Every year it’s the same in my little village in the Seven Valleys, northern France. Madame Bernadette who lives at the bottom of the hill announces that her New Year’s resolution is to go on a diet.
Sometimes It’s tough living here in this little rural paradise. We’re surrounded by villages that are home to tempting boulangeries and patisseries. And I guarantee that the aroma of fresh baked baguettes from a wood oven, lifted out by a ruddy faced baker on the end of a long paddle, or the scent of flaky, buttery and golden just-cooked croissants, is utterly irresistible.
And then there are the cakes.
Cake makers in France are craftsmen. They train for years to learn how to make perfect little edible works of art. Opera cakes, Paris-Brest, eclairs, macarons, mille-feuille and many more. Classic French cakes really are in a league of their own. Nowhere else in the world does cakes like France
Keep calm and eat cake…
Regions, departments, even some towns have pastry specialities that are unique to them. Here in the far north, the “merveilleux” (marvellous) is a favourite. A speciality from Lille, it’s a seriously sweet meringue puff ball of a cake covered with whipped cream, chocolate or other sweet things. I can promise you, it requires fortitude to eat a whole one. In fact, if you get through one you may find you’ve eaten yourself to a standstill.
In the little town of Beaurainville near my village, the local baker makes a cake that I’ve never seen anywhere else. I am not sure you could put it in the great French classic gateaux category. Le Doigt de Charles Quint is a long sponge finger – literally. Red jam and Chantilly cream ooze from the centre. It’s meant to represent the gouty pinky finger of Emperor Charles V who ruled these parts. It tastes better than it sounds…
There are even seasonal cakes and breads. A Gallette des Rois (King’s Cake) is de rigeur in January. Bûche de Noël (yule log) in December. Cherry clafoutis in spring. And tarte tatin in autumn…
French women do eat cakes
I am always reading in some foreign newspaper or other that French women are somehow able to exert superhuman strength over their appetites and remain skinny. That might be true in Paris where I once saw a pencil thin woman order a bowl of lettuce for dinner as her lover tucked into succulent oysters, a juicy steak and ended with a dreamy tarte tatin. But I promise you, your average French woman, certainly where I live, is quite normal and able to resist anything but temptation – just like the rest of us.
Madame Bernadette loves cakes. The Bread Man who visits our village three times a week to drop off fresh bread and pastries knows this. And he is a good salesman. In January he hardly mentions the sweet feasts he has in the back of his van. Madame Bernadette accepts her lonely baguette with a sigh, but resists the urge to look in the side window at the trays of cakes and pastries. By February she will be asking “do you have a mille-feuille?” By March the Bread Man is openly tempting her with sugar cakes (basically a sweet pastry baked with a thick butter and sugar topping) or a sticky and creamy religieuse. The battle is lost. Resistance is futile.
But as Madame Bernadette says – there’s always next year…
Janine Marsh is Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream and My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life available as ebooks, print & audio, on Amazon everywhere & from all good bookshops…
Cake recipes from France
Love the sound of the cakes I’ve mentioned? Here’s how to make them at home!
Tarte tatin – like maman used to make
Merveilleux – a creamy meringue concoction that will blow your diet out of the water!
Galette des Rois – the king’s cake
Buche de Noel – a Christmas classic
Cherry Clafoutis – sweet and irresistible…