We have just come back from a week’s holiday in the south of France. I must admit we have grown to rather like it. The sun is pretty much guaranteed to be shining, the light and air is of a unique quality and, of course, there is also the prospect of some formidable French food.
We went to the Côte d’Azur last year and this is where I discovered the amazing Tarte Tropézienne, a pastry of legends. It even has its own website: http://www.latartetropezienne.fr/en/#!a-la-une. It’s not actually a tart, more like a giant flat brioche bun that has been filled with an orange or orange liquor-flavoured cream. It’s pastry heaven as far as I’m concerned, so I was looking forward to filling my face a bit more this time round.
Little did I know that ‘La Tropézienne’ did not feature on the bakers’ production schedule in Marseille and the Provence region where we were staying this time, despite being a stone’s throw away from St Tropez. But regional pastry varieties are big in France, and Marseille had its own kind. The first bakery we hit on sold something called Brioche Navette: imagine an eye-shaped buttery, orange-scented bun that has been scored lengthways to reveal a yellowy crumb in contrast with an egg-washed golden brown, soft crust. It went very well with a noisette coffee (macchiato) for elevenses.
It’s when we took a left turn out of our hotel that we stumbled across the actual birthplace of the ‘Navettes’. There, on the corner, was the ‘Four des Navettes’ bakery. It has been going since 1781 and, upon entering, we were engulfed by the scent of orange blossoms and a deep sense of history. Navettes were everywhere around us – loose, pre-packed into bags of eight and 12, on racks, and piled into giant wicker baskets. With their pasty whiteness they looked a bit like bones or some sort of ‘kindling’ or, in bakery terms, like a shorter stumpy Grissini scored partly down the middle. Their texture is dry, this makes them last a year. Their colour is reminiscent of a nun’s habit. It comes as no surprise that there is even an annual procession where the local bishop comes to visit and gives the Four de Navette bakers and their ovens a blessing. (http://www.fourdesnavettes.com/) I’m told this pastry is one of the 13 on the French list for ‘official Christmas sweetmeats’. I must admit I did prefer the modern interpretation and I also suspect it won’t make the evolutionary leap to being the next big thing, unlike macarons.
This being France, there were a further two bakery/patisseries on the same street, making it a total of four. One, notably, specialised in the art of making macarons, and it’s where I discovered a macaron/éclair hybrid. No, it was neither called ‘maclair’ nor ‘éclaron’ but it should have been. The clever patissier, Laurent Favre-Mot, piped four macarons closely together so that they baked into one oblong shape. He then sandwiched two of the bulbous shapes together with a filling. While one baker’s shop took us back in time, this one was very definitely of the here and now and, with its concrete and modern interior, very rock ’n’ roll indeed.
Luckily for me, the Tarte Tropézienne did make a last-minute appearance as the dessert option on the Eurostar service from Paris to London. And a good interpretation it was too. Here’s to more holidays in France.