Posted: April 3, 2019
When I sat down to write this post the focus was going to be about the Tortierre recipe that my Odie always made and the Tortierre recipe that Jims Nana did and I was going to compare the two. Well that may appear at some point in the future and it is a nice comparison of those two meat pies but in starting to write it, what became clear is that I really wanted to get down some thoughts on the life my Odie had. It was tough and colourful and spaned a time in history and a part of the world that saw a lot of change.
For those of you who have read all my posts, you will know that I was only marginally better as a grandson as I was as a son. But with that said my Odie did mean a lot to me and I did spend more time with her before she passed a few years ago.
Before I even get into this story I should comment on the title of this piece. For those who do not read French, Poissons de Terre Doux means Sweet Land Fish in English, and for those who do read French, yes that says poisons de terre doux, which is a pretty strange combination of words but stick with me here and it will all be explained in this piece.
So where do I start – well much of how my fathers family evolved flowed from the first world war and was then exaggerated by the second world war.
My Odie was born in 1899 and had two boys, and one daughter, my dad being born in 1919. She was from a little village in Brittany as was the man (my grandfather) she would eventually marry was also from there.
So at the beginning of the first world war my grandad went off to war, survived and came back. But having seen more of the world than just his village decided to not be a fisherman like his father, as he had seen how difficult and at times dangerous a life it could be. He chose instead to be a chocolatier. After trying to get an apprenticeship in Rennes and then Brussels he ended up in Paris working for a master chocolatier who was a bit of an old-world version of that trade. Among the other components of the trade he learned the art of making chocolate molds and distinguished himself from the other apprentices in this aspect. When he returned to his little port town to set up shop, it was a fortuitous time as his father who was retiring from fishing was able to let him use the front of his building which his parents had used as a fish store. It was a very rough space and of course, smelled of fish.
When he (my great grandfather) would come home with the days catch, it was my great grandmother who would then sell the fish that day in the store while he cleaned up the boat and geared up for the following day. By selling in the store they always got a better price than selling at the dock and he was able to retire, unlike most fisherman who would essentially fish till they died.
So the way my Odie tells it, she and my grandad cleaned up the old fish store and geared up to open the chocolate shop. But there was a problem. The village was very controlled by the few merchants in the town and there was a law that this space could only be used as a fish store. The town had very few stores and had laws that protected the boulangerie from having competition, the patisserie, the fresh grocer, etc. So while the only chocolate that was being sold was a very small selection in a small store that was a dry goods and hardware store that also sold sweaters and boots, this store (my great grandparents store) could only be used to sell fish.
Now when Odie tells the story she gets very worked up at this point talking about her husband, buckling down and working for over a month on doing new chocolate molds – all in the shape of various local fish. Some were very small at less than 10 cm (4 inches) but many more like 30 to 40 cm (16-20 inches) and a few that were over a meter in length (40 inches). I wont go into the details that Odie would tell about his exact designs with fish scales and other details but she was very proud of what he produced.
While he was working on this Odie and some friends were working away on cleaning up the store and trying to get rid of the fishy smell. My grandmother was pregnant with her third child at the time. She would get quite graphic in her details of the fish smell often overwhelming her and the sickness that would ensue. I will spare you those details. During this time my great grandfather the retired fisherman was talking to locals to get them onside with the idea of the chocolate shop. During this time he was also making the new sign for the business.
When they opened as Poissons de Terre Doux, there was very little opposition, but lots of snickers regarding the name.
The business did well and my father, his brother, and sister had a very good life growing up there. This happy story might end there but World War II intervened.
When we look back at history it is easy to identify the Third Reich as being “bad” and all other countries they took over as being “good”. The reality is that in several countries – Holland, France, and others – there were a number of people who, tired of war from less than a generation before, wanted peace – at almost all costs, and while not welcoming the German occupation, looked at it as the lesser evil. Apparently my uncle who was a few years older than my dad was in that group and was part of the French administration controlled by the Germans and as he was an early supporter became quite senior in that puppet regime. My grandparents and my aunt and my dad never spoke to him again. This was because they were so ashamed of his decision but also because after a few years and the liberation of France he died. Its not clear if he died at the hands of the Germans or the Allies or the French Resistance. If he had come back to the village in Brittany he had grown up in he might have died at the hands of his relatives!
My father was too young to be involved in the war but wanting to help, worked most of the time with his mom at the chocolate shop while his dad and sister did some work in the shop but both also spent their time in minor roles in the French Resistance. It was a classic tragedy of siblings or children and parents on different sides of political conflict.
At the end of the war, my father was recommended by several respected local people in his town for a position in the government and almost instantly was swept up in the French Diplomatic Service in a very junior administrative role. The succession of governments, ideas and the various swings in perspective meant that many senior people were dismissed based on their history and very junior people like my father rose through the ranks not by merit but by not being affiliated with any group or party. And that is how my father found himself in his 30’s in a middle ranking position with the French Embassy in Ottawa, Canada in the early 1950’s and eventually met a nice French Canadian girl – my mom.
So I have been off on this bit of historical drama but need to bring you back to the story of the chocolate shop. In the 1950s my grandfather, grandmother and my aunt ran the shop until my aunt died of cancer and then a few years later my grandfather passed away as well. My Odie moved back into the flat above the store and rented the storefront to a company selling local handicrafts and antiques to tourists.
For years I have been trying to track down a photograph of the store, but a few years ago, a good friend saw some chocolate molds and photographed them for me. They had been purchased for props for the film “Chocolate” set a long distance away from Brittany but the molds bore the stamp of my grandfather. I have been able to get a few photos of those molds, but these are all the medium-sized ones up to about 30 cm (12 inches) – I have never seen any of the really large ones. I can’t imagine what a one-meter (over a yard) chocolate fish would be like!