My apprenticeship in the kitchen
'I was born in a country village where recipes that I've not been able to find in any cookery codex, were conserved like secret recipes of some special perfume or a miracle ointment' - Colette writes in Prisons et paradis - 'the dearly loved child of not very well-off parents', who lived in the country among trees and books and who 'never knew nor desired expensive toys'. The village was Saint-Sauveur in the department of Yonne, two and a half hours' drive south from Paris. It was not the rich and prosperous wine-producing area of Burgundy, but a more modest and ordinary area of the region, unpretentious villages of country folk where the succession of the seasons marked the passing of time. Colette's mother, Adèle Sidonie Landoy, known as Sido, grew up in Belgium, but returned to Yonne, the scene of her earliest childhood, to marry the landowner Jules Robineau-Duclos, many years her senior. For him she abandoned her own milieu, 'the warm Belgian house, the basement kitchen with its smell of gas, warm bread, coffee . . .', the piano and violin lessons. As a young bride she entered the large house 'surrounded by the harsh winter of foreign lands'.
He was a violent type, a heavy drinker, whose company was the dive bouteille. Nevertheless, Sido did not lose heart. She had the dark kitchen whitewashed. This kitchen, together with the refectories, the stables, the garages, the hen-house and the wash-house, was part of the communs, the outbuildings annexed to the main house. Here, in this kitchen she put her excellent culinary skills to good use. Armed with a churn, she made butter, pressed cheeses, supervised the preparation of dishes, many of which were Flemish, indulged her whims in jam-making and in the bottling of preserves, made pastry for cakes and sweets with raisins. Once having exhausted her stock of delicious recipes, polished the floors to perfection, taken care of the kitchen garden and watered the garden, she was overcome with the sadness of her isolation and wept. Her husband, seeking to make amends for his brutality and his long absences, made her a present of a small marble mortar which, dull and chipped, would become part of Colette's set of kitchenware at the Palais Royal, and in which Sido mixed peeled almonds with sugar and lemon-peel.
Two children were born of this marriage: Juliette - later described by Colette as 'enigmatic, solitary, with an oddly shaped head, of an attractive ugliness, high cheek bones and a sarcastic mouth' - and Achille. After eight years of marriage, Sido's husband, whose own family had long since tried to have him declared legally incompetent and deprive him of his civil rights, died. On December 20, 1865, Sido married Captain Colette, with whom she already had an affair while her first husband was still alive. Born in Toulon in 1829, son of a naval officer, Jules Colette attended the military academy of Saint-Cyr. Assigned to the Zouaves - French soldiers dressed like Arabs - at the age of 26 he was promoted to Captain and, when Napoleon III entered Italy in support of the Piedmontese against the Austrians, he followed him. In the bloody battle of Melegnano he lost a leg. While being carried off the battle field, he continued to joke and when Napoleon III visited the hospital and asked about the wound, he replied that it was nothing, a mere scratch. He refused medals and, when the Emperor enquired whether there was anything else he would like, he replied: 'Well, yes . . . a crutch, Your Majesty'. There is an episode linked to food, which occurred in the Crimea - Colette tells us in her book Les heures longues- that the Captain was always eager to recall.
'One evening, at frichti time . . . Oh, we were well supplied with tobacco and also with the means to light a fire, even though we had nothing to cook on one. My batman brings me some salad, I should say fodder, since we'd been without oil and vinegar for two months. “You fool - I say - you've forgotten to dress the salad!” “But, lieutenant sir, you know very well that oil and vinegar are only to be found in Canrobert's tent.” “Very well, then what's keeping you from taking this salad to Canrobert? Off with you! And mind you dress it with care, otherwise you'll hear about it!” We all had a good laugh, then I light a cigarette and forget about it. An hour later, who should I see arriving? That idiot of my batman, bearing, as if it were the Holy Sacrament, the bowl of salad dressed with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper . . . I shout “What's that?” “Lieutenant sir, it's your salad.” “What salad?” “Canrobert's. I've been to his tent, as you told me to. I told him that my lieutenant had ordered that a well-dressed salad was to be prepared for him.” “So? What did he say?” “He didn't say anything, He dressed the salad. And now I'm bringing it back to you, lieutenant sir.” Just the time to put on my number one uniform, which consisted of throwing off the blanket and wiping the snow off my backside, and I dashed over to Canrobert. He looked at me with knitted eyebrows, without a word. I managed to stammer:
“I . . . I'm . . . now . . . the salad . . .”. He didn't say a word, he just looked at me. Eventually: “Ah! Ah! You are the salad man? So tell me, was it good, my salad?” “I . . . my apologies . . .” “You can go, lieutenant. And most of all, tell people that I prepare a good salad. I set great store by my reputation as a cook.”'
(To be continued...)