Meringue... Delve a Little Deeper Into the Story
An enchanted cookbook, containing a magical recipe for meringue, falls into the hands of young Augustine Cignier. Soon, it becomes part of her existence, profoundly influencing every moment of her life. When she passes away, her spirit is entrapped within its pages and ends up in the attic of an abandoned home...
Several years later, June Mooney purchases the old house with the dream of turning it into a restaurant…
And so, the story begins in present-day Lake Humphrey, a little village tucked in the rolling hills of the Eastern Townships. Guided by Augustine’s spirit, June comes across the cookbook and for years, the humble restaurant—serving divine meringue pâtisseries—flourishes. But when June revamps the menu, setting aside the charmed recipe, the results are disastrous. As the magic dies, years of struggle begin for June and her three daughters; Scarlett, Ava and Hailey. Their worries are enhanced by a scandalous affair, the affections of a handsome writer, a teenage pregnancy, and most of all, the arrival of award-winning, French chef, Harold D’Alembert.
Like the pleasures of an epicurean experience, Augustine recounts the textured story of a cookbook’s mesmerizing effects on her life and the lives of the women attached to Restaurant Meringue.
Meringue is an inspiring, heartfelt and unforgettable tale celebrating the strength of family, its inevitable flaws and the beauty of coming together.
“The secret to a life well-lived has much to do with the passion one experiences for food. Without it, life would be bland, an awful disaster.”—Augustine Cignier
In the late nineteenth century, during the first years of my existence, I did not question how the baby peas, the winter squash or the roasted duck landed on my plate. With bright eyes and clumsy hands, I fed my insatiable hunger with the goodies Maman had lovingly cooked for me. Every meal was a feast; even the humblest of recipes caught my whole attention. I ate slowly to fully capture the flavors and textures that swirled on my tongue, and it was only years later that I began to wonder how an extravagant meal could be the product of simple ingredients gathered from our garden, and the barn in our backyard.
I became fascinated with cooking, studying Maman as she worked for hours in our large kitchen. I learned so much and was the only one of her four daughters to be riveted by the charm of bread dough rising beneath a checkered cloth, or the wonderful aromas that escaped our ovens.
My life’s meaning came into focus when I realized that cooking wasn’t only fundamental for nurturing the body, but keeping the spirit alive as well. Of course, this came with the discovery of a very special heirloom, which I stumbled upon many years ago. I was the last to be in its presence, and so I live on with it. But one day, when solidly anchored into another soul, I suppose I shall be free to move on.
So this is a story of magic and miracles, of beauty and grace. It is the tale of an influential piece, a work that had touched many over the years, and it was about to create a new chapter in the lives of the women attached to Restaurant Meringue, a divine kitchen, nestled in the heart of a little town. But before getting into their lives today, I must take you back to when it all began.
The First Years
The old attic had been my home for as long as I could remember, and my favorite spot was the seat by its only window, which overlooked Lake Humphrey, a small and friendly village in the southernmost part of the Eastern Townships. The first homes were built of stone on the hill above the river; the newer ones were clad of bricks and wood. There were only two buildings that could be seen from a distance, as they stood above the trees, and they were churches of course. The first received French Catholics, with a steeple that reached the clouds, the second was an Anglican church, smaller, but crafted with just as much elegance by the first English settlers. They came with Captain John Savage, a Loyalist fleeing the United States, after England’s disastrous defeat.
I loved those mornings when wondrous rays of sun would stretch across the town, granting each dwelling its glorious warmth. I was drawn here for some reason, though at first it wasn’t clear why. All I remember was that I found myself wandering between the present, and fragments of memories that had left me long ago. They kept coming in a steady flow, like the waters of late winter, bubbling beneath thin ice, and as time progressed, they expanded for miles in my mind.
There was a mystery to my life, or I suppose I should say afterlife. I was never brought to the golden gates, as I had always believed when I walked the land. Instead, my spirit was going through a new cycle, here on Earth, and after a deathlike sleep, I came about abruptly, beckoned by a specific prayer connected to a deep gastronomic longing.
It was during the year of 1998, that June Mooney and her husband came to me with their two young daughters. Now these girls were sweethearts, pretty as buttercups, but there was always a hint of sadness in their eyes. Their father was a scoundrel, a no good drunk who could never get anything right, as a good man should, and their mother became stubborn, unyielding, just about as rigid as an old oak. I believed that destiny had chosen to run its course on a sinuous path, when it led the family to such a dilapidated home, but eventually, I came to understand that I was wrong.
Anyhow, for unknown reasons— although, I suspect God was at play—we all came together under this very roof, during that spring when June had the spontaneous idea to refurbish this old place.
The house did have its appeal, although it was rundown to the point where some might have had it destroyed, but June seemingly didn’t care about its flaws, she was actually inspired. This house had character and she was ready to delve into the challenge of making it perfect again. However, that certainly wasn’t the true reason, there was evidently something stronger in the works. When she stepped into the kitchen, she was drawn to the luminous rays of sun sifting through the row of old windows on its east side. In a heartbeat, she felt a slight tingle from head to toe, a magical sensation that cloaked her body in warmth. Standing in the empty space, she was delighted by the cozy diner, its hearty brick fireplace and timeworn, wooden floors. She saw all the magnificent possibilities it offered, but most of all, she felt safe, away from her troubled past.
So, June and her husband purchased the house with the dream of turning it into a restaurant, and when the renovations were complete, they were finally ready to open its doors to the world outside. However, a week before it officially opened, June learned that she was pregnant with her third child. That night, her husband drove off, leaving them with nothing more than a short letter explaining that he wasn’t cut out to be a father. This shook June’s world violently. I witnessed her fall into a sudden state of panic and heard her cries of desperation. How I wished I could’ve been of comfort to her, but my ethereal condition prevented me from accomplishing whatsoever.
The weather was misbehaving that evening, shady clouds gathered quickly in conspiracy, while the wind danced and howled like a ravenous wolf beneath the moon. An infuriated bolt of lightning streaked the sky, shedding light across the attic, illuminating the answer to June’s intense anguish. It came in the form of a book, forgotten since God knows when, tucked between a bunch of old works, lining a shelf built into the attic’s wall.
This book had been with me since the day I found it in my grandmother’s kitchen many summers ago. I was about fourteen when I first witnessed its existence. The heavy tome bore a dark leather cover and dust had encrusted its small veins; however, the embossed golden letters still shimmered on its spine. I remember how it begged to be touched, and how I’d been spellbound by its marvelous sheen. It was a treasure, hidden to those who could not decipher its enchantment. In fact, to many, it was nothing other than Le cuisinier royal et bourgeois, a recipe book, dating from 1691. But to me, it was pure magic. I swear that with the words that came from within, I could cast a spell.
Now this book travelled with me wherever I went, it never left my side as I traversed villages, countries and continents. You wouldn’t believe how surprised I was when I finally discovered that I was the actual follower of this mighty work, and that it had always been the navigator of my grand journey.
The author of this fabulous chef d’oeuvre was unknown when it was first published; however, in later versions, it was revealed. But I had been ever so fortunate to put my hands on a very special first edition, like none other. The inscription inside proved that it belonged to the author, the famous Parisian chef, François Massialot. He was an impressive cuisinier of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and he created sumptuous banquets for royals such as Philippe I, Duc d’Orléans and his son.
In the book, dated notes were elegantly jotted down in the margins surrounding each recipe, by Massialot’s hand I supposed. He must have intensely observed the guests that came to his feasts, for he described their reactions from first bite to last, down to the smallest details. From his writings, I discovered that the grand dames preferred poultry, delighting in the delicate flavors of tourte aux pigeons and potage de cailles farcies et perdreaux. But the noblemen showed satisfaction in savoring robust lamb dishes; rôti de mouton aux fines herbes was apparently a favorite. I enjoyed reading his entries, but I wasn’t completely hooked, until I came upon his spectacular account on the first time he served his heavenly, strawberry meringue. With what he lovingly penned, I could only believe that the recipe had received some sort of sanctification that day.
Now Massialot wasn’t the originator of this soft, airy, sweet confection—it was the invention of an Englishwoman apparently—but he was the first to introduce it to the French palate, the first to experiment with it, perfect it, and bring it to new heights. Without his work, meringue might have been lost, forgotten, like so many other recipes of that era.
As much as the book used to travel with me in my carryall, I now realized that I was travelling with the book, my spirit had been sucked right into its pages and became part of its story. You see, my whole life had revolved around its contents; they had molded my existence, infused my being with purpose, and it all began on the day I went hunting for eggs in my grandmother’s chicken coop and the sudden urge I had to try Massialot’s divine meringue.
When I walked into the barn, the big red hen wildly clucked and gave me the meanest stare; she must’ve known why I’d come. After cleaning the eggs, I separated them with care, only keeping the whites in a copper bowl, as Massialot had suggested. I whipped the egg-whites vigorously, until they peaked into little white mountains, added a few drops of lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons of sifted, refined sugar and went on mixing the snowy substance. With two spoons I began to mold nut-shaped, white puffs, using every ounce of the sweet mixture. Then, I dusted them by filling a light piece of cotton with powdered sugar. In the oven they went, until the tops turned a light shade of gold.
That evening, I cut up a pint of fresh strawberries, wedged slices between two pieces of meringue, and served my masterpiece to the people surrounding my grandmother’s lengthy kitchen table. Some fell into a divine trance, others in a state of awe. My cousin Louis shed a tear of profound joy as the authentic taste of magic, melted on his tongue. When my turn came, I slowly bit into what seemed like a cloud that came straight down from heaven. At that moment, I was overtaken by waves of intense delight.
June’s emotions of anger and desolation became so sharp after she’d found her husband’s letter, that I began to sense vibrations within my transparent core. They filled my hollowed silhouette like a bubbly substance poured into a bottle, then tightly capped. Shaken mercilessly, my invisible liquid collided in every direction, expanding to an unbearable pressure. That’s when I popped, producing a ripple of energy throughout the old attic. Oddly enough, it was the luckiest of events, for it brought out of hiding the only apparatus that could save June. The magical book wiggled on the built-in shelf and suddenly tumbled to the floor. Sprawling against the dusty wooden planks, Le cuisinier royal et bourgeois had parted its pages, revealing the charmed recipe for Massialot’s meringue.
June heard the loud thud upstairs and rushed to the attic. She flipped the switch by the entrance, and immediately spotted the old book floating on a pool of soft light. She knelt down and remained in that position for quite a long while, simply fixating her gaze on the timeworn volume. The words danced above the pages as June tried to translate them in her thoughts. She had fallen into a peaceful state, and I knew that the book had begun to works its magic on her. The same had happened to me, so many years back.
A few days after this episode, the carpenter replaced the sign outside of the restaurant with a new one, even though the first had only been put up a few weeks earlier. The townspeople passing by appeared bewildered, as they eyed the ornate piece of wood on which the words Restaurant Meringue had been carved. It was hanging from a fancy wrought iron bracket, swaying in the slight wind. People began to wonder why the original name had been replaced, while others asked why the man of the house had disappeared. Questions arose in the little neighborhood, for the restaurant’s opening had been postponed for several days.
That week, a strange energy crawled in sneaky patterns throughout the streets. There were blustery winds—colder than usual and fierce dark clouds hovered like a menace above the small town. The habitual humdrum of its villagers became nearly nonexistent, and drapes in windows were pulled tight, earlier and earlier, every evening. But this condition wasn’t to last forever.
On a splendid morning, when the sky finally cleared, the restaurant’s doors opened with such vibrancy that every curious bystander came to the woman standing on its threshold.
I found that June appeared ever so strong and determined that day, announcing that the restaurant would now be called “Meringue” and there would be no more talk about the man, she once called her husband.
Everyone was mesmerized by the sweet aromas travelling from the windows’ openings. Townspeople lined up on the front yard, eager to step inside. You see, many of them had never eaten meringue, and discovering it for the first time brought on many emotions. While savoring every morsel of the billowy textured delights, they marveled in the blissful flavors that made their taste buds dance. Lemon tartlets, raspberry pavlova, îles flottantes, and tartes aux petits fruits et meringue were scribbled on the menu that day, and for many years, they would be part of the restaurant’s staples.
It was a humble beginning, for sweets, tea and coffee were the only items served, but June soon found herself with a group of faithfuls that came nearly every day. Alluring and irresistible scents drew them inside, and little did they know that they were in need of some sort of change. For some, a small tweak was all it took, while for others, major adjustments were required. But there was definitely a constant in the equation; the more one came, the more significant the shift, and meringue was the delightful channel to every metamorphosis.
The months that followed were peaceful, as the little business slowly flourished. Word spread, customers came from near and far, and June had found peace and happiness with her little family that had expanded to three daughters. Some days were particularly busy, but help was always nearby.
On a cold evening, when the leaves turned yellow and began to fall, there was a knock on the kitchen’s back door. June was surprised to find a scrawny teenager in an old hoodie, standing outside.
“Come in,” June said. The girl walked in, pushed back the hood of her tatty sweater, and smiled.
“Hazel?” June gasped.
She was June’s youngest sister and had run away from home, begging June to take her in. June wasn’t pleased that her sister had run away from the family nest, nevertheless, she understood Hazel perfectly well. In a sense, the Gilbert farm was a prison. It was one of the reasons why June married so young, and moved so far away.
It was decided that Hazel could stay, but there would be rules, and June laid them on heavily. But Hazel took on every responsibility with grace. Anything was better than going back home.
A few years later, tragedy struck the women of Restaurant Meringue. I knew exactly who was to blame for this; unfortunately they didn’t have a clue. They had entered a great period of darkness, a terrible streak brought on by a famed culprit: chocolate. Yes, sinful dark chocolate had made its appearance on the menu of Restaurant Meringue, causing an upheaval like no other.
There is no denying that chocolate can be enticing and soothing, but it wasn’t right for this particular kitchen. Sadly, I watched June stray from Massialot’s cookbook, soon it was forgotten and their lives took odd turns, the glee they had known was vanishing, and the magic that had lived with them, eventually died.
Hazel was the first to leave. Harboring a dreadful secret, she would be gone for several years. Scarlett, June’s eldest daughter, was second to go, following a man entirely unfit for her. And at last, Ava, June’s second daughter, left for the city after her heart had been broken to pieces. But June couldn’t see clearly, she had invested all of her energy and time into creating a renowned restaurant, while convincing herself that she’d raised strong girls who were ready to become women of the world...