We were young, mad for each other, and traipsing our way around Europe on a seriously limited budget. With our Eurail passes in hand, we traveled on overnight trains to save lodging expenses. We first set foot in France in Calais, the town that was the destination for the ferry from Dover, England.
It was late afternoon, and we had a train to catch in a matter of a few hours that would deliver us to Zurich, the last place, we would discover, for anybody on a budget should visit. The banks and American Express offices in Calais had closed, and we had no francs. We were hungry and found a small brasserie and discovered that they were more than happy to take U.S. currency at a rather inflated exchange rate.
We ordered a carafe of vin rouge and two orders of steak-frites. What arrived at our table were two plates piled high with fries and two thin clumps of gray meat covered in what I can only assume was some variation of a Béarnaise sauce. Only two things that I was aware of could turn a steak gray—it had either rotted or been boiled. After one bite I knew it wasn’t rotten, but Geri was not convinced.
I surrendered my fries for her steak. Forty years later, I would again surrender my fries because she didn’t want to eat the blanchaille, which, if you’ll remember from last week, roughly translated means “shiny guppies with bulging eyes.”
Our meager funds forced us to eat our somewhat larger meal at the noon hour. In the evenings at a hotel or on trains, we’d dine on salami, cheese, baguettes and Pouilly-Fuisse, a dry white wine that could be had at around the one-dollar mark. In Los Angeles at the time, that precious little wine cost in the neighborhood of $18.
In Paris, we stayed on the Left Bank in the decidedly bohemian Latin Quarter on the fifth-floor of a five-story walk-up. The room had four different wallpaper patterns, a brass bed, and a private bath and bidet. The toilet was down the hall. The view from the narrow window was of back alleys and rooftops. The room cost about $7 a night—about half the cost of a White Russian cocktail in Zurich—and included a breakfast of coffee and croissants with jam.
It was romantic in the way only young people in love could find it.
We made our daily rounds to the museums and galleries, monuments and cathedrals, stopping for our typical lunch of croque madame and croque monsieur or omelets—always with fries and a carafe of red wine. Geri found it odd that I sat for two hours on a curb across the street from 27 rue de Fleurus, the home of the American writer Gertrude Stein and her lover Alice B. Toklas from 1903 to 1938.
My father had known them, although I didn’t know that at the time.
We kept on the lookout for a nice restaurant where we would celebrate our last night in Paris with a fine and proper meal. We found one in the 4th arrondissement with a stunning view of Notre-Dame de Paris. The tables were set with glossy white linens and the menu, posted near the entrance, was not cheap but fairly affordable. We figured we deserved such an extravagance. The following morning we would be returning to England, not knowing if we’d always have Paris.
We took our places at a table for two and the waiter, dressed in a crisp white shirt, black vest and pants, started rattling off a string of words in French, a language in which I’m capable of little more than asking for directions to the bathroom (où est la salle de bain), ordering either vin blanc or vin rouge, and asking for the check (L’addition, s’il vous plait). This, after several of months during my freshman year in high school falling to sleep listening to French language lessons on a record player.
But, I can identify many things I like to eat that have French names—canard, porc, poisson.
After listening to the waiter, Geri, who speaks more than a little French, ordered the special the guy had been prattling on about. It had something to do with chicken (poulet). I ordered the blanquette de veau, a veal stew, basically, but a time-honored classic in the repertoire of French cuisine.
As we enjoyed the wine and the view, the waiter delivered to my side of the table enough silverware for five or six people. Geri got a single spoon that seemed large enough to serve the mashed potatoes at a large Thanksgiving gathering. My meal came with an appetizer of a country pate and crusty bread, followed by a sorrel soup that I enjoyed while Geri looked around the dining room. I shared the bread with her.
The main course arrived. My veal was a thing of lustrous beauty, the thick cream sauce blanketing the tender pieces of veal, carrots, mushroom caps, and celery.
Geri’s dinner came in a rather large, shallow bowl. There was a pale broth, a dozen or so pieces of diced carrot and celery floating about, and a chicken leg that seemed more likely to have once belonged to a 30-pound turkey or perhaps an emu. She didn’t have a clue about how to employ a serving spoon to attack this food that seemed oddly menacing. I had several forks and a couple knives in my arsenal of silverware that I offered her. Her piercing the leg of whatever kind of bird was in her bowl only served to turn the pale broth a deep, bloody red.
To this day, Geri has yet to develop a taste for raw poultry.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Croque Monsieur /Croque Madame
5 Tbs. unsalted butter
3 Tbs. all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
freshly grated nutmeg
3 1/2 oz. coarsely grated Gruyère, Emmantal or Comté cheese (1 1/3 cups)
8 slices rustic white sandwich bread
1/2 pound thinly sliced cooked ham
4 large eggs
For the Béchamel sauce:
Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a heavy saucepan over medium low heat, then whisk in flour to make a roux, whisking, 3-4 minutes. Slowly whisk in milk and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, 5 minutes. Whisk in salt, pepper, nutmeg, and 1/3 cup cheese until cheese is melted. Remove from heat and cover surface directly with a sheet of wax paper to prevent forming a film.
For the sandwiches:
Spread 1 1/2 Tbs. sauce over each of 4 slices of bread, then sprinkle evenly with remaining cheese. Spread mustard evenly on remaining 4 bread slices and top with ham, dividing it evenly, then invert onto cheese-topped bread to form sandwiches.
Lightly grease a baking sheet. Bake the sandwiches for 6-8 minutes, flipping once. Remove from oven and turn on the broiler.
Top each sandwich with 1/3 cup sauce, spreading evenly. Broil sandwiches 4 to 5 inches from heat until sauce is bubbling and golden in spots, 2 to 3 minutes. Keep sandwiches warm.
To make sandwiches Croque Madame, add a fried or poached egg atop the sandwich.