12th October 2013, Fontainebleau, Seine-et-Marne,Île-de-France
I know, I know! I promised cake on Friday, and Friday came and went, with no mention of cake… You see, the problem is in my Oxford mentality: an inability to refuse any opportunity and a mistaken belief that leaving somewhere at 8pm means that you can be somewhere else at 8pm. In a small city where everyone’s always late, that kind of works. In an enormous city full of traffic lights, gormless pedestrians and angry drivers, it just doesn’t. And so I went to the athletics track, as usual on Friday, did a training session, and then cycled madly home, showered, had tea and dashed out for a conversation exchange (for which I was still late!) Oh, and in between, I made this:
So, tell me when I was meant to have time to buy a cake?
However, never fear, because on Saturday I went on another expedition! Having got a lot of trains in the few months that I’ve been in France, I now appear to be an expert in advantageous tariffs, ticket validation (I love the French verb for that: ‘composter’! I have tried and failed to find an etymological link to the rotten stuff you put on the garden, but any suggestions are welcome!), and bizarre delays where the train just sits in the station, and the announcement goes along the lines of “Mesdames, Messieurs, je suis désolé mais je dois vous informer que notre train doit attendre ici pendant (crackle spit whistle etc.) minutes, à cause de (hiss splutter gurgle). Merci de ne pas essayer de descendre du train”. (That translates roughly as “Ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry to inform you that our train will have to wait here for an indefinite period of time for some obscure reason that I don’t want to tell you. We’re not going to open the doors, so you’re just trapped here, but don’t panic: if the worst comes to the worst you can start eating your tickets”).
However, Fontainebleau, this week’s destination, presented a new challenge: I couldn’t find it! I mean, I managed the train, changed to the bus, got off at the stop called ‘château’, and just couldn’t see anything likely looking… After a bit of wandering around aimlessly, (and getting pretty cold: winter has suddenly descended and so the big coat, gloves and flask of tea have come out of hibernation) I found a sign that said I could get to the château through the ‘Jardins de Diane’, which bore an uncanny resemblance to Uni Parks in Oxford… More aimless wandering, occasionally distracted by fountains and/or statues (OK, not exactly like Uni Parks…) and I suddenly found myself in front of an enormous funny-shaped staircase, at one end of the biggest ‘quad’ I’ve ever seen.
Now, I know what you’re wondering: don’t all of these stately homes start to blur into one, and aren’t you getting a bit sick of them by now? The simple answer: no. They all have different things that fascinate me, whether it’s Vaux-le-Vicomte’s gardens (I’ve heard so much about Le Nôtre’s perspectives and it was pretty special, plus the Three Musketeers link is close to my heart, for A-level Extended Project reasons) or Chantilly’s cutesy fairytale towers. But Fontainebleau fascinated me for a whole multitude of reasons: for a start, there are the amazing gardens which are just open to the public (and when I arrived, early on a very cold Saturday morning, were occupied only by me, a couple of swans and a handful of joggers. What a place to jog!) and their rows of cute little pointy topiary, along with an ENORMOUS carp pond, a whopping big canal… Then there was just the sheer scale of the inside of the place: the French monarchy didn’t appear to take palace-building lightly. There’s one corridor that François (I forget which one: my grasp of their chronology is very sketchy!) built because he didn’t like going outside to go to church, so he basically linked his bedroom to his chapel by this thing which runs the whole length of a decent-sized building, then got it filled with frescoes, wooden panelling (with subtle ‘F’ patterns just about everywhere), sculptures of angels etc. I was also delighted to recognise the fabric for the chairs, curtains, bed linen etc. in one of the bedrooms, which had been made by the company who did a talk on the Journées de Patrimoine a few weeks ago (it was pretty ugly, which was maybe why I remembered it: just because these people were fabulously wealthy and powerful doesn’t appear to mean that they had good taste!)
But the main thing that fascinated me was the Napoleon connection, and how much of a big deal they made of it. I hadn’t really reflected on it before, since we never studied Waterloo in history, but being English you must somehow absorb this idea of Bonaparte as dictator, Wellington as hero, saving the whole of Europe and liberating the French. They, on the other hand, appear somewhat less convinced, and there’s definitely a sense of reverence in their attitude towards him, what with the audioguide including a recreation of his farewell before going into exile (the first time) on the steps at Fontainebleau, and the whole gallery dedicated to larger-than-lifesize portraits of him and his family. Oh, and the marble busts everywhere. And if you crane your neck at one point you can see his bath. Even when mentioning that he basically kidnapped the Pope and locked him in said château until he signed an agreement letting Napoleon do whatever he wanted, the suggestion is that this was a stroke of genius, and the Pope was pretty stupid to let it happen…
Anyway, this is a whole other post (which may yet appear!). Back to the cake! Fontainebleau is quite conveniently actually in a small town, so after a bit of a pootle around, a nosy at a few cheese shops, the place where they were roasting and grinding their own coffee beans, the odd bookshop etc., I found a pâtisserie. There were, of course, about six in the town, but this one had a line of people queuing outside and a promising air, so I took my place in the line, and, as usual, frantically tried to decide between just about everything that looked really tasty.
As you’ll probably have realised by now, whilst potential taste and texture are considered before the choice of a cake, practicality of eating rarely is (maybe I should start carrying a spoon in my bag for these occasions), and so I chose an ‘apricot, mango and orange crumble’:
Shortcrust pastry base, thinnish layer of crème pâtissière (which I couldn’t really taste, and I suspect was just there to (attempt) to hold it all together), a whole poached apricot split in two, two big hunks of mango, an almondy crumbly topping, bits of candied orange, crushed pistachios, a dusting of icing sugar and a physalis.
Spotted the problem yet? Previous messy cakes have been dismantleable, which allows for damage limitation. This one wasn’t. So when I bit into the base, the crumble started sliding dangerously… Fortunately the box caught a lot of it, but it wasn’t pretty… (I’m sure all of the parents who’d taken their children for a walk in the park (I’d gone back to the Jardins de Diane for caketime) could just see their work on table manners and eating nicely being undone before their very eyes).
So, the verdict. Despite the messiness, it was rather delicious. The apricot and mango were both nice and juicy, and because they were in big pieces it was a nice textural contrast to the crumbly topping. The crumble was quite chunky, which meant that it wasn’t too dry (I can’t abide crumble that’s like sawdust!), and the orange pieces added a bit of tang. I couldn’t really taste the pistachios, not sure what the point in them was. The pastry base and custard were pretty reliably good, but then I think that should be taken as read for a decent French pâtissier. And I do like a physalis, even if they’re a bit retro…
For photos of my day at Fontainebleau, click here.