There is a bit of a scandal in France. It’s made headline news and investigative journalists have recorded exposé-style documentaries, risking being beaten up while doing so. Late night deliveries are made using unmarked camionnettes and anonymous plain boxes. Big money is at stake and the French are being conned by connards.
Pâtisserie is a fine and noble art form. Being a pâtissier is a highly respected profession which takes years of training, the finest pâtisseries are jewel-like in their beauty. Pâtisserie is bought for special occasions, for a treat, or to simply celebrate the skill, craftsmanship and creativity of the artisan.
The scandal is that with the latest manufacturing technologies, astonishingly good pâtisserie can be churned out in volume to a consistently high quality at cost points that the lone pâtissiers can’t possibly match. Plus, of course, they don’t have to start work at stupid o’clock in the morning.
Customers get high quality product at reasonable prices, pâtissiers get a more reasonable work/life balance, and maybe they get to save their business. What’s not to like?
But of course they are no longer pâtissiers, they are simply dishonest resellers of someone else’s mass produced product. They are no longer artists, but con artists. Consumers are being misled, they can’t be sure that what they are buying is le vrai McCoy.
In England, good pâtisserie is even harder to find. OK so there’s Ladurée, famed for being on the Champs-Élysées and now around the world with several outlets in London, but this is high class production on a monumental scale. It’s hard to imagine it’s all hand crafted. Their sister brand Paul the Boulanger has a more earthy feel, but in reality is no less industrialised (IMHO).
But there are some shining examples of the real thing. Maison Bertaux on Greek Street, Balthazar Boulangerie on Russell Street and La Pâtisserie de Rêves in the French quarter of London, South Ken, are all well worth visiting.
So it was with great interest and surprise that my Parisian girlfriend Virginie and I yesterday spotted a new pâtisserie in Windsor. We hand-brake turned into Madame Posh’s and ordered one of the great pâtisserie classics, a Religieuse au Café.
According to Wikipedia, “Religieuse is a French pastry made of two choux pastry cases, one larger than the other, filled with crème pâtissière, mostly commonly chocolate or mocha. Each case is covered in a ganache of the same flavor as the filling, and then joined decorated with piped buttercream frosting.
The pastry, whose name means "Nun", is supposed to represent the papal mitre. Religieuse itself was supposedly conceived in the mid-nineteenth century, but the first version of the Choux pastry batter was invented in 1540 by Panterelli, the Florentine chef of the Florentine queen of France, Catherine de' Medici. After subsequent iterations, the batter finally took its current form in the early 18th century in the kitchens of Marie-Antoine Carême, "The King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings". Religieuse is a type of éclair.”
See what I mean about pâtisserie being fine and noble?
Choux pastry is meant to be a light pastry, containing only flour, butter, water, and eggs. The raising agent is steam which creates cloud-textured, puffy-fluffyness that’s soft and melts in your mouth with a satisfying butteryness.
The coffee flavoured crème pâtissière in a Religieuse should be smooth, rich and creamy, but lightly flavoured, its sweetness being a satisfying delight. The ganache covering the choux should be a delicate highlight of flavouring, subtle in texture and subtly sweet. A true Religieuse has an almost unbearable lightness of being.
In short, everything that Madame Posh’s Religieuse experience was not.
The pastry was more short crust than choux, being hard, crumbly, crunchy almost, and dense. The coffee flavour of the crème pat was so strong it punched through the latte I had to wash it down with, and the “ganache” was some kind of thick, sticky, treacly-toffee like substance, an overpowering sickly-sweet goo that was so gluey it broke the piece of decorative chocolate as I peeled it off, and left me with what I can only describe as a “chemically metallic” aftertaste all afternoon.
Far from being finely balanced, light, fluffy and deft, the whole thing was a heavy-handed sugar bomb, which sat like a medicine ball in my stomach for the rest of the day.
The waitress we spoke to said they make everything on the premises and indeed downstairs you can see plenty of cooking going on in the “Pâtisserie Theatre”.
But I can’t help but have my suspicions.