THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES A. BONDOUX

TARTE AU CITRON – RELIVING ALGIERS

(This excursion into lemon tart–dom was provoked by our good friend Clare of Fremantle, who took us on a gourmet tour of the Margaret River area of Western Australia. Along the way we sampled a perfect lemon tart. That particular "tarte au citron" rivalled my memory of the Saint George masterpiece.)

Tarte au Citron A Glorious Dessert.

It was 1961, and I was with the 23rd Marine Infantry Regiment somewhere in the Atlas mountain range of northern Algeria, when mail call had a note from my father. He was scheduled to plead a case in an Algiers courtroom, and might I be able to join him for dinner in town during his trip? This freak opportunity for a family reunion, even in a war zone, allowed me to extract a rare two-day pass, and I was off to Algiers.

The Saint George hotel in Algiers was a grand and elegant edifice in the Moorish style and surrounded by an overgrown botanical garden. A place of horseshoe arches, domes, mosaics, and thick walls painted white, whose tile floors, fountains, high ceilings, and gentle drafts provided welcome coolness during the heat of the day. Built sometime in the late nineteenth century as an Arab-Ottoman palace, it still enjoyed in 1961 the reputation of being the best and most exclusive hotel on the entire African continent.

Garden The Botanical Garden.

I arrived to claim my reservation and the front desk manager, expecting a civilian, was unprepared for my sergeantís uniform, wrinkled from the long trip from the boonies. Apparently only top brass ever stayed at this premier establishment, and my lowly presence might cause unwelcome awkwardness (a brass plaque above the porte–cochere by the main entrance memorialized the fact that General Eisenhower had used the building as his headquarters during the 1943 North African campaign!).

I was reluctantly granted a room in the remote far upper corner of the building overlooking the tennis courts. Changing into in an old blue suit I had squirreled in the bottom of my kit bag (the only time I was able to don civilian clothes during my 14 months in Algeria) earned me a smile of relieved approval from reception when I made my second appearance in the lobby.

Father and I caught up over an elegant dinner in the hotel restaurant. I forget what meal we ordered, but I do remember vividly the dessert, which was a slice from an exquisite lemon tart. It stuck in my memory because it was served with nearly religious care and presented with a flourish, as the restaurantís "signature" dish:

Yumyum Yum.

A few years later, President Boumedienne of now-independent Algeria chaired the Organization for African Unity, a grouping of "non-aligned" African nations mainly motivated by anticolonial backlash. As a gesture to reinforce Algerian national prestige and the presidentís international stature, Algiers would host the outfitís 1968 summit meeting.

The Algerian government retained a prominent Italian architect to design and build an appropriate world–class hotel worthy of the occasion. The opening of the grand new hotel, to be named the El Aurassi, would then make it possible to close the venerable Saint George, now state-owned and state-run, and in need of a major remodel and facelift.

Sadly, the plan evolved into a classic debacle, bordering at times on farce. The site chosen for the monumental El Aurassi was on a steep hillside overlooking the picturesque waterfront. As the multi–story structure went up, its weight caused some unexpected subsidence and triggered mudslides following the winter rains. Experts were brought in to execute a soil stabilization program and modifications to the building design. A dispute with the contractor (a Yugoslav outfit, as I recall – that country still existed at the time) required a rebid and a new contractor. Then it was discovered that the plumbing specifications didnít match those of the bathroom fixtures, which were rumored to be marooned on an Italian ship anchored in the bay, pending a technical fix and financial resolution of the issue. There were other delays.

The new hotel finally opened in 1975, some seven years behind schedule. Meanwhile, the Saint George limped along, afflicted by seven years of additional deferred maintenance brought on by the syncopated postponements of the El Aurassi completion date. Threadbare rugs, dingy public spaces, peeling paint, tarnished brass fixtures, broken tiles, musty rooms, and a thoroughly dispirited staff.

In 1974, I found myself once again in Algiers working for Bechtel on project financing for some new developments. The Saint Georgeís then advanced state of dilapidation drove most business visitors to arrange to stay at one of the three new showcase resort hotels at Sidi Ferruch, a beach and small port west of Algiers. The inconvenience of a daily commute into the city for meetings and appointments was a fair compromise in exchange for the newer and more functional lodgings.

However, the old kitchen staff and dining room crew had been kept on, and the St. George remained a top restaurant in the city – reservations were imperative. Good and leisurely lunches at the Saint George were a feature of my repeated visits to Algiers in 1974 and 1975. It remained an oasis of service, good taste, and dignified tradition in the midst of the hard-edge, severe and authoritarian atmosphere of the Peopleís Democratic Republic of Algeria.

The restaurant had acquired a couple of mascots, two large tabby cats who wandered freely among the diners, but the best thing was that pride of place on the dessert cart was still given to the very large, daily lemon tart! And it was as sublime as ever. Through the years the place had retained its ability to deliver its traditional signature itemÖ and I remember being disappointed on one or two occasions, when a late lunch meant that all of the tart had been spoken for by the time the dessert cart rolled around to my table.

After the El Aurassi finally opened and the Saint George closed, I tried the new hotelís dining room. The familiar maître dí had transferred to the new place (as had the two cats, and all three seemed disgusted and embarrassed by the change), but no, "la tarte au citron" was not on the bill of fare.

El Djazair Hotel

The Hotel After Renovation.

Today, the shiny Saint George has a new name, and the street it faces has also been renamed. Its old glory lives only in the memory of those who have had the privilege of enjoying its former delights. Every now and then, when I find a decent slice of lemon tart, I savor the wave of nostalgia for the old hotel it brings on as much as I do consuming the sweet dessert itself. If that makes me a colonialist, so be it.