I might be French, but I could totally live without wine or cheese. But not without chocolate. Chocolate is the one thing that I need to get going. And coffee, come to think of it. I have always loved chocolate. And I always will. That’s just who I am. I have also learned, over time, that quality matters more than quantity. So when I was offered to try To’ak aged chocolates, I didn’t hesitate and went for a try. It didn’t disappoint. Simply put, it was a fantastic start of the day!
But I need to come clean first: I didn’t know that you could age chocolate. I thought that chocolate had to be eaten, you know, as soon as possible. But no, chocolate is a bit like wines (well, fine French wines obviously): some flavours reveal themselves over time. It’s all about knowing how to appreciate them, and also taking the time to do so.
So here it is: before you scoff all the chocolate in your kitchen, you need to take a moment to learn how to get the best from your tasting experience. In fact, every stage of the chocolate making process has an impact on the final flavour. Natural factors such as the cocoa variety, soil conditions and climate are just the beginning. How the cocoa farmer treats the beans during the fermentation and drying process can have a marked impact on the flavour of your chocolate. And then roasting the beans can have an even bigger impact.
These little differences are one of the great things about small batch bean to bar chocolate. Every batch will have subtle differences. This is how I found myself, on a cold Tuesday morning smelling and eating cocoa beans, and cocoa aged in various types of wood. And I wasn’t trying any type of chocolate, I was trying the Nacional Ecuadorian beans. I had always thought that the Mayan had invented chocolate as we know it, but apparently I was wrong. This one cocoa bean was even older.
Do you know what the three secret ingredients of French cuisine are?
Well, here it is: butter, butter and butter.
And guess what: as a result of soaring popularity of the dairy product and pastries abroad, my home country faces a massive butter shortage. Dipping your croissant in your cup of coffee might become the ultimate luxury pretty soon. What happened? How did we get there? Is it the end of the world as we know it?
Well, let me tell you something first: if you are familiar with this blog, you know that I am from Provence. In short, I am more into olive oil than butter. That’s just me. I am told that, if I were from Brittany, I would see things in a different light and become very depressed. But fear not: I am fine. Our olive trees seem to be in good shape, and my father even told me that we would get more olive oil than last year. All is well and we will survive.
The afternoon tea is a great British institution. Come to think of it, it’s actually a way of life. I love it, because, for me, it usually is an excuse to have a glass of champagne in the afternoon. What’s not to like? Obviously you are not supposed to say this, but as I happen to be French, well, I’ll say it as it is. And you know me by now.
OK, I hear you, and now I feel guilty (just a bit). Let’s be politically correct for a paragraph : the afternoon tea is a good time to catch up with friends, and I tend to take all my French friends to have one. It usually breaks the ice. It is said that ‘afternoon tea’ was first introduced to England by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford in the late 19th century to overcome “that sinking feeling” she felt in the late afternoon (wine o’clock -sorry, I did it again). So began a tradition that has endured throughout the centuries. Today, afternoon tea in some London hotels has become an art form, and sometimes you need to book it months in advance.
It’s pancake day today. Before you ask, in France we call it Mardi gras (literally, Fat Tuesday).
Except that this year I can’t stuff my face.
You don’t want to see me smiling with my teeth…
Well, to cut a long story short, I’ve got braces (I know, so un-French, right?), and I have already lost at least one kg (that’s exactly 2.2 lbs for those of you who don’t do kg) in less than 5 days. And no, apparently I can’t have Invisalign or other things, because of what needs to be corrected. Bummer. My mouth feels dry all the time, and I am in a bad mood. I have gone back to baby food, save for the melted dark Belgian chocolate that they sell in my local supermarket (it’s a life saver, and I need to buy another pot). You’ve got to live a little, right?
In short, I don’t like it. I can’t chew, I have a metallic taste in my mouth all the time, and I feel like I can’t run any more (That’s my excuse anyway). To make matters even worse, I need to make pancakes (well, the French version of it) for the whole family, but I am not sure to be able to have some. Damn it. I am seriously considering going on pancake strike. That would be French, wouldn’t it? There is nothing like a good old strike.
I have had a full-on year. Come to think of it, I have a full-on life. It just never stops. But right now I have taken the whole family to a hamlet in Provence. The Internet connection –when it works- is patchy, which means that I am enjoying a much-needed break.
I love it here. The light is nothing short of spectacular, the colours are perfect, and I am pleased to report that my daughters are finally starting to enjoy Provence. The problem is, well, me.
What am I talking about? Well, I am suffering from a bad case of reverse culture shock. Why? Well, where to start? The driving of my fellow Frenchmen is terrible (simply put, speed limits are never respected. I wonder if they are for the birds?). As for customer service, well, it seems that nobody knows what it is. I asked for a glass of water at a local coffee, and of course it never came. Not to mention that I got told off because the waitress had forgotten half of our order. “No, you didn’t tell me.”, she said. Of course it was my fault. Since when is it allowed to be aggressive towards customers?
Where to start? I didn’t want to write such a post, but hey, here we go. To cut a long story short, I had a fantastic French-inspired dinner on the 13th of July, was about to write about it on Bastille Day but didn’t, and woke up on the 15th of July in a state of shock when I heard about the horrible attack in Nice. Words fail me. I could have been one of the victims: the only reason why I wasn’t in Nice was because my teenage daughter is doing some work experience in London, and we’ll all go to Nice when she is finished, in about ten days or so. In fact, anyone could have been a victim, because going out to see fireworks on display on Bastille Day is as normal as buying your daily bread in my home country. That said, this time, I am angry too: I have yet to understand how a 19-ton truck could end up on the Promenade des Anglais without being stopped. As usual, politicians and representatives are all blaming one another, and this lack of accountability, together with what seems to be gross incompetence on the part of whoever was in charge of security, are pissing me off in equal measure (excuse my French).
So where do we go from here? Well, as an ordinary citizen, I initially felt powerless. But then I realise that maybe, just maybe, it’s the small things that matter, because they give way to the bigger things. What am I talking about? Well, here it is: the things that matter stretch from the apparently anodyne, such as enjoying good food and wine, or feeling the sun on your body on the beach, to the much heavier weighted freedom of speech and democracy.
So yes, I will tell you about my lovely dinner in London, and I urge you to have a glass of Chablis to celebrate life in general and France in particular. Because that’s what life is about, and because that’s what our way of life is about. And yes, these things matter. Actually, maybe we have taken them for granted for far too long?
It just happened. I don’t know where it came from, or why it happened now, but here it is: I am homesick. What am I talking about? I miss my home country. It’s the food, you see. It’s the taste of the calissons d’Aix. It’s the tarte tropezienne. It is the local olive oil, the one that was coming straight from our garden, and that we used for the bougnette (the local equivalent of the garlic bread).
It’s also the freshness of the air, the mistral and the crisp light. Why did I leave again? Well, life happened, I suppose. And my daughters are more British than French anyway. Where does it leave me? Well, I am not sure.
Some call it ‘Galette des Rois’, others ‘Epiphany cake’. It remains one of the small things I miss from France. And to make matters even worse, I have always had a sweet tooth. I probably always will. It’s so difficult to change at my (ripe) age…That’s my excuse anyway.
The thing is, people keep tweaking the recipe of the King Cake. You can find some with raspberries, chocolate or even apples. No, no and no. I want the galette des rois of my childhood, not new trendy recipes. Let’s just stick to basics, shall we? I am sure they are all delicious, but why would I want to try out new fancy cakes when all I want is the original cake? I am risk-adverse, you see.
That’s is, I sound like like my late grandmother.
So what am I talking about? Well, a King Cake is a type of cake associated with the festival of Epiphany. The cake often has a small plastic or porcelain inside, and also a bean. The person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket or the bean has various privileges and obligations (including wearing a crown). For health and safety reasons, the trinket and the bean are now often given separately.
I grew up knowing of two types of ‘galettes des rois’. One was a brioche and you could only find it in Provence. I have never seen one in a bakery in London, so I ended up baking my own version of it. I love making it, and eating it. If you ask me, there is something therapeutic in kneading flour to make brioche.
A woman has got to do what a woman has got to do. What do I mean? Well, here it is: I keep eating all the time. My excuse is that it’s this time of the year. What’s happened to me? I am usually quite reasonable. I have no idea. Well, that’s not exactly true. I have always loved food. Always have. Always will. That’s just me, I suppose.
It all started with the Christmas celebrations. I spent a few days in France, and stuffed my face with marrons glaces. I love marrons glaces. I find them as delicious as chocolates. And I didn’t want to carry them all the way back to London. So I ate them. That’s how organised I am.
This year I will be spending Christmas in London. Things are slightly different over here, which makes it good fun. I have had to learn how to British up Christmas celebrations. And I like it…So what is the result? Well, double the fun, and my very own blend of French and British food. What’s not to like? Here is how I do it: