Joanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers, which includes pretty much every expat we’ve ever encountered.
This month: Upholstering armchairs to the tune of Mary Berry.
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I haven’t been cooking much this month.
This is because, instead, I have been totally absorbed in reupholstering an armchair for my daughter’s bedroom.
Like so many “trailing spouses”, I am an International Jack of All Trades and, possibly, Masters of None. Work visas are rarely applied to spouses and we must do what the current location allows us if we wish to work.
In my time I have taught English (yes, I have a qualification), arranged flowers (basic qualification), taught exercise classes on a Saudi compound (absolutely qualified with first aid certificates to boot) and baked and decorated birthday cakes (the qualification here is hard to pin down, but I am very enthusiastic).
My latest enterprise, however, is gripping me, and might well be what saves me from permanent life as an expat dilettante.
A family history, as recorded on sofa cushions
Over the years my four children have wrought destruction on all our soft furnishing, but the sofas have suffered the worst. In part, I have been loath to recover them, as they represent something of both the material culture and culinary history of our family. The stains, ever more poorly hidden by artfully draped throws and cushions, track the growth of the children from breast to solids. Here and there are the stains of snacks smuggled from the pantry or the marks made by friends I felt woefully too weak to upbraid. Perhaps I’m just too English to tell off other people’s kids successfully. My “Take the hamburger back to the kitchen before I am forced to beat you” delivered mildly with a smile and a wink, is taken as face value and ignored – I should expect no more, really. Anyway, confronted with an upholstery bill that reached into five digits, I decided to take another “Have a go, Jo” course.
The result is that I can no longer visit a friend’s house, or watch a film or TV, without becoming entirely distracted by the chairs and sofas on display.
Thanksgiving stuffing? Not unless it’s made of boar’s hair
This new interest has caused me to all but abandon the kitchen. Meals are late and gracelessly served. Plates generally consist of pasta with a side of chopped tomatoes, cucumber, and sundry vegetables dragged from the back of the fridge or freezer – anything to make up the 5 a day and free me to return to the basement. I’m amazed that my family is bored by this approach. Perhaps they need a little footstool project of their own.
Thankfully for this webpage, this dearth of food-related happenings in my household has been tempered by my need to listen to radio or TV while I work.
This month I caught up with Great British Bake Off: the perfect accompaniment for the stripping and recovering process. If you haven’t yet discovered the delights of this quintessentially British of “competitions”, I recommend a quick rifle through YouTube. I’m sure you too will be hooked.
None of the competitors claim that winning the show is their dream, or assure us that they must win because they want it so bad. That they don’t do so on a televised competition comes as a surprise and seems to suggest that things back home have changed more than I could ever have guessed. So accustomed are we all to naked ambition and self-puffery despite slender talents that the shock of modesty seems inconceivable. This year there was even a competitor, Ruby, who was so self-effacing that she became a hate figure in the press. Holding up her various offerings and apologizing for their variously burned, dry or just plain terrible states, she seemed to hail from a bygone age, ignorant of Simon Cowell. But today this is mistrusted and seems to be insincere, even manipulative. Interestingly, Mary Berry, the rather strict octogenarian judge, was quick to comfort and reassure. Modesty has been lost to the British TV in 15 years of TV competitions in music, food, modeling and god-knows-what.
The public might mistrust Ruby’s handwringing over her uselessness, but Mary did the proper thing and bucked her up.
What, really, is so wrong with such a world?
Killing two oiseaux
Joanna and her impressive reason
for a lack of cooking this month
Where am I going with this? Welcome to the wandering mind of someone whose hands are deep in boar’s hair and webbing. I’ll tell you where, though. It occurred to me that, since this hugely successful show had been spun off to many countries, each tweaking it to its own tastes and state of mind, I could find the French version and improve my lamentable French while never pausing in my upholstery endeavours.
The first two hour episode proved to be a deeply comforting and successful experiment in language acquisition — mal cuit, anyone? But then, halfway through the next episode I received a bit of a douche froide, so to speak. The announcer, thankfully less humorous than her British counterparts as my French is barely up to understanding French slapstick let alone gentle, self-deprecating humour, announced that the Challenge Technique would be English in origin. Cue the endless pause so beloved of such shows, then:
“Le challenge est………. Charlotte aux fruits rouge.”
Well, strike me down with a langue de chat. You see, Charlotte Royale wasn’t English, it was French. I knew this, because it had appeared only a week before on English T.V. and during French Week, no less.
Charlotte? C’est un French name, non?
Finally, something had occurred which made me look up from my stitching. What gave Charlotte her ambiguous status between the French and the Brits, while retaining value as a challenge worth attempting? The British show gave no clue. Although their Charlotte involved Swiss Roll and looked like one of the illustrations in your mother’s 1970s copy of, er, a Mary Berry recipe book, it was accepted without demur by all as French. Similarly, the French contestants, while sucking in their breath and declaring they were going to have to concentrate hard on this one, they failed to cry as one patissier, “Zut alors, c’est un recet francais!”
The French presenter thickened the plot further, introducing a historian to explain the English origins of the dish. Apparently, it was invented by Antoine Carême (yes, the father of the art of patisserie) who worked at both the English and Russian courts for a time. You see? Strange, no? He made it for either a Queen Charlotte, a Princess Charlotte, a cousin Charlotte and then at some point tagged on Russe to include the Tsar in his flattery.
So why is this not considered French if a French man really did invent it?
Unearthing Charlotte’s origins in my own kitchen
Patrick sharing his British Charlotte Royale. In France.
Patrick, my 9 year old, and I, decided to make the British version. Doing it for myself cleared up all my questions. It was, let’s say, a woman of substance. French Women Do Not Get Fat, and their puddings cannot be hefty either.
My own Charlotte Royal was no slip of a thing.
The Swiss Roll lining was easily managed by Patrick working alone with our trusty KitchenAid. While the French contestants piped boudoir biscuits to surround their moulds for the light bavarois filling, Patrick sliced up jammy sponge rolls which gave the pud a slightly cerebral air when turned out. How can you cut a petite tranche from that? Piping even biscuits would be much more of a challenge for child and adult alike. The Swiss Roll is infinitely more forgiving.
The difference between the French version and the English became clearer. Simiar amounts of work and skill are involved, but one must be elegant and the other must be generous. One should look preternaturally perfect, and the other is valued for comfort. A French dessert should perhaps make you feel you are not quite elegant enough to eat it, while the English makes you feel better because you do not look like the Duchess of Windsor. Ha ha – it is not generosity of spirit that holds the French back from planting the tricolor on this this dish. They are anxious that it is a recipe that can look unfinished, so trifle-like.
When Carême returned to France, he apparently rechristened the dish Charlotte á la Parisienne, probably to soothe the nerves of alarmed locals who may have heard a thing or two about the English king Carême had worked for. I have no doubt when Charlotte arrived on French shores she resembled a trifle as little as possible.
Carême’s Charlotte is a little rootless, like so many of us expats. Like us, it is unsure where it belongs and if home will ever be home again. The Charlotte is perhaps a sort of Third Culture Dessert.
But at least I think I may have found the name for my upholstery business if I ever start one.
Here’s to Third Culture Sofas.
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Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”
Images: All images from Joanna’s personal photo albums, and used here with her permission