French Women Don’t Eat Cake – Or Do They?

A month or two ago I came upon a post from one of my favorite bloggers Life on La Lune who had a few words of advice for ‘wannabe’ expats. Not long afterwards my mother pointed me in the direction of an article by Michael Wright, author of ‘La Folie’ who now writes for the Telegraph and who received a dressing down from readers on his ‘easy ways to spot a Brit in France’.  One of the former blog’s words of advice was “don’t spurn fellow expats” whilst Michael Wright suggested he was happier out of expat reach. What seemed to incense his readers was Michael’s suggestion that the British abroad can provide the worst example of Britishness to the French, whilst the author of  Life on La Lune suggested that shunning other British Expats could be the voice of doom on chances to establish oneself if a conversational level of French isn’t in the grip of the Expat in question.

Coming, as I do, from the point of view of an Expat living in a city absolutely devoid of the British (they all sensibly move south realising that it rains more in Normandy than in the west coast of Scotland)  I have my own views on the matter.

Firstly, in support of Michael Wright, there is nothing worse than British tourists running amok in a French town who have absolutely no desire to attempt to communicate in French. I have frequently seen British tourists speaking at full volume in English to  sales assistants in the misguided belief that the volume will somehow aid the sales’s assistants comprehension. It does not. Secondly, every nationality is instantly recognisable by their dress, the English by their shorts and baggy T shirts, the Germans by their sandals and socks. Need I go on!








However, and I speak from experience, arriving in France without a good working or conversational knowledge of French can be an infinitely lonely place, and shunning English speaking expats, despite the shorts and baggy T shirts is madness. Every-one needs a social life, and for the most part English speaking expats are a mine of information which one can choose to ignore at leisure (but preferably once one has learnt how to negotiate daily life).

A more interesting question is whether the French are pleased to have us in France at all ‘in shorts’ or ‘en pantelon’. Do the British in France have nothing to offer? Can they really not contribute anything meaningful or interesting to the average Frenchman? Do they really let the side down? As much as the best of expats hope to integrate fully into French culture, should we wipe out every aspect of our ‘Britishness’ in our great effort to fit in?

A month or so ago I was suffering in a ‘social desert’  with no invitation on the horizon and with ‘husband à l’etranger’ à l’etranger. Conversation in the appartment had descended to a critical level of ‘ xbox’ talk, that is when I actually extracted my teenagers from texting their copins and copines long enough to enjoy a conversation. I would have at that point jumped over mountains  and swum rivers to chat with any other English speaking person. It was then that I decided it was high time I issued another invitation to the  city mamans.

Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that the French don’t issue invitations to English people (or to me for that matter) – they do. The problem is more that the French city mamans tend to socialise over dinner since many have their children home for lunch (as do I). Dinner inevitably requires a spouse, and herein lies my problem. My spouse is 4403.8km away (Yes I do have enough time in my social calendar to research silly bits of information like this)  Not a good distance to drive home at the end of the evening after having sampled some of the inevitably fine wine presented at the table!  So it is that I find that the best invitations to proffer are morning coffee or afternoon tea. No husbands required.

Last month I invited an elegant group of mamans for morning coffee. Having issued the invitations it occurred to me that I needed to buy a new cafetière having smashed the previous in a clumsy attempt to wash up. Not being a coffee drinker (quelle horreur en France) I hadn’t thought to buy a replacement after ‘husband à l’etranger’s’ last departure. Whilst musing where to find a suitably cheap one it also occurred to me that I also didn’t have any tea cups. There is one teacup to every thirty varieties of coffee cups in French shops. Finding some chic ones presents a bit of a problem.

When I suggested ‘coffee’ to the city mamans, each and every one set about persuading me to select a morning ‘qui convient à elle’ . No matter how much diary juggling went on there were invariably a few who couldn’t come. Let it not be said then, that French mamans are not interested in passing a morning ‘chez une Anglaise’!

Date fixed, I set about considering the ‘gouter’ (‘snack’ for want of a better word) for my invitées. The first time I invited a group of French mamans I made scone’s and a chocolate roulade. The French maman’s looked suitably horrified at the idea that one must eat scones with lashings of cream and raspberry jam. That my invitation clashed with their weekly cycle in the forest obviously left them somewhat agitated about the lack of exercise and the consumption of calories. However once I had insisted firmly that a combination of all three parts was essential, they consumed the entire plateful.

The chocolate roulade was ignored.

They also, as one, fell in love with my very British ‘Emma Bridgewater ‘British Birds’ tea-pot’  and ‘tant pis’ing’  (the French version of poo pooing) my apologies for lack of tea cups and saucers, drank very graciously their tea from my ‘Emma Bridgewater’ matching coffee cups . There was no hesitation at my second invitation for ‘afternoon tea’ and several enquired whether there would be scones on the table!

Since this event, I have made every effort to produce an English cake specialty, and have bought a ‘English tea selection box’. I have also moved from house to apartment. The first time the French maman’s came to the apartment they forsook the lift and climbed the 100 steps to the apartment, arriving breathless but with enough calories burned to allow them their ‘full english tea’ and once more polished off the scones.

This most recent time I invited all the French mamans for morning coffee complete with new cafetière and new chic cream tea cups and saucers (complete with pretty ‘M’ motif). Once more the French mamans arrived exausted after their climb to the apartment, eschewed coffee for tea, drank it from the aforesaid ‘Emma Bridgewater’ coffee cups with complete distain for the vastly inferior brand new French tea cups and polished off the coffee ‘cup-cakes’ (très à la mode en France), one mother requesting a doggy bag.

So there you have it. We British may not always like to rub shoulders in a foreign land with other British but the French do! They love receiving invitations to visit us. They adore all things ‘Brrreetish’ and all our funny quirks and habits, mannerisms and customs. They like nothing better than chatting about their experiences on British turf, our lovely villages and beautiful countryside even if they don’t yet believe me that it doesn’t rain as much there as it does in Normandy. Give them time!

But most of all, as much as they disdainfully turn their noses up at the  calorific wantonness of ‘le gateau Français’, never let it be said that they do not enthusiastically support Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” –

As long as it’s English, that is!

The Eclairs Went Like Lightening – Atelier de Patisserie.

For the recipe click here

I was the first to pull my camera out at the Atelier de Patisserie this week, but the Japanese students weren’t far behind! After ten minutes we were neck and neck on the photo stakes, and by the middle of the class they were actually helping me out with my own camera, and I came home with 124 photos and no excuses for forgetting how to make Eclairs!

Arnaud also had his work cut out. This class was made up entirely of ‘foreigners’, with the Japanese students aided by their own Japanese translator Miki, who herself had moved to France only a year ago, and whose mastery of the French language was incredible, already having mastered Chinese and with a good command of English.

This post is decicated to my sister-in -law in Canada, who years ago asked me for a profiterole recipe, and to my Australian in-laws for giving me this atelier for my Christmas present. I’ve been making profiteroles for a few years now, but I’ve realised by now that there will always be something Arnaud can teach us, and as with all things, he has that attention to the final detail that turns a 1€  eclair into a 2€ work of art.

Having got the introductions over; and I was amused to see that for once Arnaud was struggling with the names, Japanese is certainly not an easy language for either the French or English tongue; We picked up our pans and scales and set to work.

Arnaud talked us through all the different uses for Choux Pastry; the sugary ones of course encompassing Eclairs and Profiteroles, Chouquettes and Chaussons Napolitan; the savory including Gougères, and with a 50/50 mix of pureed potato, Pommes Dauphines and Gnocci.

Arnaud told us that Choux pastry freezes well both in its raw and its cooked state. Salt is add to all Choux pastry for flavour, and sugar to encourage them to colour golden during cooking. The length of cooking time, and the ability to assess their colour prevents the Choux pastry from collapsing by the oven door being opened too early during the cooking process.

We poured the water, butter salt and sugar into a large casserole pan and placed on the flame to bring to the boil.

We extinguished the flame, added the flour to the pan and with a wooden spoon mixed well. Once mixed, we re-lit the flame and for a minute began the process of stirring the pâte to dry it. Once the pâte fell easily from the upturned wooden spoon, the pâte was ready for the next stage.

We added the lightly beaten eggs bit by bit until the pâte was smooth and came cleanly away from the sides of the bowl.

We took a few minutes to discuss the various sizes of ‘douille’ or nozzles. An eclair took an 18 and  Chouquettes  a 12. We made up a piping bag, remembering to put a ‘bouchon’, literally translated as a cork, made up of scrunching part of the piping bag and pushing it into the douille or nozzle. We filled with the piping back with the pâte.

Holding the piping bag at an angle of 45° we ran the eclairs in 80mm lengths, pressing down at the ends and flicking back.

For the Chouquettes we used the smaller douille and made round balls piping from a vertical position. Now I have attempted to make the Chouquettes before. What always frustrated me was that after having cooked some fairly good profiterole shapes, I never succeeded in getting the sugar crystals to stay on the top of the Choux pastry. As ever with Arnaud , there is of course a secret.

Firstly we glazed with beaten egg the uncooked Choux Eclairs and Chouquettes; The Eclairs with a soft bristle glazing brush, pressing down perpendicularly to the length of the pâte; The Chouquettes by pressing down the tail left during the piping process. We then very liberaly sprinkled the Chouquettes with sugar crystals. Contrary to what one would believe, the majority of sugar crystals survive their stay in the oven.

We continue to use up the last of the pâte in the piping bag to make long thin strips called Mikados.

Once the Choux pastry is in the oven we start to make the Crème Pâtissière. The Choux will cook for 25-30 minutes.

We add the milk to the pan and incorporate a small proportion of sugar. Arnaud explains that that by adding sugar to the milk, the milk is prevented from sticking or burning to the bottom of the pan as we bring it to the boil. The milk boils at 100°, the sugar at 170°, the higher boiling point of the sugar protects the milk.

It is essential to boil the milk if using fresh, unpasturised or raw milk.

By adding the egg yolks to the poudre à flan and the sugar, the egg ‘cooks’ in the mixture. It will not curdle when added to the boiling milk.

The flame of the hob is switched off. Half of the boiling milk is added to the egg mixture which is then stirred and poured back into the remaining milk. The flame is once more ignited and the mixture simultaneously cooked and beaten until it begins to boil. Once boiling, it is beaten for a further 30 seconds until thick and smooth before the butter is added.

The pan is removed from the flame. We divide the Crème Pâtissier into two bowls. We add 30g cocoa powder to one, and strong liquid coffee to the other and mix thoroughly.

We pour the Crème Pâtissier over a wire rack covered with cling-film, and cover with another layer of cling-film to prevent from forming a skin and leave to cool.

It is time to check the Eclaires and Chouquettes. Arnaud explains that if the Choux pastry still has areas of white or very pale pastry, it must be left to cook for a while longer until all the surface is golden. If they are removed from the oven too soon they are likely to collapse or be too soft once filled with the Crème Pâtissier.

Our Eclairs and Chouquettes are ready. We place them on a cooling rack and turn the Eclairs upside down to cool.

We melt some chocolate and dip each Mikado into it.

With a very fine douille or nozzle we make three small holes in the base of the choux Eclairs.

We beat the cooled rubbery textured Crème Pâtissiere until smooth and fill a piping bag remembering to make a ‘bouchon’ or cork as before using the very fine douille (3-4mm). Using the holes we have already punctured in the Choux, we fill with the crème.

We mix some icing sugar with syrop de glucose, flavouring one portion with chocolate and the other with coffee. Choosing a flat nosed douille (nozzle) and another piping bag we apply the ‘nappage’ or topping to the finished eclairs.

Yet again Arnaud shows us techniques for decorating the eclairs, turning our 1€ Eclair into a 2€ Eclair.

and shows us a pot of Violet for jazzing up the nappage of a vanilla flavour Eclair.

We fill our cake boxes with our bounty and head home.

Barely have I got through the door than the Eclairs are all gone…..

With lightening speed!

translation: eclair = lightening

For the recipe click here