Back in the 1950s when I was stationed with the U.S. Army in Orléans, near the Loire châteaux, we would troop on special occasions to the Auberge St-Jacques down by the river, two stars in the Michelin guide. I remember so well Monsieur Fournier, the patron, sitting in his little raised cashier’s box rather like a judge, or perhaps a lifeguard surveying his beach, as if maybe one of his clients was in danger of drowning in a sea of Coq au Vin.
The most enchanting meal I had at the St-Jacques was beautifully symmetrical: between the opening soup and closing cheese and dessert came a pair of courses, first a simple salmon mated with creamed spinach in a little symphony of pink and green, then a small steak with boiled potatoes, pristinely skinned torpedo-ettes. Such a satisfying distribution of fish-meat-and-veg!
And when I returned with Anne several years later M. Fournier was still in his box . . .
Thirty years later I was waving at the St-Jacques from the Capitole roaring down to Brive-la-Gaillarde. Ten p.m. and we creaked upward in a birdcage lift at Brive’s faithful Terminus, pure 1910. “Great old place,” I announced, and the kindly concierge, trained, one suspects, for radio, responded euphoniously, “Ah, Monsieur, c’est solide.”
He, too, was there the next time.
Continuity, it’s wonderful! I remember entering the lobby of a hotel in Innsbruck nine years after an earlier visit and thinking: well, there was a very nice concierge here, kindly, helpful, about forty-eight I’d say, and he’ll probably still be here, in his black jacket with crossed keys, with about so much grey at the temples — and I had judged his ageing process with total accuracy.
But our favorite perennial along our European way was the stout croissant-bearer at the Angleterre in Paris whom we christened Madame Bonjour because of her inimitable “GOOD Morning,” in French of course, with the accent rising to a great height on an arching, ever-chipper first syllable. Madame’s breakfast room welcome was as enveloping as the ample skirts of some fairy tale granny living in a non-Ferragammo shoe.
This is simply our basic quick-fried salmon steak proposed at the start of this chapter (along with a little browned butter, lemon juice and minced parsley or dill weed), plus a good creamed spinach, prepared as follows:
Slowly cook 1 package of frozen chopped spinach enough to thaw it — this can easily take 10 minutes — then drain the de-chunked veg through a sieve with maximum thoroughness, squeezing out the excess water with the back of a spoon; then return the spinach to your saucepan, add a healthy pinch of nutmeg and 1/2 cup of cream, stirring it in well, and re-heat the wavy green. Be sure to thaw your veg without butter, oil or water. And remember, there’s no such thing as over-draining spinach.
Come to think of it, the Auberge St-Jacques’ spinach was probably puréed, but a bit of “leaf” in the epinardian texture is, I think, appealing. As for adding flour . . . !
But you might consider a few pinches of turmeric for a whiff of