Some things fit neatly into perfect stereotypes. A vision of France, for example, might include the Eiffel Tower, the gardens of Versailles, or the Arc de Triomphe. For many people it would also include typical scenes from French towns and villages, views of pretty houses, and the quiet streets that those houses are on. France has never been a country to quickly develop, outside of the cities. Perhaps this is the reason so much of this large country is still a little lost in a bygone age, where many lives continue to be spent working the same crafts and métiers as previous generations.
Every country has it’s own customs. We live a fairly typical French lifestyle here but a few home rituals are important! A typically British tradition is Coffee and Walnut cake, a classic English teatime favourite. It was while I was making this that I started thinking of traditions; my thought processes led me back into the past, to cakes made by my mother and of all the knowledge she had, which led to my thoughts above.
Of course, cake in the United Kingdom is part of teatime, and tea is a very important tradition itself. And strangely enough, it was once a very French tradition, too, and if truth be known, the French may have been drinking it in quantity long before the English ever did. Its introduction into aristocratic society in the 17th century was accelerated by Louis XIV, the Sun King who built our local city, Rochefort. Alas, when the Revolution came along, many of the aristocratic mouths that drank tea were rendered ‘inoperable’, and hand in hand with that went a commensurate decline in the USA after the debacle of the Boston Tea Party. However in 1854 Mariage Frères opened their first wholesale shop in Paris and tea came back into vogue in France.
By then, the English were long gone down the “with milk and two sugars please” route and at first the resurgent French tea-culture followed suit. However, as time passed and bistros and cafes accumulated on French boulevards, coffee became the nation’s favourite beverage, and up until the late 1900’s tea became a drink that was consumed, mostly privately, in homes. Then, as tastes expanded towards the end of the 20th century, the French embraced tea again, but this time with a difference. Out went the British black tea, and in came a slew of light aromatic teas that delighted the palette, served graciously and artfully in bustling new French tea-houses where terroir, climate, aroma and infusion all became a part of the tea conversation.
How do you like your tea? I’m British and I don’t even like black tea, in fact I would go so far as to say I loathe it! But I have taught myself to drink and now thoroughly enjoy green tea!
Our quatrième enfant, Hetty, is a birthday girl this week; and she’s reached the dizzying heights of being a 12 year-old. Somehow it seems like such an important number and so much older than 11! Luckily for her, and those who like tea-time, circumstances demanded two cakes, the first the Coffee and Walnut previously mentioned, which was a cake to share with the family. In case you don’t know of this culinary delight, or need reminding perhaps, of just how yummy it is, I’ve included the recipe for you.
For the cake
50ml/1¾fl oz strong espresso coffee
225g/8oz self-raising flour
For the buttercream
125g/4½oz unsalted butter
200g/7oz icing sugar
50ml/2fl oz strong espresso coffee
12 walnut halves, to decorate
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
In a bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until very light and pale.
Add the eggs one at a time beating well.
Add the espresso to the mixture and stir well.
Add the flour and walnuts and stir well to completely combine.
Spoon the cake mixture into two lined and greased 20cm/8in cake tins.
Bake for 25-30 minutes.
Allow the cakes to cool.
For the buttercream, beat the butter and icing sugar together in a small bowl until pale and light.
Add the espresso and mix well.
Spread the buttercream over the top one cake, then place the other on top and spread this with the buttercream too.
Decorate the top of the cake with the walnut halves and serve with a nice cup of tea, taken just how you like it!
Gigi, who was helping, explained that she thought walnuts would be at the top of our tree and she would be needed to go and get them herself, even though we had gathered the last of them a couple of weeks ago!
The second cake was to be shared with friends but still gave Hetty a bit of a dilemma; what do you do when you don’t like chocolate sponge and your younger sister, who just happens to be your ‘bestest’ friend, doesn’t like plain sponge? It’s obvious of course; you ask (very nicely) if the cake can please be one half of each flavour, so that everyone is happy!
So in the end, the birthday girl actually did rather well. Of course, nothing is that simple even with two cakes because not everyone likes coffee or walnuts; even though Millie, who hates both coffee and walnuts, said it was utterly delicious and Roddy said savouring a taste he hadn’t experienced for decades brought tears to his eyes as memories came flooding back.
It’s just as well we have plenty of eggs on hand.
Alas, even with two cakes over two days, not much was left over by the time her seemingly endless line of siblings and friends had had their fair share!
In France we are known as a famille nombreuse. I just love the description of this in Wikipedia. “Une famille nombreuse est un type de famille dont le nombre de membres est considéré comme élevé au regard des normes d’une société.”
In other words, it is a family which has more members than what is considered normal in everyday society; well, I never did consider us normal! But it does have its advantages, and just the other day I heard on the radio that Intermarche (a large supermarket chain) are offering a 10% discount on the entire grocery bill at the checkout if you are a famille nombreuse. Now I don’t normally shop at Intermarche, but for 10% I might be tempted to switch my allegiance as you wouldn’t want to even hazard a guess at the size of our weekly grocery bill and 10% would be a welcome little discount.
Anyway, getting back to the topic of children, I have a favour to ask of you all. Actually, it is our number one enfant, Izzi, who is asking for help, for as she said in a phone-call two nights ago, “Mama you have a global audience – do you think they could help me with some answers? Would you mind terribly asking them to do me a favour?”
I knew I had to ask you if you could help, and I assured her that I was positive you would…..either by commenting below or by email. Naturally, I know how lucky we are to live in an age when we can connect with so many people so instantly, and my blogs are not just about France, they’re also about us – our family and our life here. Most of you know Izzi by now, she is at university in the UK, she is the one who comes home on holidays and cooks for me, conjuring up little savoury delicacies as a special treat, and she often sends me beautifully drawn cards she has made with lovely written notes; how could I not help her in return? In fact, who wouldn’t do all that is possible for their children, so I hope you don’t mind me asking. Here is her request:
I am a final year design student currently working on a project, the only brief we were given was one word “multiculturalism.” My project is entirely my own idea and I decided to explore how playground markings influence the use of spaces, and how they are almost the only sort of lines that are meant to promote interaction as opposed to separating spaces and causing divisions. I am working on a series of prints wherein two different sets of playground markings are spliced into one to make a new game. My concept revolves around how two cultures can come together to create something better. I am currently looking for playground markings from different cultures and I was wondering if any of you could explain in the comments the playground markings you see or remember or possibly draw any of the playground markings that exist in the countries where you live and send them to me at email@example.com. Any help would be hugely appreciated!
If you are at all interested in design you can see Izzi’s other work on her website at www.izzihays.com or on Instagram – @izzihays
and as always, a HUGE THANK YOU for reading, listening and being you x