Le Chien Hirsute
Marcel stared out of the window of his shop. The inverted longhand calligraphy of the stencilled letters on his shopfront vitrine, cast long shadows over the display of cakes and choux pastry in the early morning light: Marcel Desmoulins, Patissier et Boulanger. His father had also been called Marcel. The family joke was that the son had been given the father’s name to save money on a new sign for the shop-front. If so, the joke was in bad taste. Marcel junior (whom some wags called Petit Marcel), hated the destiny he’d been saddled with. Baking was a terrible business for a man with ideas of their own. He had been trained to be old school, to get up at 4 am to start the dough for the morning baguettes, to make croissants, religieuses, Rhum Babas, pain-au-chocolat, tarte aux pommes and all the rest of it, from scratch. No chilled dough brought in from distant factories here, no shortcuts to ease the back-breaking sixteen hour days. His father had even complained when he suggested buying supermarket glace cherries.
“What are these things? Eh? How are we going to put that on our confections when we don’t know what chemicals they use, eh?”
“It lists the ingredients on the packet, papa.”
“Lists? Do you believe what these pigs, these salauds tell you? Don’t be stupid son. We can make our own glace cherries. They’ll taste better, you’ll see.”
The old bastard would have done it; wasted weeks of work every year glacee-ing his own cherries with raw fruit and sugar just to prove a point. They said that his perfectionism and overwork killed him. He certainly died with his boots on; hands crusted with dough as they stretchered him off to the ambulance, making young Marcel swear to keep the family business going. And here he was, trapped in this town with this poky shop to stock every morning and the most sour-faced, grudging, tight-fisted customers in the entire Auvergne to keep sweet. Marcel could not think of a worse destiny as he trudged towards the back of the shop. Pierre, his assistant, had let himself in and was washing his hands in the sink. An eager apprentice, one keen to learn the trade and with a ready smile to boot. His optimism cut Marcel to the quick.
“Morning boss! Should be a nice day.”
“Yes, Pierre. Not that we’ll see any of it.”
“Well, yeah, but it should be a nice afternoon for a walk or a cycle to the lake.”
“If you say so,” Marcel noticed a paper bag, lying on the work-table. It was something that would have driven his father mad, having a foreign object defile the sacred table where the dough was made. “What’s that you got there? And why is it on the table, Pierre?”
Pierre finished cleaning his hands and bounded toward the bag, tearing it open.
“It’s a cookbook, see? I found it in the second hand shop, its a handwritten manuscript from an old patissier. Probably a thousand years old!”
“A thousand years old? Don’t talk nonsense. Its nineteenth century at most. Here, let me look at that.”
The book certainly exhibited the patina of age. The pages were discoloured and the spine crackled as the volume was opened. The recipes, noted down in a fine, spidery writing, were certainly nineteenth century. Heavy, stodgy things designed for the limitations of wood ovens and a taste for calorific overload. Illustrations of each cake and loaf were rendered in what looked like pencil drawing but might be some sort of lithography.
“Looks interesting. How much did you pay for it?”
“You were robbed.”
“Isn’t it any good?” Pierre looked crestfallen. Marcel smiled despite himself. There was no need to take his frustrations out on the lad.
“Listen, Pierre, if you lend me the book, I’ll give it a look over tonight. Not promising anything, but if there’s anything in there we can use, I’ll reimburse your expenses. How’s that?”
“Great! Can I keep the book too?”
“Well, I don’t want it hanging around here.”
The next morning Pierre arrived to find Marcel already in the kitchen, his hands covered in flour, eyes shining like those of a man possessed.
“Morning, boss. You’re early with the baguettes today.”
“Ha! No, Pierre, it’s not the baguettes. That book you brought me yesterday, that book… I’ve never read anything like it. It will transform the business, it will make me rich I tell you. Rich!”
“Good one, Pierre, crumbs indeed. This recipe is the killer, though. Never been a cake like it. You make it in the shape of a top hat, that’s the beauty of it… Hat cake! Ha, ha! Hat cake!”
“Are you alright, boss?”
“Never better. Tell me, what is that ingredient there, the third one down on the icing recipe?”
Pierre grabbed the book, it was looking a bit worse for wear and he had to brush the flour from its pages to read it. “Ooh, its green.. something. There’s a grease spot right on the word so I can’t work it out.”
“Excuses! Never mind, I’ll make it without that ingredient then. If it makes a difference, we can always work it out later. Get me some eggs, Pierre! And be quick about it!”
“Right on it, boss.”
Pierre and Marcel sat at the kitchen table staring at the culinary car-crash in front of them. The sponge, which after many attempts had managed to get it into the proper hat shape, looked decidedly unappetizing. The problem was the fondant icing that was supposed to cover the cake. Its present colour was a dull, nasty brown, rather than the silken black it was meant to be. It had to be a fault within the recipe itself.
“This is a disaster.”
“Don’t look good, does it boss?”
“You can say that again.”
“Don’t look goo… oww!”
“Don’t try and be funny, Pierre.”
“Sorry boss. Maybe we should try and work out what that third ingredient was again, see if that sorts out the colour.”
“Well, I’ve tried everything I could think of. Green food colouring, green almonds, green lime juice…”
“Because I was thinking… green fairy?”
“I feel you’re getting to the punchline, Pierre, so spit it out.”
“It’s just an idea, but you know they say, boss; Absinthe makes the hat cake fondant.”