Friday, 13 December 2013

Enjoy the cake and stop feeling guilty

Cake in Venice: how much marg do you think it contained?
If ever there was a revealing comment about food and varied national relationships toward it, it came on Wednesday night in the shape of BBC4’s Patisserie with Michel Roux Jr.

It was an interesting programme anyway, ranging from the revolutionary work of Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833), the first celebrity chef – who also wrote books that included the immortal phrase: ‘You can try this at home’ – to some of Paris’s finest pâtissiers plying their skills today.

One, for instance, works with a top perfumier to create new delicacies.

But as was pointed out, if you think that’s a bit outré, Carême was playing similar games himself, filling the display stands of patisserie with scents such as rose water in order to appeal to the nose as well as the eye.

However, in one of Paris’s tea salons, Roux met American Francophile Dorie Greenspan for hot chocolate and sumptuous-looking cakes.

Greenspan has written several books about patisserie and she observed that, back in the US, she only ever heard people discuss cakes in terms of guilt: ‘It’s so good, but I really shouldn’t have this,” she said was what she would hear from fellow Americans when she was back in the US, before then noting that there was no comparable comment that you’d be likely to hear in France.

The French, she suggested, “have a special relationship with indulgence”: they understand that a little regular indulgence is part of living a good life.

It may seem odd to think that we still harbour such a puritanical attitude in the UK, where consumerism seems to be king and where religiosity has declined in recent years, certainly in the mainstream, but we will all have heard similar attitudes voiced.

But as I’ve touched on before, our search for the ‘body beautiful’ creates a secular version of guilt, with new year’s resolutions and then Lent and then preparing for the beach – and then for the winter party season – all pressuring people to give up some foods (the ones that generally are most enjoyable) and, if they don’t, feeling guilty again.

Decades of poor diet advice has added to the guilt and the social pressures that exist around the subject.

So perhaps those are part of the reasons that we have hardly any of the sort of patisseries that you can see on so many French streets, and that instead, as Roux pointed out, we have solid Eccles cakes or Bakewell tarts handed to us in a brown paper bags, as though we’re as embarrassed as if we were hiding an adult magazine.

The French have patisserie shops that are as astonishing as any top-end boutique in the way in which they display the products for sale. And it’s not just Paris – even Collioure has one such shop, plus at least one more patisserie that I’m aware of.

There are little moments of hope: only yesterday on Twitter, ligging into the revival of baking and the apotheosis of the cup cake, Flora had paid to promote a tweet advertising Flora Buttery to bake said morsels.

Now, it’s worth noting that when an advertiser ‘promotes’ a tweet, it gets charged for any responses.

Within moments, as well as the sort of positive responses that Unilever was happy to respond directly to, others were urging people to use real butter and not something full of additives. The myths are being challenged.

For clarification, Flora Buttery’s list of ingredients runs thus:

Vegetable Oils (Seed Oils 82%), Water, Buttermilk (10.5%), Salt (1.5%), Emulsifiers: Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids, Lecithin, Flavourings, Preservative: Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid, Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, Colour: Beta-Carotene, Vitamin A, Folic Acid, Vitamins D and B12.

There are no ingredients lists for a pack of unsalted butter and when making butter (which you can do in your own home) you don’t have to invent a method of making liquid solid, as you do with vegetable oils if you’re going to market them in a tub as something that can be spread as well as used in baking.

But Flora’s marketing is partly based on guilt – and a concomitant belief that using a butter substitute can make you feel less guilty by making you think that what you are using is more healthy, not least if you are feeding it to others as well as to yourself.

Of course, the entire fat-is-bad-for-you myth has been particularly successful in the US and UK.

Fat – the food type that makes for wonderful mouthfeel; that makes food tasty and which helps sate you far quicker than a whopping big bowl of cereal.

The French – who recognise that a bit of regular indulgence is good for you – also consume more dairy than anyone else on planet Earth and, in the south west of the country, have wonderfully fat-laden foods such as duck confit and foie gras available as part of the regional cuisine.

Somehow, I doubt very much that when a French pâtissier makes an Opéra – described by Larousse Gastronomique as “an elaborate almond sponge cake with a coffee and chocolate filling and icing”, any of it will have been made with margarine.

And yet – and here is the supposed ‘French Paradox’ – the French still have lower rates of heart disease than in this country or the US.

It wasn’t before time when, just a few weeks ago, Sweden because the first country to change its diet advice from a low-fat diet to a low-carb diet – a major crack in the wall of the myth that has built up over the last 40-50 years.

The British – and US – attitude is one of fear for health that ties very neatly into a guilt at culinary pleasure (indulgence), which itself is a residue of the puritanism that has affected both countries.

And because we have that deep-seated fear of ‘indulgence’, we distrust anyone who treats indulgence with a certain seriousness and as a genuine and wonderful art, and then when we do indulge, we overdo it (leading to more guilt – see new year’s resolutions again) and often do so on rubbish.

Not that the French are alone in creating such fabulous cakes – the Italians aren’t exactly bad, for instance, while the Austrians would probably make the list too.

But would it be stretching things too far to point out here that these countries, and France, have not suffered from puritanism or any other forms of non-conformist pleasure-hating denominations in the same way as the UK, US and others have.

While it produces plenty of its own psychological problems, Catholicism is rather more understanding of of sin and pleasure and indulgence – and no, thats not a pun on something Luther got in a huff about.

The sooner we all learn that a spot of regular indulgence is good for us, the better we’ll feel for it.

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