To the French, food is a religion. At least that’s how Ludovic Geyer, co-owner and chef of Bistro Papillon in the Sydney CBD, puts it. “French food is a combination of so many elements,” he says. “When someone asks me to define French cuisine, I never know what to say.”
Aside from the sheer number of different courses making up each meal, technique is also key to the definition of each dish. “There are so many ways to prepare different ingredients,” says Geyer. “You can roast, blanch, poach and flambé.” A glint in his eye hints that the possibilities are endless.
The French are known for rich flavours, but Geyer is quick to mention that this isn’t simply about butter and cream. Travel from any of France’s 22 regions to another, and your plate will be completely different. We could talk for days about the complexity of France’s food culture, but the reality is that we’re here to talk about something specific: the French dessert.
“I remember the taste of Armagnac from when I was a kid,” Geyer says smiling. The exact moment he first tasted this rich, thick digestive seems to elude him, but he doesn’t recall a time of not knowing that flavour. “We have this thing, we call it un canard,” he says, “it means literally, ‘a duck’. It is used to describe dipping sugar cubes in the Armagnac.” The hard cubes absorb the liquid and, Geyer demonstrates, as the sugar takes on the liquid it begins to crumble. “Then you eat it,” and quickly, to save a mess.
In many European countries, strong digestive liqueurs are extremely common; the style is dependent on the region and the variety of grape the alcohol is derived from. Armagnac specifically is from the south-west of France; it was introduced when the Romans brought the type of grape used in Armagnac to the region. “Originally, the liqueur was a medicine,” Geyer says. “It was said that Armagnac treated something like 30 different ailments.” Eventually, mass production of the liquid in oak barrels led to fermentation and turned the brandy into what it is today.
“If you say ‘Armagnac’ to a French chef,” Geyer tells us, “they’ll say plums.” Plums, or prunes soaked in Armagnac is a very popular dessert in the French kitchen.
Cheese and wine may stay top of mind when envisioning French cuisine, but sweets are definitely high on the priority list. “There will always be chocolate on the menu,” says Geyer. What we may not realise is that when chocolate was first being produced and exported around Europe, it was always of the bittersweet variety – pure cacao – and it wasn’t until the introduction of the vanilla bean to France that innovative food makers began sweetening the treat.
“These ingredients are classic,” says Geyer, “they are very carefully chosen.” The bitterness in the chocolate is balanced with the naturally sweet vanilla. When these ingredients were first brought to France by explorers, they were only available for the rich. There was no access to them for the lower classes; this was especially true of sweeteners.
Mass production of sweet chocolate began in England, and as the product spread through Europe and became more available, experimental chocolatiers discovered that adding cocoa butter would help mould the sweet into solid bars, making it even more marketable. “Before the 20th century, chocolate was a drink,” Geyer tells us. “It wasn’t until the creation of solidified chocolate that this became a prominent ingredient in French pastries and dessert.”
Perhaps more important than its history, are the fond memories of sweet chocolate which drive Geyer’s recipes today. “Vanilla is Grandma’s house,” Geyer says.
“You would never throw food away in France,” he tells us. This is good practice, yes, but the significance of this statement leads us to the origin of one of the simplest of France’s sweet treats. “When you didn’t finish the daily loaf of bread,” explains Geyer, “you would mix it with eggs, vanilla and apples, and then bake it.” In its most sincere form, this is the recipe for bread-and-butter pudding, which could be one of France’s most humble desserts and one of the original recipes celebrating France’s delicate vanilla.
There is no doubt that the French are food proud, and every element of a meal is an important piece of their culture: wines, entrées, desserts. But as Geyer explains, “just as important as the food in front of you is being together, the hours of chats over a table full of these amazing dishes.”
This piece was produced in partnership with the new CONNOISSEUR Empire Collection, which includes the ‘King Louis XIV’ ice cream with French vanilla, chocolate flakes and Armagnac.