Read Escoffier's Butter Maker Part OneWon't you join our trip to Paris?
This excerpt is from a novel in progress, Aboyer: The Little Announcer. Aboyer tells the tale of Chef Auguste Escoffier's butter maker. What she left to come to Paris, why she makes and sells butter in the great and famous old market, Les Halles.
A rush of cool air rises as I descend. The familiar chill envelops me. A burgeoning desire overwhelms me to turn away and enter the Paris that lives below the streets, walk out to the Seine, throw my cap aside and jump on a barge to wind back to Siena on the threads of water.
But I burrow and descend towards the darkness where my work keeps my secret. The sharp steely scent of the ground opens, like a flinty white from Bordeaux, from Graves on the left bank that I passed on my way north. My steps echo and lift towards Rue de Montmorency, the street of cherries, and a tree of the fruit that joins me with my daughter.
At the foot of the stairs, the cool dark startles my cape, made of black lamb’s wool, from Severino’s night flock. The curls weave even more tightly, refusing to unfurl and comfort me in the cold. Why this darkness? You know I prefer the light that begins each new day, and the heavy work. The old, grassy, smell of the souring cream, that reminds me of the room, how long ago it seems, where we first made the sweet ricotta, and where Cocotte was born.
The polished door swells from the dampness inside, perhaps as determined to remain closed as I am to open it. My fingers, the tips numb and spreading their ice up my arms, feel the length of the filagree key, and push it into the hole. It catches and the bolt releases, much as I felt the latch close on the box in Siena weeks ago. The box hides the letters, the wooden box that cradled the first cherries Cocotte picked in Severino’s orchard.
Down in the creamery, the stone-wall feels rough and damp. The lid on the oak box is heavy. After weeks of struggling, I know that once the suction is broken, the lid will lift easily, opening to the hard white treasure, inside the long rough wood.
But the sadness wakens in me; a deep and golden, aching vision of Cocotte, sleeping in the room below the patisserie. Cocotte, shh, wake, and remember my love for you.
Perhaps she still does. She climbs to the top of the stairs. Straightens the mirror with the golden angels on the frame. She slips on her blue leather shoes with scuffs and opens the door to the shop. She walks across the shop’s black and white squares. She hits the iron framed window (it sticks too when cold outside.) with her palm and then breathes in the first light of Siena.
From butter's home in Paris, if only she could see what I am showing her. For I am showing her, that instead of working on the panforte, she should leave the shop and walk around the piazza and down the promenade and around the next corner. It’s so close to her, the proof that I am alive. Her blue leather shoes could enter the Duomo and snatch my cross, hanging where I left it for her to find. She can’t see it there, on the wall in the Duomo with so many others crowding around. Instead she walks past the Duomo to the cemetery, looking for her golden sadness, as she doesn’t believe Severino, she has found no evidence and she’s clever to question him. Has she dug for my bones? The ground is too hard, and dry. She’s not yet strong enough.
I return to my work in the cremerie. The white mass in the trough is hard and unyielding; it’s job is to protect the center, the heart of the butter, where it all began. This cutting will take some time. Be patient. I prefer cutting the blocks, then washing them in the cool air. Leaving the irregularities in the texture where they are plain to see.
Make them all the same, Auguste implored last night. But I don’t see the point. Anyone can do that.
Last night Auguste danced at the stove, showing me the sauce where tarragon stems, the shells of crayfish, and bones of espelette peppers swirl with butter.
But this morning, returning to the cremerie, I am alone. I mold the white butter into square stones that could build a path. A path to the mother inside, the mother I never was, one stone of butter at a time, for the one day, when Cocotte leaves Siena and winds her way to Paris.
The flavor is better when irregular, I whispered last night. But Auguste had already left, and I was alone at the stove, stirring the marrow into his Bordelaise. Even at that distance of meat and shallots and stock, I could still hear the butter.
Whether melted into a roux for le béchamel, le veloute, a silky espaganole, or hot and streamed into l’hollandaise, or even for la tomate, it’s golden sheen swirls and loves the tomatoes from the day they were born in the hot sun.
This morning I stand over the trough in the cremerie and can't wait any longer to decide. Do I listen or ignore the buyers at Les Halles; who insist that their butter all look the same. Auguste maintains that he cares, that he sees, but they can’t see, and don’t care what I want. It doesn’t matter to them.
But it should, and to Auguste too. The shape of the butter does matter, and is more pleasant, as life can be, can be sweeter, despite being irregular, haphazard, the corners rough, chipping away to reveal the creamy center. He will understand.
The thin knife penetrates, and slices across the long block of butter. I follow the cracks and cut irregular blocks guided by their path. Their path leads back where the flavor began; back where the butter began as a soft yellow secret, heavy and full of the fields.
The butter rounds with soft breathing sheep and Cocotte who is still sleeping.
I reach her arm, shake her awake. Wake before dawn. Before you put the heavy copper pan on the stove, and you melt the butter and add the sugar – before the syrup swirls and dizzies the hazelnuts, almonds, and orange peel and you turn out the pan forte; while the air mists and lifts between us. Cocotte, quickly, before the wall of nuts caramelizes, before it’s too late and the wall grows too high between us, between Siena and Paris.