Saturday, 31 January 2009

My family and the von kissing trap

I am staying with the director of a huge yoghurt factory in a Northern suburb of Rouen called Maromme. He has an awesome house and wonderful family... two girls and two boys (14,12,10,8). And wife, of course.

I find it absolutely hysterical living with so many youngsters as I was the youngest growing up in my family. Watching them trying to get ready to go to school in the morning or seeing the little hierarchy when it comes to poking the fire is brilliant. The first night they all lined up to kiss me goodnight so it's a bit like living in a cross between The Sound of Music and Outnumbered.

All this French cheek to cheek stuff took a bit of getting used to and I still don't know exactly when you're meant to do it. When I was first introduced to the children a few of them feyly presented cheeks but I wasn't quite sure of Norman form so, with the advantage of height, I just shook hands. It's particularly awkward as the French don't put a hand on your shoulder so you have to crane your neck forward like a mooing cow. I still find it strange... last night Thomas's best friend came to stay. I was watching TV in the lounge when he pottered in and without saying a word appeared in my face. We did the 'bise' and then there was this awkward pause before I had to say, "Et tu t'appelles comment?"

Friday, 30 January 2009

Rouen: through which the Seine flows

Today we did not have any practical lessons. Instead we had a gripping lecture on how flour can trigger asthma and fun drawing diagrams of sciatica and lumbago. All in all, heavy sacks of flour best avoided.

The first couple of times I crossed the Seine in Rouen I was surprised who wide it is, much wider than in Paris. Then I realized that rivers can flow north as well as south.

Here is a big clock from the centre of the old town:

Thursday, 29 January 2009

In which France strikes, but we don't notice (too much puff pastry)

Today we continued working with our feuilletage inversé. We made croûtes de bouchées (à la reine) which are pretty much big vol au vents and allumettes which are rather similar to millefeuille... puff pastry rectangles filled with crème pâtissière. The allumette only has one layer of cream and instead of fondant icing, is topped with a cooked royal icing (with a nappage décor) which hardens and stands proud after puffage.

Mine weren't great as they are very hard to do but here is one that came out all right:

At least, I hope it looks better than this thing claiming to be an (albeit savoury) allumette.

You cannot re-use the off cuts from puff pastry for their original purpose because the delicate layers have been destroyed. But if you smash the trimmings flat and roll out you get a good approximation of a pâte à foncer. We used this to make a baked fruit tart (assorted fruit on a bed of crème pâtissière). This looked very neat once glazed but I forgot to take a photo before I brought it home for my host family's dinner. We also ate the bouchées à la reine after Émilie, the younger daughter and I made a curry béchamel sauce with chicken. Delish.

Most of France was on strike today including bus and train drivers, factory workers, roofing technicians, teachers and, it turned out once I'd got all the way there, swimming pool people. Joseph who is the father of the family and director of a yoghurt factory had to operate the machines himself.

But pastry chefs were clearly not affected and we had school at 6am as normal. At around 9 I looked up from my efforts at the allumettes and saw a gaggle of banner-wielders plodding down the road. Quite sedate. I think Paris was a bit more Billy Elliot.

I don't know how strikes are meant to work. Seems rather feckless to me. The French should get themselves a Thatcher.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

ATM: from which one can withdraw food

On my lunchbreak today I passed what appeared to be an ATM. I was thinking about taking out some money when I noticed it was rather odd viz a large trapdoor to the side.

On closer inspection this turned out to be a fully automated supermarket. You use the screen to browse and select items and a robot plucks them off the shelves (you can see through the glass windows next door) and pops them into the hatch.

I bought a coke.

Ze kitchen: in which we cook

Here is our kitchen or laboratoire.

It looks quite small here but I have a rubbish camera (i.e. dreaded mobilicus). It's really quite spacious. At the top left you can see the tilted mirror above the prof's workspace for when he's doing demonstrations. Even if you're close it's worth using the mirror because it orientates his hands as though you're looking over his shoulder which is a great help for more complicated procedures.

We work on marble surfaces (patissiers also use stainless steel) while the bakers work on wood.

In the middle at the back is our oven. It has three layers which can all be set at different temperatures. Each layer's door is split so you can access either side of the oven. Each side is 3 baking trays deep. I.e. 6 trays per layer which = 18 baking trays at any one time. If you're really hungry.

Here are some sugar sculptures done by our prof. The gallic poseur is another student.

In which we deal with the puff pastry

Today we worked with the pâton of puff pastry we made yesterday, crafting half a dozen chaussons aux pommes (apple turnovers) and a pithiviers.

The pithiviers is a puff pastry case filled with almond cream. It's very similar to a galette des rois (a traditional Epiphany pudding) but not the same, despite the number of (often American) websites that will tell you otherwise. The pithiviers is filled with crème d'amandes (almond cream) while the galette des rois is filled with crème frangipane (a mixture of almond cream and crème patissière). The galette des rois also has the fève of which more anon.

The chaussons aux pommes were all right but I can't stick tinned purée. I'd sooner flambé some fresh diced apples with some cinnamon but that wasn't on the menu. My décor was a bit rustic. The pastry puffed though which was very satisfying for a first go.

And this is the pithiviers. I rolled my pastry a bit thin which is why it is not as puffed as it ought to be and the rayons should be closer together next time. Also, a bit more cooking would help differentiate the décor.

We also had our first mini-test to help organize the groups by proficiency. We had to pipe 8 rosaces which are circular décor thingamies and line 4 mini tart rings. Pretty simple stuff but really very hard to do well. And we only had 10 mins. Sweated like something else which was quite surprising. Fortunately pastry kitchens are air-conditioned. It went all right once I scrapped my first attempt at the rosaces without anyone noticing.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

By the by: meringue

The kind of meringue you find most frequently on French tarts is meringue italienne which is one of three basic meringues we learn about. The essential differences are:
  • French meringue: egg whites whisked with sugar then cooked in the oven
  • Italian meringue: egg whites whisked with hot (121◦c) sugar syrup with no need for further cooking
  • Swiss meringue: egg whites and sugar heated in a bain-marie and then whisked until cool. Baked.
(This, therefore, is a French meringue according to what we have been taught. Silly ASDA.)

Each method gives a different result which does certain things better than the others.

The good thing about Italian meringue is that the boiling sugar pasteurizes the eggs. Since no further cooking is required you can pipe it straight onto a tart which you would not otherwise want to place into the oven. The surface can be caramelized with a blow torch.

To get the syrup to the correct temperature you can use a thermometer or do what we were taught today...moisten your fingers in a basin of water and just grab a lump of boiling sugar. Nuts. When you put the sugar back into the bowl it will go hard -- you know you're at 121◦c when the little bullet that is formed is no longer malleable. I let my partner do this bit.

Tart tart: in which we make a lemon dessert

After filling in quite a lot of forms yesterday, today was my first day of practical work at the school. First alarm at 4, left the house at 5, arrived in the classroom, changed, at 6 (i.e. bang on time) to find the chef had started early.

Quite a shock coming in a week late as things are very different to my previous school in Aurillac. Apart from anything else, today everyone was finishing a set of tarts which were prepared yesterday in my absence...everyone had already made 7 pastry cases, lined them with crème frangipane, blind-baked them and made a lemon cream. I had a lot to catch up and our chef kept disappearing at crucial moments.

The tarts were finished and garnished with Italian merringue and we began our first lesson in puff pastry. A pâte inversée which we prepared totally and will be used tomorrow. So I have no idea if mine will work or not.

I decided it would be good to take one of the lemon tarts home for my host family and was rather surprised that we have to buy our own produce off the school -- especially as the things we don't buy are given away to care homes since they cannot legally be sold to the public. Very French. And when I got it out of the box, turned out it wasn't the tart I had made with extra special care at all but one made by some freak who'd clearly struggled with the meringue.

Little else from today unless you're a hermaphrodite homonymophile:

Sunday, 25 January 2009

A false start: in which we descend into the bowels of France and resurface with eclairs

I have come to France to study patisserie. A careless fantasy which has become a little too real.

I started my formation at the École Française de Boulangerie d'Aurillac. Planted deep in the middle of nowhere, the small town hosts one of the best boulangerie schools in France. I found dirt cheap lodgings in a filthy hostel for the unemployed and recently-released-from-prison, woke at 4am each morning to walk 20 minutes through the snow to school and suffered my neighbour's nightly attempts at sing-a-long James Blunt.

However, after my first week a place became free at the Institut National de la Boulangerie Pâtisserie in Rouen. This is quite an extraordinary school which, as its name suggests, is the leader in its field. So I uprooted with my box of utensils and whisked my way up to Rouen, just 8 and a half hours on the train.

This is a record of my time there.

Hitherto I have done no professional cooking, just concocted bits and bobs at home. Since these things sound considerably tastier in the French (and because I'm not really sure of the English terms) I'll use that tongue to stimulate your palates across the web.

In my first week in Aurillac I learnt a pâte sucrée, pâte à choux, pâte à foncer, crème d'amandes and crème pâtissière. And we concocted various things with them. Such as my first proper tart:

And my first éclairs:

And so it begins...

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Prologue: in which we fear bass assault at the opera

The plan was to get a ticket for something at the Paris Opera, bomb into my tried and tested yet stunningly foul €20 hostel and wake afresh for the train to Rouen.

The Opera had sold out months previously (and with particular vigour, no doubt, since it was the première of a new production of Lady Macbeth of Zsmenzch by Shostakovich). I decided to brave the returns queue reserved for the Unemployed, OAPs and students, armed with a copy of Henry V -- not inappropriate fodder for my embryonic assault on France.

I plonked myself on the floor to general Parisian shock and began to read. As the minutes tocked by, I realized there was little chance I was going to get in.

It was then I noticed a shadow moving along the queue. It stopped in front of me. A hand clutching a ticket was thrust in front of me and its voice says, "Vous voulez ce billet?" I looked up surprised and what must have been foreignly for the voice came again, "Ze ticket. Z'free."

I glanced at it. Face value of €74. I follow the hand to a suit to a hideous but clearly expensive yellow tie. I gave a definite, "Oui," jumped up and followed the chap out of the ticket office.

That was when a wave of bafflement wafted over me. I had been in the middle of the queue. Why had I been offered the ticket? What had made this rather perfumey chap select me specifically to receive his gift (especially given my squatting position)? I asked: "Est-ce que quelqu'un est malade et ne peut plus venir?" "Eugh, non," came the reply and little offer of further explanation.

I began to worry what might be expected of me in return. €74 is quite a fair amount to go giving away. Our faltering conversation had revealed the man was a Classics teacher. Panic grew. I steeled myself for the following 60 mins in the awkward company of this smelly pedagogue until the curtain went up.

For some reason he wash rushing up the stairs at some speed. Quick, he said, it's about to start. And so it was -- my clock was still on English time.

Thank goodness.

At the end of the evening he gave me his card and an offer to get in touch whenever I was back in Paris. And that was that. Luckily I was retreating to Rouen with no specific plans to return...