It was November 1963 and I was living in the Château de Versailles overseeing catering for the American socialite, Florence Van der Kemp, who was married to the museum curator. The Van der Kemps were already well renowned as fundraisers for the restoration of the Château, and Florence decided to host a big traditional Thanksgiving dinner to thank all of her French friends. Having been raised in England, I did indeed know nothing about this very American holiday. “Leave it to Bernadina,” Florence exclaimed to me, “you don’t need to know anything about it, just come to the party!” Bernadina was the elderly chef from Mexico who could cook in three languages, so I was happy to pass on the responsibility.
I was sent to buy the largest possible turkey. “At least 25 pounds,” decreed Florence, but the poultry man was mystified. “We have nothing like that, the best turkeys are small, female and plump, about 12 pounds,” he explained. Clearly the American appreciation for sheer size did not extend to France. We compromised with two smaller birds and dressed them with large red bows for maximum effect. Then there was something called sparkling Burgundy, made for the American market and available only at Fauchon, the luxury gourmet store in Paris, which necessitated a special trip.
When at last I was seated in the middle of the long table in the magnificent dining room of Aile Colbert, I had plenty of time to observe. The Frenchwomen on either side of me had rapidly decided that a young, foreign neighbor was not worth a second glance. I nibbled the candied pecans and raisins in bowls beside my plate and broke into what I later learned to call a Parker House roll.
Turkey and oysters
I sipped the Burgundy, an adult version of soda. My friend Serge, the maître d’hôtel from the parties we masterminded together, set a bowl of borscht before me. The flavor and color were eerily similar to the Burgundy. Then came the turkeys, one for display, the other carved ready for serving; a murmur of approbation arose. Embassy service was the custom in those days, so Serge and his partner hefted huge platters of turkey, roast potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, turnips, Brussels sprouts and stuffing, maneuvering between the guests. A minion followed with boats of gravy, cranberry sauce and condiments.
As the platter reached my place, there wafted an unmistakable aroma of fish and I knew why. Another errand of mine had been to collect a couple quarts of shucked oysters for the turkey stuffing. When cooked, no one had accounted for the briny intensity of French oysters, as they are quite different from fatty American ones raised in warmer waters. I looked around at the startled faces of my fellow diners and Serge and I exchanged a wink. I tried the stuffing on its own; it wasn’t bad. Combined with the rich, meaty turkey it was, shall we say, an unexpected flavor.
And then there was dessert
It is impolite in France to refuse a second helping, so by the time dessert came around we all felt a bit stuffed. Having never been to America, I was determined to try novelties such as pecan pie, chess pie, mud pie and, of course, pumpkin pie; all considerately served in slivers for dessert. The slim, elegant Frenchwomen around me smiled politely and took the smallest portions offered.
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Finally, at last, arrived the cups of strong, bracing coffee with plenty of refills — I had seen to that. At this stage, it occurred to me that, with the exception of the turkey and stuffing, everything had been sweetened with sugar. Few were tempted by the petits fours, the elite chocolates and the offer of liqueurs. We eventually staggered, blinking, into the courtyard, and made our way carefully on the cobbles in our high heels. The ladies slid into their chic Morris Minis and I into my MG (at least I could keep up with them there!).
For all of us, Florence had achieved her purpose. Our first Thanksgiving had been unforgettable and, as a souvenir, we all took home candied orangettes; strips of orange peel coated in chocolate and packaged in a little bag with the label Château de Versailles.
Orangettes au Chocolat
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Total time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Yield: About 10 ounces
6 large thin-skinned oranges (2 to 3 pounds)
2 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups water
3/4 pound dark chocolate, chopped
1. To cut the orange strips: With a serrated knife, cut off the ends of the oranges through to the flesh. Set an orange on one flat end, cut off the skin and pith in vertical strips. Repeat with the remaining oranges. Press the strips flat. With a large chef’s knife, cut each strip into 1/4 inch sticks, discard trimmings, and cut away any loose bits of skin.
2. For the sugar syrup, heat the sugar and water in a shallow pan over low heat until the sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally. Stir in the orange strips. Cover the pan and simmer the strips until they are tender and look translucent, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Stir occasionally during cooking and add more water if needed to keep the strips covered.
3. When tender, let the strips cool in the syrup. Set a wire rack over a baking tray to catch drips. Transfer the orangettes to the rack, spread so they do not touch each other, and leave them overnight to drain and dry. This may take 24 hours if the kitchen is humid.
4. When the orangettes are no longer sticky, coat them with chocolate. Put the chocolate in a bowl and melt it over a saucepan of steaming water, or in the microwave. Transfer the bowl to a pan of cold water to cool the chocolate, stirring often, until it starts to thicken, 3 to 5 minutes.
5. Line a baking sheet or tray with nonstick parchment paper. Remove the bowl of chocolate from the bowl of water. Using a fork, dip an orange stick into the chocolate, coating it completely or only half if you prefer. Transfer sticks to the paper and leave to set.
Note: To avoid a “foot” of chocolate on one side of the orange strip, twist and turn the strip on the fork so the chocolate sets evenly. Wrap and store the orangettes in the salad drawer of the refrigerator.
Main photo: The Château de Versailles, which was lovingly restored by the Van der Kemps during a 35-year period. Credit: Copyright 2012 Michal Osmenda/Creative Commons