Thursday, January 18, 2007

Having it and eating it

Marcel Proust, author of Remembrance of things past, tells of how a piece of cake dipped in tea brought a host of childhood memories flooding back. The cake was called a madeleine and it is one of my children’s favourite goûters – as long as it is shop-bought and factory-baked, that is. Any attempt on my part to make madeleines at home is met with elaborate vomiting impressions and they invariably end up as sad crumbs at the bottom of a trifle. The madeleine is a speciality of Commercy in Lorraine. The story goes that the pastry cook of Stanislas, Duke of Lorraine in the 18th century, fell ill and the maid found herself having to do the baking. She made a cake in the shape of a seashell, flavoured with orange flower water and the Duke was so impressed, he named it madeleine after her.

During the Middle Ages, a pâtissier was simply someone who mixed flour and water together and used the ‘paste’ to make a variety of dishes, which included meat and fruit pies. The forerunner of French cakes first appeared in the thirteenth century, when oubloyers sold a sort of thin, honey-sweetened wafer called an oublie or more tellingly a casse-museau (jaw-breaker) during the main religious festivals. The oubloyers were so important, they had their own guild but it wasn’t until 1440 that the pastry makers had theirs. Eventually, they formed a single guild and sold their wares from baskets, walking through the towns where it was the custom for the inhabitants to call them into their homes and play dice for the cakes or pies. If a householder won the whole basket, the oubloyer had to sing a song to get his basket back…

Naturally, this sales technique caused problems and not only for the tone deaf. Thieves, only pretending to be bakers, would con their way into people’s homes and make off with the silver, so a decree was passed in 1722 prohibiting all ambulant pastry sellers. Anyway by then, the pâtissiers were in fashion at court, specialising in ornate confections shaped like castles, swans or snuffboxes and generally catering to the culinary whims of bored aristocrats.

During the Revolution, pastry cooks found themselves out of work as most of their patrons were getting their heads chopped off. With a new clientele and plenty of competition, they let their imaginations run riot and invented all sorts of delicious sweetmeats. Even the diplomat, Talleyrand, made a contribution. He asked his pastry cook to make his biscuits longer so that he could dip them in his Madeira, and thereby invented sponge fingers. As for poor old flaky Marie-Antoinette, she didn’t actually say “Let them eat cake” to the starving hordes of peasants demanding bread, but if she had, she would have meant brioche, a type of bread fortified with eggs and butter. In fact, her favourite cake was a kouglopf – a brioche with raisins which was popular in the court of Nancy. Legend has it that a certain Kugel, a baker from Ribeauvillé, had the three wise men to stay as they passed through Alsace on their way to Bethlehem. As a reward, they passed on the recipe for what became known as kouglopf. Given their surreal sense of direction, it’s a wonder the whole town didn’t just come down with food poisoning.

The eighteenth century saw the birth of the great Brillat-Savarin, author of The Physiology of Taste. He lent his name to a cake called a savarin, yet another type of brioche, soaked in rum. It was around this time that petits-fours became popular – their name means ‘small pieces of cake cooked in a cool oven’, so one can see why we haven’t bothered to translate the phrase. A few years later, Auguste Escoffier – who spent most of his career in England, perhaps out of compassion – invented the Peach Melba in homage to an opera singer he’d heard in Covent Garden. Today, Gaston Lenôtre is a pastry chef with celebrity status and cake shops all over the world. We have him to thank for the rich chocolaty opéra cake.

A recent survey revealed that fruit tarts are the favourite treat of the French, followed by éclairs and mille-feuilles. French men have the sweetest tooth – sixty-one percent eat cakes more than once a week compared to fifty-eight percent of women – and one of the regions where the most cakes are eaten is right here in the Rhône Alpes. Salons de thé are nice, civilised places to eat them while chatting to your genteel lady friends over a cup of Lapsong Souchong. Some profiteroles, perhaps – from a word meaning ‘satisfaction’ – and a small slice of tarte tatin? This famous upside-down apple tart was invented by accident in 1889, when one of the Tatin sisters distractedly poured the filling in her pie dish before the pastry but put it in the oven anyway, with delicious results. Maybe you would prefer a Paris-Brest, named after the famous bicycle race because of its wheel shape? Or a cannelé, named for the fluted mould it is baked in or perhaps a financier- a cake created in 1890 for those financiers who didn’t want to get their hands dirty…

As for me, I have my own "madeleine moment" – you might even call it a spiritual experience – whenever I eat a religeuse, so named because it looks like a nun in her habit. Made from two custard-filled cream puffs, decorated with whipped cream and drizzled with glacé icing, religeuses bring back memories of my first trip to France to stay with my pen friend, whose parents owned a pâtisserie. I just have to bite into the crisp, sweet pastry and feel the cold, thick vanilla custard ooze into my mouth and down my chin and I’m fifteen again…fat, spotty and one heck of a messy eater but - it’s bliss all the same.


angela said...

My poor diet. Too much temptation.
I've just tagged you to write 6 weird things about you.
Have fun,

Anonymous said...

Madeleines--edible or not--are a favorite with me; I try them quite often...if you know what I mean?!

You know, your posts really ARE windows on France. Such a gift to readers! Thanks.

Meilleurs voeux!!