What is your favourite dessert? Do you like gateau? cheesecake? sticky toffee pudding? fruit flan? apple crumble? peach pie? Not me, I am not a dessert fan at all. I suffered through too many Sundays as a child. Returning home from singing at morning service with the church choir, the house was filled with the greasy smell of the Sunday roast. I’d struggle my way through that, only to be faced with treacle tart or some other sickly-sweet stodgy pudding. There was no refusing; this was post war Britain. You ate what you were given, otherwise you’d be sent to your room for the rest of the day, and then faced with the food you refused again, and again until you ate it. Same with school dinners, rice pudding with jam, bread pudding, jelly with canned fruit, Birds custard with jam roly-poly. Forced to sit in place until your plate was clean. It almost turned me off dessert for life. That is until I discovered crème brûlée.
It is 2000 and I am in Paris. By myself. I’m staying in the 16th arrondissement. It’s a swanky neighbourhood, where the wealthiest Parisians and Parisiennes make their home. The narrow streets are tight with the typical 19th century buildings constructed from limestone, a creamy grey stone that glows in the late summer evening. My hotel is on one of these small streets and in the morning, when I open the shutters, I will find that the street has turned itself into a market. The ground floor of each of the buildings will have tumbled out into the street, stalls mounded with fresh vegetables, fish, olives, preserves. The entrance to my hotel will have turned into one of those charming little cafés serving bowls of café au lait, croissants, morning baguettes with apricot jam. I’ll sit and sip “une crème”, taking in the smells and watching the elderly ladies with headsquares and canes carefully selecting the best produce. No need to rush, this is France, the meeting will not begin until 9:30am.
But it’s not morning yet, it’s the evening. Having slept off the first flush of exhaustion, I have decided to take a walk and locate the building where tomorrow’s meeting will be held. It isn’t easy. Paris streets conspire to take you on an adventure. Every street seems to end in an étoile, a gathering place of five or six streets, so walking in a straight line is impossible. Each journey presents a different visual experience. I have neither cell phone nor laptop, so I’m reliant on a flimsy paper map provided by the hotel. It’s late August, all self-respecting inhabitants of Paris have left on their annual vacation. The streets are strangely quiet. I find the building easily enough, laughing to myself that the Château de la Muette is huge, and not easy to pass unnoticed. I needn’t worry, I’ll find it again tomorrow, no trouble, irrespective of whichever zig-zag route I select.
I turn to head back to the hotel and realize I’m hungry. My last meal had been a soggy Air Canada muffin before landing at Charles de Gaulle airport in the early morning. Now it’s 7:00 pm, I dislike eating alone, so I seriously consider just wending my way back to the hotel to sleep off more of the jet lag. But as I reach the first étoile, I see a café ahead of me straddling the corner of two streets. On the pavement are those typical Parisian bistro chairs in burgundy and cream rattan. The café looks open, although there is no-one sitting outside. I decide to be brave.
I had visited Paris sufficiently often to understand something of the rules of engagement with Parisian waiters. I ask (in French), if it is permissible to sit outside. The waiter gives me a shrug, comme vous voulez, madame, so far so good. I am a slight annoyance in a quiet evening, nothing more. It will be the same waiter the next day, when I’m trying to translate and order for a dozen or so colleagues who speak no French. Then his irritation will be out-of-control. For now, I study the menu carefully. I know it’s important to ask questions.
Le salad ce soir, what size is it? Petit, c’est le entrée. Of course, it’s France. And the plat du jour? What type of poisson? Is it fresh today? Naturellement, what outrage to suggest otherwise. How has it been prepared? Is it accompanied by vegetables, or do those arrive separately at a different time? I’m proud of myself for navigating this intricate exchange, with what I think is a sufficient level of savoir fair. Un verre du vin? Blanc? Bien sûr. I’m not about to commit that faux pas.
The wine arrives, and I pinch myself. Here I am, sitting in a French café, having just ordered my evening meal. I am Jean-Paul Sartre, I am Simone de Beauvoir, I am (probably in the wrong arrondissement), sitting with my writing buddies over red wine, debating the latest philosophical theories. No, I must focus, I’m here to participate in serious work, no time for dreaming, well, maybe just a little.
The next day, my confidence will have evaporated. I will walk into a small room in the Château de la Muette and into a tense environment. I know a good number of people in the room, but not the five post-menopausal women sent by the US government, who sweep in en bloc and seat themselves to my right. It is a significant moment, one which should have a lasting impact on an international regulation, so I do my best to ask the right questions, to see through potential obstacles, and to keep my Canadian colleague from drifting. It’s clear that the five women have been sent to ensure that the status quo is maintained. Halfway through the morning, there is a break, and I head to the washroom. Concealed in one of the stalls I hear the five women hissing as they wash their hands. What is she doing here? Who invited her?”. With a jolt, I realize that the “she” and the “her” are me. My resolve to ensure a good outcome hardens, although I’m inwardly shaking.
But that is tomorrow, for now the light is beginning to soften and the evening settles into itself, there is little traffic on the étoile, to disturb my dreaming. The food arrives, one plate at a time, just the way I like to eat. The waiter feels no further need to engage me in conversation, except to announce each course with Voila, madame, le…. The next day, I will catch sight of my Australian colleague’s face, as Viola, monsieur, le steake tartare arrives. I will not have managed to translate the menu for him, and ordering the one word he recognizes, he has no clue until faced with uncooked ground beef on his plate. Monsieur?? the waiter’s eyes say it all. I hurriedly interpret, my Australian colleague pretends that he much prefers his steak raw anyway, and another international incident is averted.
The post-menopausal women will refuse to eat at the same restaurant as the rest of us, so mercifully, there will be no need to translate for them. They walk by scowling as the rest of us relax into a blessed two-hour break from intense negotiations.
For now I take my time. The salad is a simple green affair of mixed leaves and green onions, lightly dressed with a classic vinaigrette. I swear I haven’t tasted the same since my last visit to France, when I stood at the elbow of a friend and watched her carefully as she blended oil and vinegar into the perfect emulsion. “Voila le poisson..” turns out to be a white fish (I had no idea what I was ordering, as I couldn’t interpret the waiter’s response to my fish questions). It comes with a drizzle of white sauce, garnished with capers and rosemary. There are the tiniest of potatoes, coated in butter with just the right amount of crystallized salt flakes that linger on the tongue, and mangetout, that taste as though they had been picked in the early morning sun. I’m not a foodie, but really, how can each plate be so simple, so perfectly prepared?
I’m really relaxing into the late evening now, glass of wine in hand. The last of the sun filters through the trees in a distant park; it is sublimely peaceful. The waiter reappears. Le dessert peut-être? I’m about to give my stock non merci answer, but I don’t want to leave. I want this evening to stretch on and on. I could ask what is available for dessert, but I’m afraid that might produce a long verbally incomprehensible list. So I ask, le specialité du maison? Crème brûlée, madame, the water answers. My heart sinks. Of all desserts that I loathe, I believe that crème brulée is my least favourite. I’ve never actually tasted it, but I’m sure it is a close cousin of crème caramel, and I haven’t eaten crème caramel since I was thirteen. That year, it was one of the only things that my father could eat as he lay upstairs dying from cancer. I made dishes and dishes of crème caramel, the pallid yellow colour a close match for the colour of his skin.
What to say? I can’t muster sufficient French to carry on a further conversation about what else might be suitable, so reluctantly I order the crème brûlée. I am still reliving the crème caramel years when the waiter announces Voila madame le crème brûlée. Reluctantly, I pick up my spoon. The brûlée is like a shiver of brown glass, or the skim of ice on a puddle in November. It cracks under the lightest tap from my spoon. I scoop up a mouthful of the crème. It is warm and wobbly. I inhale the comfort of vanilla bean before it even reaches my tongue. I don’t think I have ever tasted anything quite so heavenly. I breath in and let go.
I have eaten many crème brûlées since that moment, and I’ve taught myself how to make an acceptable version; warming the milk slowly so that the custard doesn’t “seize”, baking it carefully in a bain marie and using a small blow torch to create the brittle topping. Nothing has come close to that first experience. I blame those five post-menopausal women. Whenever I take a mouthful of crème brûlée now, I’m transported back to the Château de la Muette. It’s forever flavoured with the intensity of that meeting, and the shaking of my legs under the table as I tried to hang tough in the face of all those hormones.