With so much to write about, I really shouldn’t be taking the time to gloat over all the food we had in France, but I feel much less like making responsible, detailed entries about how impressive Scotland is and much more like writing about something frivolous… like French desserts! Steve tends to be rather Puritan about food, or about the pleasures of eating, in any case. In his view, food as a way to make yourself happy is probably one of the worst approaches possible. This is a stark difference between us, as I am far too attuned to the pleasures of food to abstain. Well, I’ll see how many people read this entry and decide which side you guys are on!
French desserts are pretty much legendary. Everyone knows and loves croissants, pain au chocolats, the crème brulées… we sampled a lot of sweets in our two and a half months in France, and while some of them were very well-known to us, some were completely novel! Here goes an attempt at a rundown.
Every morning when we first arrived in Lyon, I would go out to the corner boulangerie and get a pain au chocolat (literally, bread with chocolat) for breakfast. These usually cost 95 cents to 1 euro, and were simply buttery flaky layers wrapped around oozing and soft slices of dark chocolate. On the outside, the top layer would be a golden brown, and while crunchy on the outside, the chocolate and innermost dough would be slightly tender. I loved waking up to this for breakfast. While Steve usually got a chausson aux pommes (a sort of apple turnover), the simple pain au chocolat was my perennial favorite. We also got to sample other classic French desserts, like crêpes and waffles (gauffres). Crêpes in France come with a variety of different fillings — chantilly (whipped cream), Nutella, butter, and our favorite, lemon juice and dusted sugar. We got one in Vieux Lyon when our friend Evan came to visit, which was simply delicious and an incredible sugar rush. It was made fresh too, which we were dismayed to find was a relative rarity. Most crêpe stands boasted a fresh griddle outside, but also a surreptitious stack of already-made crêpes that would be warmed up and then smothered with toppings and handed over. That was one of the reasons we opted for a Nutella waffle one afternoon in Lisieux. It was freshly made, with the batter poured into the griddles as we watched, and then the Nutella deposited on top of the waffle, melting into each nook and cranny of the just baked treat. That was a seriously delicious and thick treat that Steve and I shared. Amazing!
Normandy is also well-known for its apple products, which I’ve already gone on about at length. We had the chance to try several apple desserts in town. One that Julie and Murray treated us to on our first night was tarte normandie, just a very simple apple tart dusted with sugar. Simple is probably best, and while not as thick and chunky as apple pie, this apple tart was more than delicious, with a custard-like base mixed in with the soft apple slices. It also went excellently with a few spoonfuls of cream, which is an English habit that Julie and Murray succeeded in winning me over. One afternoon in town, we also tried the grillé aux pommes, an apple tart that has a criss-cross pastry grid on top. It’s nothing more than a smooth applesauce baked onto the top of the tart, lightly sweet and very filling.
Finally, we have to mention the crème brulée. Many years ago, when I watched Amélie, there’s a scene with crème brulée, where she breaks the crisp, caramelized sugar crust of the dessert with a dainty little spoon. It also happens to be one of Steve’s favorites, so of course we indulged! On our trip to Perpignan, Lele and Steve both got the crème brulée at one restaurant. They first put various fruits or fillings inside the custard, and then put the blowtorch to the surface, caramelizing the surface into the sugary crust, so you can get a customized flavor! I also had the privilege of trying a tiny crème brulée slightly bigger than my thumb, but that’s a story for later in this entry!
A Whole New World
It is practically needless to say that most of the delicious things we ate in France were not known to me before we visited. Some I discovered on my own, and some we found with the helpful introduction of friends. In Lyon, our favorite boulangerie and patisserie that made the much-vaunted pain au chocolat also produced a lot of chocolately looking desserts that Steve and I frequently sampled. Among those were their chocolate-y vitton and succès. The latter is a round cake, mostly chocolate ganache or cream with a thick shell of dark chocolate over it. It had cake-like moist layers near the bottom, and was quite delicious. The vitton was probably our favorite, often bought for our after-dinner dessert. Though we suspected the vitton name was probably specific to that boulangerie (being at the corner of Cours Vitton, a large avenue). I later on saw a similar dessert described as L’empereur, so not sure what its definitive name is. The vitton as we knew it was a long rectangular chocolate dessert, dusted all over with dark cocoa powder. Underneath is chocolate ganache, thick and chilled, and finally a few layers of something crunchy at the very bottom. It tasted just like the best part of a Ferrero Rocher to me. We shared it every time, the entire length of the vitton being quite intimidating, but half of it being just enough to tantalize and satisfy, and not enough to get sick of the rich flavor. Unfortunately, since we ate it so quickly every time, I never got the chance to take good pictures!
Also new to me was the réligieuse. When I got to see my high school friend Olivia in France, she introduced me to some of her friends in Paris which she had made a year or two ago while she was working here. We got into a funny debate about French food names for things, and her friend Mona remarked thoughtfully that many food items are named after people. For example, an avocat is both an avocado as well as a lawyer in French. Financiers are a sort of tea-cake, and the réligieuse is a round pastry filled with cream on top of a bigger one, and is so called because of its resemblance to a round nun! We got to try it while we were in Normandy. The store had both chocolate and coffee flavors, the round pastry balls being stuffed with that flavor of cream, and the top adorned with icing of the same flavor. It was also rather a bit much to have by yourself, but just perfect when Steve and I shared it together!
I had never had profiteroles before, but I had heard of them from a few French movies, like Paris, je t’aime. I had the vague sense they were dessert dumplings, and so when Evan, Steve, and I were out for dinner, I went ahead and ordered them. I also asked for a scoop of ice cream initially, and the server hesitated, informing me that they already had ice cream. Pleasantly surprised, I rescinded my request, and when it came, the profiteroles just exceeded all of my expectations. They are typically three small pastry balls filled with ice cream, with a generous share of chocolate sauce ladled over them, topped with chantilly (whipped cream) and just a light sprinkling of cinnamon. I was just over the moon about them. I can’t imagine a more perfect dessert, and maybe one day I’ll have them again!
Finally, I think I have already written a bit about the île flottante, which literally translates to “floating island.” We encountered it in Montchanin with Sam and Sarah. Renée, Sam’s grandmother, made this for a surprise dessert at dinner. It was a large bowl of creamy custard, fairly fluid, topped by a large floating mound of whipped egg whites until they became stiff. Not being baked, it was just short of being meringue, but was nevertheless delicious. Both Steve and I took seconds!
The Grand Finale
I haven’t even mentioned my two favorite desserts. Both fittingly came to me in Paris. The first, the croissant chocolat amandes is a viennoiserie. (The latter word is just a fancy name for French pastries made from puff pastry, or anything that looks brown, golden, and has layers of flaky buttery goodness. So viennoiseries, as opposed to patisseries, which are tarts, cakes, chocolates, and non-dough-related items.) Our first morning in Paris, on the way to the Notre Dame, we stopped by a boulangerie and picked up something for the morning. The croissant chocolat amandes was my choice, and I have never tasted such an amazing croissant. It was very flat, not quite airy like many of the pastries, but dusted over with roasted, sliced almonds and sugar. The inside was just melty gooey chocolate and soft dough, seemingly not completely baked through, but that was a part of its allure! I could not stop talking about it, and proceeded to get another one the next day.
The other favorite dessert is not quite a single dessert. It is a masterful, diabolically wonderful creation called the café gourmand. Steve and I had both seen this on many menus throughout our time in France, and dismissively thought it was some sort of very fancy coffee. It normally cost as much as if not more than the desserts on the menu, so I think we can be forgiven for thinking it was like an artisanal shot of espresso! When we had dinner with our friends Dan and Olivia in Paris, I had the hardest time choosing a dessert, being equally enchanted by the crème brulée and the strawberry mousse. Finally, Olivia commented, “Why not try the café gourmand? It has a little bit of everything.”
Everything?! Everything! What they call the café gourmand is really a platter of all the desserts in miniature or a small slice of the dessert along with an espresso. In dazed disbelief, I ordered it, and received a platter with a small shot-glass sized strawberry mousse, a tiny chocolat moelleux cake, an almond financier, a chocolate macaroon, a cup of espresso, and the tiniest cutest little ramekin of crème brulée I have ever seen in my life. I think Steve nearly hurt himself laughing at me, because I was just stunned by this discovery. I’m one of those people who loves to try a little bit of everything all the time, so I feel like this platter of miniature desserts was an invention made expressly for me. It may well be one of the most magical discoveries I’ve ever made. Since then, Olivia has tagged me on Facebook in every single picture of a café gourmand she orders and eats, probably because my love for it made such a deep impression in her mind. I can only hope my friends don’t think I’m roaming over France eating all the café gourmands I can find. Though that was not far off the mark, after our time in Paris.
Though in no way we have thoroughly covered every delicious little thing we’ve eaten in France, I feel like I’ve done my job in encouraging you to visit the local French bakery in your city. Tomorrow, I’ll put up a post about the delicious things we’ve eaten in Scotland thus far!!