpenters’ tables, and kicked wood-curls aside for our feet, under the chairs brought up from the apartment in Vevey. I set our tumblers, plates, silver, smooth unironed napkins sweet from the meadow grass where they had dried.

“While some of us started to bend over the dwarf-pea bushes and toss the crisp pods into baskets, others built a hearth from stones and a couple of roof-tiles lying loose and made a lively little fire. I had a big kettle with spring water in the bottom of it, just off simmering, and salt and pepper and a pat of fine butter to hand. Then I put the bottles of Dezelay in the fountain, just under the timeless spurt of icy mountain water, and ran down to be the liaison between the harvesters and my mother, who sat shelling from the basket on her lap into the pot between her feet, as intent and nimble as a lace-maker.

I dashed up and down the steep terraces with the baskets, and my mother would groan and then hum happily when another one appeared, and below I could hear my father and our friends cursing just as happily at their wry backs and their aching thighs, while the peas came off their stems and into the baskets with a small sound audible in that still, high air, so many hundred feet above the distant and completely silent Leman. It was suddenly almost twilight. The last sunlight on the Dents du Midi was fire-rosy, with immeasurable coldness in it.

“Time, gentlemen, time,” my mother called, in an unrehearsed and astonishing imitation of a Cornish barmaid.

They came in grateful hurry up the steep paths, almost nothing now in their baskets and looks of smug success upon their faces. We raced through the rest of the shelling, and then while we ate rolled prosciutto and drank Swiss bitters or brandy-and-soda or sherry, according to our habits, I dashed like an eighteenth-century courier on a secret mission of utmost military importance, the pot cautiously braced in front of me, to the little hearth.

I stirred up the fire. When the scant half inch of water boiled, I tossed in the peas, a good six quarts or more, and slapped on the heavy lid as if a devil might get out. The minute steam showed, I shook the whole like ma. Someone brought me a curl of thin pink ham and a glass of wine cold from the fountain. I shook the pot again, revivified if that were any more possible.

I looked up at the terrace, a shambles of sawed beams, cement-mixers, and empty sardine tins from the workmen’s lunches. There sat most of the people in the world I loved, in a thin light that was pink with alpenglow, blue with a veil of pine smoke from the hearth Their voices sang with a certain remoteness into the clear air, and suddenly from across the curve of the Lower Corniche a cow in Monsieur Rogivue’s orchard moved her head among the meadow flowers and shook her bell into a slow, melodious counterpoint, a kind of hymn. My father lifted up his head at the sweet sound and then his fists all stained with green-pea juice, and said passionately, “God, but I feel good!” And I felt near to tears.

Tile peas were done then, or perhaps they had been so a few seconds earlier because of my familial preoccupation. I whipped off the lid, after one more shake. I threw in the big pat of butter, which had a bas-relief of William Tell upon it. I shook in salt, ground in pepper, and then swirled the pot over the low flames until Tell had disappeared, no more. Then I ran like hell, up the path lined with candytuft and pinks, past the fountain where bottles shone promisingly through the crystal water, to the table.

Small brown roasted chickens lay on every plate, the best ones 1 have ever known, roasted for me that afternoon by Madame Doellenbach of the Vieux Vevey and not chilled since, but cooled in their own intangibly delicate juices. There was a salad of mountain lettuces. There was honest bread. There was plenty of limpid wine, the kind Brillat-Savarin said was like rock-water, tempting enough to make a hydrophobic drink. Later there was cheese, an Emmenthaler and a smuggled Reblochon...

…and later still we walked dreamily away, along the Upper Corniche to a cafe terrace where we sat watching fireworks far across the Lake at Evian, and drinking café noir and a very fine fine.

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