Quenelles au Gratin

Vieux-Lyon, Fall 2007

I spent my third year of university on exchange in Lyon, France. After two years of university focused on working, volunteering, and achieving, the French university system, based on crowded lecture halls where the semester might be interrupted by a strike at any time left me less motivated than I'd been at any point in my academic career. While I enjoyed the winding medieval streets and gentle rivers of the city, the time I spent there was not quite the "time of my life" that I had envisioned back in Canada. Don't get me wrong, I have some great memories from the city: I had a lot of fun making friends with other exchange students, drinking Côtes du Rhone and going to fancy-dress parties. Having led a tightly scheduled life since the age of thirteen, though, living in France, I felt adrift with so little to do. I felt as though I'd put my life in Canada, which I'd worked so hard to build, on hold, and for what? To be bored in classes I half-understood, to sit in a residence where no one talked to one another?

To combat the loneliness I felt, instead of getting to know my new city, I spent every penny I could travelling out of it. Rome, Marrakesh, Copenhagen, London, Berlin -- I loved these cities on sight, and I know how fortunate I was to have the financial means and the time to visit them all.  But Lyon -- well, I never quite grew to love it, being that most of the time I was there, I wished I were somewhere else. I taught myself to cook on one burner in the time that I spent in the apartment, but my explorations of the city's dining scene didn't go too far beyond the corner boulangeries. I realised what a shame this was later, as I read more about French food culture and found out that Lyon is home to some of the best food in France. For instance, although I spent nine months living in Lyon, I never once tried one of the city's best-known culinary specialties, a dumpling called a quenelle.

Quenelles seem to have come to France from the east: the word derives from the German word for dumpling, "knödel". While the German "knödel" are bread- or potato-based dumplings designed as stomach-filling gravy absorbers (often served alongside a big hunk of pork), the Lyonnais quenelles are a standalone main course. The tradition in Lyon is to make the quenelles from a bony fish called a pike or brochet. This isn't home cooking, though; pushing the fish through a sieve, then mixing it with pâte à choux or panade (both doughs common in French cuisine), is tedious work, so the average urban French person would no sooner make quenelles de brochet at home than she would bake her own croissants or age her own camembert. Quenelles are sold in traiteurs, a type of food shop often translated as "deli", although it sells prepared food to be eaten at home, rather than the tall sandwiches and pickles that I associate with the word "deli." (Is it clear enough that I spent my high school years in the New York suburbs?) They are also sold in the city's traditional restaurants called bouchons.

Escoffier's book -- designed for the restaurant cook rather than the homemaker -- does include instructions for quenelles de brochet. This seemed a little too ambitious for me. For one thing, I don't actually like fish very much, so I don't know much about cooking it.  Even if I was willing to try to make a fish-based recipe, the thought of three days of dinners of leftover pike quenelles was a little overwhelming. Another option was to make the quenelles with "forcemeat," described as puréed tender meat (such as veal), and set them afloat in a soup - rather similar to Carolynn's plan of making consommé and serving it with foie gras-stuffed profiteroles. Flipping through the cookbook's section on "Vegetables and Farinaceous Products," I saw that I could make quenelles from potato. This was a little bit closer to my comfort zone -- I had eaten potato knödel in Bavaria, and felt more confident that I could make these French potato dumplings according to Escoffier's instructions.

If you follow French politics or European football, you probably know that the word "quenelle" isn't limited to dumplings in France; it has also been used to describe an insulting gesture. Following Escoffier's directions, which asked me to follow the preparations for pommes Dauphine, which in turn are similar to pommes à la Duchesse, which you start in the same way as potato croquettes, left me wanting to give Escoffier an insulting gesture of my own. Hopping between recipes left me confused: was I supposed to make pâte à choux to mix with two pounds of peeled, boiled, mashed potatoes and then add three eggs and a third of a pound of flour? Or was I only supposed to do one or the other? I decided to simply add eggs and flour to the mashed potatoes to form a dough. While the potatoes were boiling, I watched quenelle videos so that my dumplings would be picture-perfect. I buttered a sauté pan and two Pyrex dishes, coating the latter with Gruyère and Beaufort cheeses straight from the Swiss Alps (well, by way of Montreal's Atwater Market). I prepared two wide-bowled spoons and a glass of water so that they would stay clean. Yet the recipe didn't tell me what to do if my quenelles wouldn't...well...quenelle. Instead of making the required oval shape, they looked like plops of lumpy potato batter. My quenelles were an insult, all right -- to Escoffier's cookbook and to the culinary heritage of Lyon.

It was too late to reattempt the dough, I decided; I would need to adjust what I'd already made, and fast, because I had guests coming and the house wasn't going to vacuum itself. I added another egg, more flour, and, finally, stuck my mixing bowl in the freezer. Half an hour later, the dough was a little stiffer, but my quenelles would almost certainly not pass muster in Escoffier's kitchen. Convinced that if I didn't get them cooked, there wouldn't be any quenelles for my guests to eat, I decided to just shape them into slightly more solid lumpy plops of potato. I poached them in the buttered sauté pan in a few inches of salted boiling water, until they floated to the surface. I then put them into the Pyrex dishes.

Blanketed with cheese and butter, the dumplings cooked -- perhaps a touch too long -- in a 375-degree oven before being served alongside Escoffier's favourite French beans and a bit of spinach I had wilting in the refrigerator. The dumplings were heavy, buttery, and tasty,  but not transcendent. I think that if my time hadn't been limited, a longer rest time in a cold environment would have helped the quenelles keep their shape.

Attempting to make quenelles reminded me that, although I might feel confused about the next steps in my life right now, I've come a long way from the twenty-year-old who sat alone in her residence in a beautiful French city trying to download American television shows. My life now feels so much fuller than it did when I lived in Lyon six years ago. I love where I live and what I'm studying, although I still have to fight the tendency to concentrate on what's missing in my life, instead of what's already there in front of me. Like the potato quenelles I made, my life and the responsibilities I've taken on sometimes feel too heavy and unwieldy, full of lumps just like a less-than-perfectly mashed bowl of potatoes. It's easy to just want to hurl insults at the world and complain at how things have worked out, even though I've tried to follow the directions I was given. Yet that's not the only option. I have the knowledge and confidence now to either try to make my situation better, or to enjoy it for what it is. After all, the little potato lumps are barely noticeable when you've got good butter and cheese to concentrate on.

If you'd like to see how quenelles de brochet are made in Lyon, I recommend this photo essay by Lyon-based blogger and cooking school founder Lucy Vanel. Ann Mah, author of the culinary journey through France Mastering the Art of French Eating, has compiled a list of must-eat spots in Lyon on her own blog -- just in case you want to eat in a bouchon Lyonnais before I get the chance to go back. I'd probably just go to the spots she mentions anyway!