Joanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers.
This month: The regrettable global takeover of the Cronut, and what should be getting the publicity instead.
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“What in dog-breeding hell is a Cronut?” demanded my son Seb, reading over my shoulder while swigging milk from the bottle in that annoying way 16-year-olds have. Baffled for a second, I realized the confusion and laughed. My German Shepherd, Sophie, is my obsession and I am always reading articles about breeding and training. Today, though, I was reading a food magazine which discussed trends for the New Year. Seb had seen a headline that asked:
“2013 was the year of the Cronut and Duffin but what does 2014 hold?”
Those of you elsewhere — anywhere except France, that is — may laugh, but Seb’s assumption that a Cronut is German Shepherd-related rather than food-related was completely justifiable. My own ignorance of Cronuts and other “blended” pastries was only brought to my attention in December, when a friend living in Kuala Lumpur posted that they had finally arrived there.
I think it true to say that the Cronut hasn’t yet arrived in France and probably never will.
Some dishes deserve to go global
I do hope the same will not be the case for other treats that, my magazine suggested, will be sweeping tastebuds worldwide this year. I was particularly happy to see the arepa from Venezuela and Columbia on the list. My hips might not want to revisit my interest in these delectable goodies, but I am smacking my lips in anticipation.
I first met arepas in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and our friendship deepened while I lived in Caracas. These flattened balls of unleavened maize flour-based dough are fried and then filled with a cornucopia of ingredients, depending on the region. North Western Venezuela, where I first fell in love with the arepa, has its own speciality, the Arepa Cabimera, whose filling consists of the improbable combination of cheese, jam, chicken and boiled eggs. You know when someone is eating a Cabimera as the arepas are unusually square. Other varieties often include queso guayanés — a mild, medium-soft cheese similar to mozzarella, shredded chicken and, if you are very lucky, crispy pork rind.
Global — with the exception of France, that is
The idea that I will miss such delights as they sweep the world is distressing, but our ignorance of the Cronut is a sad portent of what might come. How had the Year of the Cross-bred Pastry missed France? Perhaps it’s not such a surprise; France is not culturally inclined to faddy trends as is, say, London or New York. Why a “need-to-please” hybrid, when a classic, small, and delightfully buttery croissant is available? How intolerably vulgar to take such perfection and, presumably, add jam and deep-fry it.
I can feel a thousand thin and elegantly clad Parisian shoulders shudder at the thought.
Hybrid – it’s the new pedigree
On further reflection, my less-thin shoulders shudder too. As my son’s comment shows, cross-bred dogs are very much at the front of people’s minds at the moment. Maybe the Cockerpoo, Labradoodle, and Schitzpoo are the canine equivalents of our human desire to have our cake and eat it. A dog that doesn’t shed and mess up the carpet and sinuses, and a croissant that doesn’t — oh, wait. It does crumble. Well, a pastry that isn’t a croissant or a doughnut but which still makes a crumbly mess…
Why? Why make a mash-up of existing pastries when you could come up with something less plagiaristic or stick with what already works? Oh, listen to me: maybe I do belong in France! After all, for each hybrid that works there are the unlucky ones in each batch which fail to inherit the best of both worlds and instead exhibit the worst of each. A croissant where the delicate buttery flavor has been killed by over-sweetening? A Labradoodle which sheds anyway and isn’t a pedigree but which costs the same and has the potential to inherit the congenital defects of two different breeds?
What’s more, the frying of such a delicate thing as croissant pastry is not for amateurs. Getting the layers of pastry and butter to open in the heat of an oven is no mean feat; getting them to do the same in hot fat is entirely different. Apart from that, think how easily butter burns. That’s a lot of worry when pâtissierières across France already have mastered the art of injecting chocolate into croissants to make pain au chocolate or, better, almond paste.
For me the almond croissant is the pinnacle of pastry pleasure. This marriage of crisp pastry with nutty and unctuous almond paste represents the Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward of the Pâtisserie.
The Cronut is, as yet, a Brangelina wannabe and everyone is already asking how much longer is it going to last.
“New” but not necessarily “improved”
The French disdain for change for change’s sake can be seen everywhere. Fashion classics which stand the test of time are valued over the new and the shocking. London fashion is all about iconoclasm and rebellion, rather than restraint. Surely, when it comes to food, good taste should not be derided. Maybe the French are right not to jump on the bandwagon of each new craze, instead waiting to see what stands the test of time and has what it takes to become part of the pâtisserie canon.
I doubt that the Duffin will ever be the Little Black Dress of the pâtisserie world; certainly not with a name that makes it sound like something an ageing hippie would wear on a cold winter day in Glastonbury, UK.
Hmm, pause for thought indeed. At least with baking, we can bin the rejects; we cannot do the same with our canine friends who don’t pass the successful hybrid test.
How, then, can a modern culinary classic find acceptance in France?
So, let me find order to my reasoning. The French, so far, have not accepted the hybrid pastry which tries too hard to please and lacks the elegant restraint of better behaved French patisserie staples. However, history reveals that the French will eventually accept what will not go away: dishes with an enduring appeal, such as the pizza so…
…let’s return to my arepa whose pedigree cannot be questioned. This is a traditional, tried and tested, and regionally variable dish. Given time, I am hopeful that the French, who enjoy regional variety in cheese and wine, should be open to accepting this newcomer. France has already embraced with overwhelming enthusiasm the pizza and tweaked it to French tastes – crème fraiche anyone? There is a little van with a wood burning stove on most street corners in every city, town and village of the country. For every Domino there are scores of restaurants, parlours, and vans, nearly all of them French owned and run.
For the arepa this is hopeful news indeed. I may have to wait longer than a resident of London, Birmingham or, indeed, Kuala Lumpur, but I have hope that the Venezuelans are coming to Aix.
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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