Passe-moi le Fromage! Irreconcilable differences.

On New Years Eve some very good french friends of ours arrived unexpectately at our door bearing a ‘Tarte aux Pomes’.  We have what we like to call a ‘reciprocal relationship’ which means that if one of us has lent a plate, the other will return it with an “offering” on it. The plate for a superb tart aux courgettes was returned with Haggis, neaps and tatties in the form of apéros (yes this is possible, we are frenchified scottish anglophones after all), which was returned with a tarte aux Pommes, which was returned with a lone mince pie! (we only had one left!)


“Venez chez-nous pour fêter le nouvel an” “come and celebrate the New Year with us” they asked handing us the Tarte aux Pommes and momentarily we hovered in indecision -feeling the lure of great company verses the desire to celebrate with our children -before giving our regrets.

No sooner the door was closed than our two eldest declared that they were out to party with friends, and our two youngest were all but brushing us out of the door knowing our absence would allow internet time, and (clearly) pre-arranged gaming with school friends. And so after a minute or two of discussion, knowing well that our dear friends had proffered the dessert (with guilt strings attached) exactly because they knew their invitation would be difficult to refuse, we  decided to go.

Our friends are the kind where we can truly let our hair down, but they had explained to us that one of the invitées had recently come out of a long term relationship and was a little ‘triste’ (sad), and Husband à l’Etranger decided therefore that this occasion was one that called for his Kilt.

As we weren’t expected at any particular hour we arrived towards the end of dinner to discover the assembled company in a very sombre state. The poor sad lady had not uttered a word all evening. The arrival of the Kilt had an astonishing impact. Husband à l’Etranger whose beard had grown into a bushy affair after three months of gardening leave really doesn’t have to try hard to resemble one of the main cast of ‘Whisky Galore’ with his wild red hair, and particularly with a bottle of GlenLivet to hand. But six years in France also have honed his senses to arrive perfectly in time for the cheese course.


Whisky Galore, the film with James Robert Justice

The ‘triste ‘ lady at the table looked up in astonishment at the wild Scotsman whilst the other rather chic lady with a penchant for Phillipes (currently  number three) launched into a thousand questions, the primary being whether the Scots really didn’t wear undergarments under their national dress! Our generous hosts laid the table with more cheese plates and we set to work on a very fine Livarot and a velvety red.


But what really livened up the party was when I recounted to the table how Husband à l’Etranger had caused a rumpus during our Christmas visit to the family in England when my dear father-in-law brought dessert to the table before the cheese defying all french convention. Father-in -Law tucked into his dessert, whilst frenchified Husband à l’Etranger held out an agonising hour for all traces of sweetness to have disappeared from his palate before belatedly savouring his cheese, having tried unsuccessfully to convert father-in-law à la français.

If you really want to get a group of very glum French people talking all at once, try telling them that the English eat pudding before their Stilton and you will create havoc,  declarations that the English are catagorically “fou” (mad), barbarians and lacking in all forms of civilisation.

It was enough to even draw words from our very “triste” companion.

Bonne Année!


The Art of Pronunciation – La Compétence de Prononciation.

Version français

A year or so ago I applied for a job with a delivery company reasoning that with the quality of my comprehension and mastery of the french language there wasn’t much else I could reasonably expect anyone to employ me for.

In fact I would go as far to say that I was absolutely thrilled that I had actually made into the working world in a country that didn’t speak my mother tongue!

Some months into this job, which involved delivering various magazines and brochures that the Mairie in their infinite wisdom had decided to publish, it was necessary to borrow my husband’s car, my own having a flat battery. Since my husband’s car was a brand new company car I was understandably a little concerned about the loading capacity compared to my trusty tank. I made a detour into the office to chat with the very jovial boss to determine if the company car was up to the job.

The boss raised his eyebrows as I entered the room, as from experience he knew that general conversation with me would inevitably result in some outlandish declaration, such as “my husband played golf with some crocodiles this weekend” – which happens to be true, but equally could be some drastic mispronunciaton of a key word in the conversation. Imagine his delight therefore when, on inquiring which car I was driving, I pointed out of the window and declared that my husbands car was a lemon! I had failed to place the correct emphasis on the ‘O’ and the ‘E’ of Citroen, and the resultant word that I had spoken of course was ‘Citron’. I knew within a nanosecond that I had committed a gross error and my boss proceeded to fall about in tears of laughter.

It was only fitting therefore that when I came, some months later to hand in my resignation, a decision made after serious contemplation and thought from the driving seat of my car five minutes before I started work, that I should depart in the style to which they had all become accustomed. Having sourced a piece of paper from the glove compartment I carefully worded the following letter in order to terminate my contract.

Monsieur, Je veux terminer mon bulot au fin du mois. Cordialement.. etc

I carefully folded the letter, put it in an envelope, and proceeded to the office to hand it over. I was frankly immensely proud of this little letter, which I had written without the aid of a dictionary and especially for the fact that my linguistic skill was now getting so well developed that I actually knew two words for “job”, the first of course being travail. I was therefore somewhat unprepared for the enormous snort and explosion of laughter that followed, nor for the fact that he left his office for that of his colleagues  – more howls ensued and returned with a drawing-pin to fix it to the wall for perpetuity.

I had of course written that I intended to ” finish my snail (or more literally whelk) by the end of the month”.

The simple fact that one can know exactly how words are written, yet fail to pronounce them properly and arrive at a completely different meaning, or one can hear repeatedly a word, and having never seen it written, spell it entirely wrongly is cause for great consternation to the average person undergoing the ‘total immersion’ experience. A “job” of course is spelt “boulot”, a whelk “bulot”.  The letter of resignation remains to this day on the office wall.

I have made quite an effort over time to increase my vocabulary, and the most interesting and enjoyable method has been by reading voraciously always in french. However this has its pitfalls. I tend to read a series of books by the same author at a time since writers tend to have their own specialized vocabulary. The first book read by any one particular author will invariably be the most difficult but each consecutive book becomes consistently easier since the very act of repetition of words embeds them firmly in the long-term memory. The problem associated with this method is that whilst one knows exactly how the word is spelled, and exactly how to place it within the sentence structure, and the context within which it is used, even the most long suffering frenchman can look blankly in your direction when, you, never physically having heard the word spoken pronounce it badly.

What makes the french language infinitely more complex is the addition of gender to the meaning of words. The website ‘French About’ has a tricky little quiz which amply demonstrates how by the misuse of gender one can entirely alter the meaning of a word. For example ‘le boum’ means ‘a bang’ or ‘an explosion’, whilst ‘la boum’ means ‘a party’, ‘le cave’ means ‘an idiot’ and ‘la cave’  ‘a cellar’. Although the following words are spelt entirely differently, the pronunciation is the same, and the gender is crucial, le pet (pronounced pay) means a ‘fart’, and ‘la paix’ (also pronounced pay) means ‘peace and to further complicate matters ‘la paie’ (also pronounced pay and also feminine) means pay. It is therefore as entirely inadvisable to walk into the bosses office to demand your salary using the masculine article, as it is unlikely to gain a result by writing a letter to demand ‘la paix’.

It has taken me two years in France (and the rest of my life in England) to learn to accurately spell the words for pudding, and for the infinite stretch of sand, so named ‘dessert’ and ‘desert’. I now can differentiate the two knowing that the pudding variety will widen the waistline, whilst being stuck in a desert without dessert will invariably shrink it. Pudding is therefore wider with two s’s, the sand narrower with only one. But I have only been able to reach this little piece of knowledge thanks to my immersion into the french language. Having succumbed (quite easily as it happens) to patisserie classes, I was slightly consternated to note that my french friends were looking at me a little bemused as I proceeded to describe the little pudding that I had made one afternoon. It was only after a few minutes of agony that my delightful friend Carole pulled me aside and announced that ‘dessert’ was pronounced ‘deZ-Sair’ with a very distinct accentuation of the Z and S sounds and not ‘dezair’ as one pronounces the sand variety. How those nuances of sound play such a major role in the definition of words and the comprehension of conversations. I am only glad that  the French, equally, have to get their tongues round the english pronunciations of  ‘dezurt’ and ‘dezut’ .  Two nationalities with  identical words and identical meanings. Dessert, desert; Two words, two meanings – four sounds.

Ahh, the joy of pronunciation!

Atelier de Patisserie -Le Dessert Royal Chocolat

Version français

I should be saying “sadly I knew that no-one would make me a birthday cake”, but sadness doesn’t come into it at all. In fact I was perfectly over the moon at the prospect of booking myself into ‘Fait le vous-même’ again. What I had discovered was that on my birthday the patisserie for the day was ‘Royal Chocolat’ and not even a wild hound from the gates of hell could have kept me away.

This time, aware that the buses didn’t always run to plan I arrived in very good time, and enjoyed fifteen minutes taking a ‘tour’ about the neighbourhood. The shops weren’t yet open but the shopkeepers were setting up their wares and I took the oportunity to take a few photos:

and I have this message for all little piggies out there – Do not sleep if you value your lives – because this shop has plans for you!

But after these beautiful specialist shops, this one reminded me that the day has begun and it was time to get cooking …. chocolate!

I met Arnaud, the Maitre Patisier coming across the square and we entered the shop together, donned our aprons and awaited the other three royal chocolatiers!

The Royal Chocolat is a three tier gateau; a base of biscuit, a layer of ‘chocolat craquant’ and the top layer of ‘mousse au chocolat’. In any good patisserie this would cost anything between 10€ and 25€ depending on the level of superficial decoration at the end.

Arnaud began by explaining the biscuit viennoise base. The first ingredient on the list was TPT which Arnaud explained was a “half and half mix” (tant pour tant) of icing sugar and “poudre de fruit sec” (dried fruit powder). In this instance we were going to use a mixture of icing sugar and almond powder. The beauty of this receipe is that it can equally be made ‘gluten’ free and is an ideal recipe for sufferers of coeliacs. The small quantity of flour being replaced by rice flour or Maizena (cornflour).

When making this recipe it is essential to beat the eggs before weighing the quantity required. Waste can be refrigerated and used for quiches or omelettes later.

Having measured out the ingredients we added the almond TPT to the beaten egg mixture and beat it until white and fluffy. We then beat in the flour.

Arnaud is intent on developing our whisking muscles and electric beaters are “interdit”!

In a separate bowl – do not forget that it must be inox – we beat the egg whites into fluffy peaks or ‘neige’ (snow) as the french describe it adding the granular sugar a bit at a time.

We added a small scoop of meringue to the TPT mixture and mixed quickly and thoroughly. We then folded in the remaining TPT mixture gently. If the meringue is mixed in one ‘lot’ the resultant product becomes too liquid and grainy.

Making a ‘cork’ (bouchon) with a section of piping bag pushed into the nozzle (douille) of the same, we loaded the biscuit viennoise mixture into the piping bag. We used a flat spatula to push all the mixture well into the piping bag before releasing the bouchon and then inverted the piping bag so that the mixture did not immediately pour out through the nozzle. For a few of us, there was a little escapage before we got a hang of the technique!

We placed a gateau ‘mould’ on a greaseproof sheet, and starting with nozzle of the piping bag in the centre of the mould we squeezed the biscuit viennoise pâte in a spiral until a centimetre from the mould itself; removed the mould and continued to squeeze the pâte for one more spiral. There is enough of the mixture to make two such biscuit bases, one of which can be frozen for a another day!

Whilst we are waiting the ten minutes necessary for the biscuit to cook we begin the ‘base chocolat craquante’. The chocolate ‘covering’ for this section of the receipe is for hardening the praline. Any colour of chocolate can be used and makes no difference to the taste.

We take the opportunity to taste various pralines – one made from noisettes (hazelnut) and the other from almond. For this recipe we decide to make a mixture of both.

Arnaud takes the opportunity to discuss how to melt chocolate – and states catagorically ‘NEVER in the microwave’. The science behind it is simple. At 55° for dark chocolate, and 45° for white and milk chocolate the cocoa-butter burns. Once burnt the chocolate becomes unworkable. Using  “bain-marie” is the only option. The water under the “bain-marie” must be heated to simmering and then the heat source switched off. The chocolate is left to melt in its own time in the residual heat.

We have a lesson on chocolate. To add liquidity to chocolate add cooking oil. It is the cocoa-butter which gives the liquidity to butter and it’s melting point is 34° which is the approximate temperature of the mouth. Hence why chocolate is so pleasurable to eat!

Bought chocolate can be very low in cocoa-butter. Arnaud recommends ‘Lindt Special Dessert’ as the best ‘on the shelf’ supermarket chocolate for cooking, but also recommends the chocolatier Michel Cluizel for his bulk-buy chocolate. Arnaud has 6 varieties of Michel’s chocolate and we get down to some tasting!

Arnaud also explains that it is possible to make your own chocolate. This is called ‘grande charge’. By adding powdered cocoa to cocoa-butter and sugar it is possible to create a chocolate to ones own desired consistancy. By adding milk powder one can achieve ‘milk chocolate’. Cocoa-butter can be bought at a french pharmacie.

But it is time to return to cooking. The chocolate has melted and the praline is added and mixed very well before folding in the ‘crepe dentelle’ ( a brittle crepe ‘biscuit’)

The biscuit viennoise is golden all over and ready to come out of the oven. We remove it from the hot tray and onto a cooling rack. The top surface of the biscuit is turned face down onto the final serving platter which prevents the finished dessert from sticking during serving and the mould is placed over the biscuit to neatly cut the irregular edges and is left in place for the rest of the session.

Immediately we spoon over the chocolate craquant and press firmly into the edges and smooth all over.

But now the time has come to make the mousse au chocolate and one has only to look at the recipe to note that there are only two ingredients – chocolate and cream. This is a seriously indulgent little number!

I have already noted that cream in France is an entirely different species from that of its neighbouring England. I am glad that Arnaud takes time to talk about cream as I have already made some mistakes on its behalf! French cream tends to be thinner and less easy to whip than its english counterpart. Arnaud explains that the fat level in cream (matiere grasse) must be above 35% for it to whip. He explains that crème liquide has had milk added and that crème epaisse and crème fraiche are better than crème liquide. Crème epaisse is sometimes treated with lactose which gives it a sourer taste, whilst crème cru (raw) can have an acid taste which is removed by boiling it. The best english equivalent would be whipping cream rather than double for this recipe.

If whipped cream is added to chocolate which is too hot it will separate the fat from the liquid, whilst on the other hand adding cream to chocolate which is too cool will cause it to harden instantly. We test the temperature of the chocolate in the bain-marie, which is a good excuse to lick our fingers later and remove the bowl from the ‘bain’.

We scoop all the required whipped cream into the bowl of chocolate and whip quickly until it is all evenly incorporated and pour over the ‘chocolat craquante’ in the mould.

We use a spatula to push the mouse into the edges of the mould to avoid air gaps and then begin to smooth the top surface.

Next comes the fun bit – removing the mould with a heat-‘gun’.

et voila! the 10€ dessert…

…but wait!

Arnaud is not content with the 10€ dessert!

He proceeds to pour a liberal quantity of melted chocoltae onto the marble worktop and smooth thinly across, re-scoop and re-smooth several times with a palate knife until the chocolate takes on a whitish dry hue. Still workable, the chocolate is rolled into chocolate ‘cigars’ with a sharp butchers knife.

and now we have the 20€ dessert….

But Arnaud is still not entirely happy with our creation. Why have a 20€ dessert when one can have a 25€ dessert….

Arnaud gets out the gold..

But as I said – It was my birthday and the 25€  Royal Chocolat has been eaten, so if you want to see the end result you will have to make one yourself!

Oh all-right then, I did take just one shot of it before I headed for the bus – all the time whilst walking, grinning smugly at passers-by and thinking…

‘If only you knew what was in my cake box i’d be in real trouble!’

It was truly the best birthday ‘cake’ ever tasted!

For the recipe click HERE