A warming easy casserole that’s even better reheated next day and fabulous served with pasta (plus glass of red!).
Some of you saw the live videos on Facebook but I’ve been itching to tell you in much more detail about this exceptional pastry and chocolate weekend! To start, I was bowled over to be invited by Christophe Roussel to join the French jury for his Annual Pastry Competition Final in La Baule (Loire-Atlantique) on France’s west coast.
Open to budding amateur pastry chefs, five talented finalists were chosen in September via their tantalising patisseries and descriptions on Facebook, all based on this year’s défi (challenge), first announced in July.
As the event wasn’t open to the public, I feel duty-bound to share this with you, patisserie and chocolate lovers. So fasten your seat-belts for a bumper post!
What was the Défi Patissier‘s CHALLENGE this second year?
TO REVISIT an OPÉRA cake, using the famous Fleur de sel de Guérande as an imposed ingredient and during the final, include Christophe Roussel’s new signature Bahiana® chocolate from Brazil.Sounds easy? An Opera pastry has to be one of the most difficult in the French pastry repertoire!
With the competition’s early morning start, Christophe and Julie generously helped relieve any night-before stress by hosting a welcome dinner on La Baule’s beach. Dessert was, of course, by Christophe himself. If anyone had forgotten his style and needed to tweak their dessert next day, now was the time. The desserts set the tone…
Luckily I had lovely Lucie by my side who works with Christophe, so she could suggest two out of the FOUR desserts! The Fleur d’Asie, or Asian Flower, is a delicate combination of apricot and the Asian Osmanthus (Devilwood) plant which has scents of apricot and peach. I love his hidden Fleur de Sel which gives that unexpected crunch – fantastic!
A First in France: Signature Chocolate
Chocolate-lovers will love the Fleur de Bahiana, the upcoming Bûche de Noël (festive yule log) made with the new signature Brazilian dark chocolate (69%), Bahiana®. It’s from the Pêtrolina cacao farm in the Bahia region, a family-run plantation, and made exclusively for Christophe Roussel in partnership with Valrhona – a first in France.
Intense in chocolate with floral and fruity notes, I found it so warming, almost like tasting a chocolate-vanilla pastry version of a velvety hot chocolate with playful textures. To top it, it wasn’t overly rich but left a lovely round satin touch on the palate.
But I digress – back to the competition!
Meet the Finalists
From left: Catherine Brug (Besançon: Opera-Cube), 18-year-old Laurie Lacoviz (Saint-Maur: Opéra Rock), Anne-Sophie Donnard (Montmorency: Comme un Air d’Opéra), Émilie Chrysostom, (Paris, Min’Op), and Arnault Buisson (Luxemburg, Opéra Spirit).
Meet Christophe Roussel
Ever since I walked into Christophe Roussel‘s welcoming boutique when it opened 5 years ago in Paris’s Montmartre, it was special. As I say in my book, Teatime in Paris, Chef Christophe must be one of the most genuinely friendly and approachable pastry chefs in France. His credo is sharing, pleasure and a little bit of madness – and add to that an incredible generosity.
After setting up his first pâtisserie in La Baule in 2004, he decided to steer away from the traditional route of adding a boulangerie and instead devoted the rest to chocolate-making. Now with an impressive business with around 44 employees and 7 trainees, Christophe Roussel, part of the prestigious Relais Desserts group, is the star of the French west coast with two boutiques in La Baule, Guérande, Pornichet, Paris, and has just opened another in la Pornic. Together with his wife, Julie (pictured far right below), they make the perfect duo créatif.
Only the HIGHEST QUALITY PRODUCTS are used to create his gourmandises, notably sourcing local produce – one of which is the famous salt, the Fleur de Sel de guérande, just a few kilometres from his laboratory in La Baule (pronounced la-bowl).
Meet the rest of the jury with Christophe Roussel. You can imagine why I was so honoured to be a part of such a prestigious line-up!
- Thierry Bamas MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) and world champion for frozen desserts, he’s the star of pâtisserie based in the Basque region, between Biarritz and Bayonne. Like Christophe, he runs pastry and chocolate-making classes.
- Cyril Carrini, winner of the last 2015 Meilleur Pâtissier on French TV’s M6 Channel (The French equivalent of the Great British Bake Off), and winner of the best of the winners. He’s a policeman near Bordeaux who also runs pastry workshops.
- Mercotte is to France what Mary Berry is to the UK. A most adorable, down-to-earth TV celebrity for the Meilleur Pâtissier on M6, and The French Patisserie Blogger at La Cuisine de Mercotte, with four recipe books.The Pastry & ChocolateLAB
Hitting the starting block at 7.30am, the finalists cracked on with their 3-hour pastry challenge. As it was the early stage, we had the opportunity to visit the immense lab.
What an Ali-Baba maze! It was hard to resist a peek into these enormous vats of babas steeping in rum syrup as we explored each chocolate and pastry-making workshop. Everyone was quietly and dynamically working on each creation: from chocolate moulds of Peppa Pig, Calimero, and chocolate kisses destined to be exported to Japan, to his assortiment of macarons – of which about 25 tons are produced a year. There’s even a room assigned to edible decor – spot his pastry signature above (top left).
Back to the buzzing competition room, just to keep us going, we taste Christophe’s Coffee Réligieuse – Pas Très Catholique (meaning a bit doubtful), with lively notes of two different coffees and a chocolate craquelin crumble topping for le crunch. Incidentally, this was the inspiration behind the recipe for the salted caramel choux snowman in Teatime in Paris!
The classic Opéra isn’t an easy pastry … and on top of it, personal variations made it a particularly interesting challenge. Cubes, balls, discs, giant spheres, logs, tuiles … they’d all thought it out so well.
All aspects were taken into consideration: such as respect to the classic recipe (e.g. right dosage of coffee coming through, enough chocolate, right textures; their interpretation; clean workspace; no waste (Christophe made frequent bin inspections), respect to time, visual aspect, and so on.
While all was being filmed on camera, we were additionally going around filming and snapping shots on our phones: everyone was spontaneously interviewed on Facebook Live by the bubbly Mercotte (we were all impressed with her mega battery!). Apparently I speak French like Jane Birkin, ahem… Thierry Bamas and Cyril also caught the online interviewing bug as the stress and COUNTDOWN started.
Discussions behind the finalists didn’t put them off – and although there was the odd hand trembling towards the finishing touches, everyone showed their talent of being calm and collected, plus it was a good team spirit if someone needed to borrow equipment from each other. Not every competitive spirit is prepared to do that.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … and STOP! Et Voilà: their finished results. Now we could think of the visual aspect. Great job – and totally resembling what they submitted online.
By now finished, the finalists took off their aprons for a well-earned break.
Salon du Chocolat, La Baule
Meanwhile, we were given the added job of tasting our way through 3 different themes of chocolates over at the Castel Marie-Louise, as part of the Salon du Chocolat in La Baule, hosted by the Casino Barrière. Our challenge was to pick the best in each category before announcing the winners – including the pastry challenge – at the Salon later.
Our group tasted 12 chocolates on a dark chocolate and citrus almond paste theme. The unanimous winner went to Vincent Belloir (Goût du bonheur, La Roche-Bernard). It was best for the visual sheen on the chocolate, the clean cut without losing it’s shape, the smooth texture, the bouquet on ze nose, and of course, the taste!
Olivier Grimault (Créat-shop, Les Sorinières) won the chocolate bar category with dark chocolate and Matcha, … and winner of the third category went to Christophe Roussel for his dark chocolate and pink peppercorn! Also congratulations goes to Amélie Giraud for her chocolate sculpture, who is also part of Christophe Roussel’s team!
A few glasses of water later – and all before lunch ….!
Pastry Competition Tasting & Verdict
This is when I appreciated when Mercotte took me under her wing. Although the group agreed on the same issues and were discerning on each aspect, my marking was slightly too high for each finalist – so now I can put it down to experience!
Pastry Competition Winners!
Our winners were also announced on Saturday evening at the Salon du Chocolat.
Congratulations to the winner, Anne-Sophie, a school teacher and French pastry blogger at SurprisesetGourmandises. She wins a Gourmet Luxury Weekend in La Baule and a day of pastry-making with Christophe Roussel.
Bravo to Catherine Brug who came a close second, and a huge round of applause to Arnault, Emilie and Laurie. Each of them were not just great bakers but lovely, sensitive souls too.
Lucie Henaff, thanking everyone, even prepared framed momentos of their Opéra creations, a lovely keepsake of their tremendous talent.
A Gourmet yet Light Weekend
After all the excitement, the chocolate, the opera cakes, lunch, more various dessert tastings, there was … another gourmet dinner!
For everything we ate, however, all was impeccably light. Spoiled by Eric Mignard, Michelin-starred chef for 30 years at the Relais-Châteaux Castel Marie-Louise, he took us through local seafood and fish menus, including a memorable dish of tartar scallops with passion fruit, pineapple, daikon, and salsifis chips with grilled almond oil. I’d need another few pages to discuss the rest!
On to the DESSERTS, all prepared by Christophe Roussel, each one was immaculate. They’re airy, full of surprising textures (he has fizzy chocolates too) and each ingredient has its own punch to say, “Taste me – I’m here too!”. The finale – made especially for the occasion – of Tahitian vanilla mousse with mango and that nesting ball on top is full of exploding salted caramel. It was the closing firework display to an exceptional weekend.
Christophe Roussel Pastry Competition
Do keep an eye out for the 2017 competition on Christophe Roussel’s Facebook page. If you or anyone you know is a real fan of making French pastries, then you’ll have witnessed that this is an extremely special competition indeed. I hear there will be even more surprises for next year’s Défi challenge. How can you beat that?
I’ll finish with Christophe Roussel’s popular chocolate kisses from La Baule and say a big Cheers, Santé to you, Chef! Bravo to such an extraordinary and successful weekend, the opening of your new boutique in La Pornic, the new signature Brazilian chocolate, for such a wonderful, dynamic team you’ve inspired – and, above all, for your generosity.
6 Allée des Camélias
44500 LA BAULE
5 Rue Tardieu
The laziest cheesecake on the planet! A Corsican family dessert typically served between November and June.
The perfect partner to put out a Corsican cheese fire.
I lose my head at this time of year. This particular new school rentrée has taken nearly three weeks to cajole the family into a constructive routine, plus the blog went on sudden strike unless I carried out some pretty major urgent computer cleaning. Luckily my much needed verve to do all this was given just the right jump-start, thanks to a whirlwind culinary escapade.
I don’t normally ditch the family and jump on a train to Bordeaux at the weekend – but with a 3.5 hour train ride from Paris, it has given me food (and a wine-taster) for thought to return soon! I met Bordeaux with a stiflingly humid 40°C canicule heatwave that even a taste of the traditional canelé cakes couldn’t cure (more on that another time). The best refresher was meeting up with the effervescent Christina Conte, aka Christina’s Cucina, who had just jumped off a plane from Geneva during an epic culinary tour of Europe.
Although we’ve known each other since fairly recently online, meeting in person can’t be replaced. Within minutes our Scottish connections had us in stitches and I had the impression that we were buddies from way back. Why Bordeaux, you may ask? Our ultimate destination was at Karen Burns-Booth’s home, where we generously invited for a taste of her new cookery school in the SW French region of Poitou-Charente. It’s also the impressive engine room behind Lavender and Lovage.
LAVENDER AND LOVAGE COOKERY SCHOOL
With just an hour’s train ride from Bordeaux to Pons or Saintes (trains are regular on line 17), you’re already in the heart of the Charente-Maritime district. It’s hazardous travelling while blethering so much, as we just about missed our stop with the most cheery welcome by Karen and her husband Malcolm on Pons sleepy station platform.
Before we knew it, we hit the local Super U hypermarket in Gemozac where baguettes were used for fencing in the aisles and excuses were found for a bubbly St Germain apéritif later. We put it down to Brits Behaving Badly.
Karen showed us the local specialities, such as the Broyé du Poitou, a round biscuit-like-cake which is not cut to eat but traditionally smashed into pieces with the fist (broyé means smashed). Prices were also smashing; much cheaper than we have around Paris – so excuse enough to stock up on the likes of chestnut flour, ideal for Autumn recipes such as breakfast banana and chestnut cake.
Next was a visit to Karen’s favourite producer of Pineau and Cognac at the Domaine de Château Guynot. With the vineyard situated in one of the four vintage Cognac areas, we were taken through a tasting of both the Pineau whites (a mix of Ugni Blanc and Colombard grapes) and rosés (Merlot and Cabernet with added Cognac), from Ambience, a young Pineau mainly served as an apéritif, to a more ample Tradition.
Karen conjured all sorts of food pairings with the white (foie gras, morbier cheese) and rosé (red fruit crumble and chocolate desserts). After the final Grande Tradition with an older Pineau and ideas of roquefort cheese, fried foie gras and red fruit desserts. She had our thoughts well on to the cooking!
Malcolm drove us on to their Chambre d’hôte (French for B&B), Auberge de la Fontaine, in the pretty village of Montpellier-de-Medillan. Karen will explain the house’s quirky history, where the house was originally split into two: one for the Monsieur and Madame, and the other for Monsieur and Mistress. Oh-là-là!
This is just part of the Lavender and Lovage herb garden, where Karen picks just what’s needed to finish off many of her tantalising dishes.
The Chambre d’hôte can sleep up to 10 and each themed room (ours was the Versailles room) is homely, decorated with French antiques. As we settled in, Karen instantly made us feel right at home as she poured a mean mug of good old English Yorkshire tea. Complete with tea-cosy, this was one of the British home comfort reminders that Karen and Malcolm also split their time between this haven and home in North Yorkshire.
Then it was aprons on and straight on to the cooking programme!
Karen takes a maximum of 6 people for her cookery courses, so the ambience is relaxed and comfortable in her open-plan kitchen, complete with a cookery book corner and 2 large range ovens.
Typical courses at Lavender and Lovage include:
– CHEAT’S DINNER PARTY
This course features Karen’s deliciously easy recipes that involves no cooking whatsoever. While Christina was busy putting together the Braesola, rocket and parmesan rolls …
I had the intriguing job of crushing up some mixed peppercorns, zesting some orange, cutting up some stem ginger and garlic, picking Greek basil from the garden then topping it on sliced fresh goat’s cheese and dribbling over olive oil.
The full recipe is on Karen’s website: Marinated English Goat’s Cheese with Garlic, Stem Ginger and Herbs and I can say this is a winner! Although we served this as a starter, I prepared this as a cheese course last weekend for French friends. Served individually on slated dishes, it went down a treat since the flavours are such a surprising mix and ideal if you want to keep the dinner light – or have a particularly large dessert to follow!
– CUISINE DE BONNE FEMME, FRENCH COUNTRY COOKING. This course includes dishes ideal for families and relaxed dinners around the table with friends. One of the dishes was this succulent pork fillet with apples.
Even the veg are given the Lavender and Lovage herb treatment. This is the first time I’ve experienced lovage. It’s rather pungent, much like celery, but imparts a most deliciously unusual fragrance for that extra flavour. Karen provides all sorts of great tips.
– THRIFTY WITHOUT BEING FRUGAL
I loved how this was put together in no time: a cherry tomato clafoutis was the perfect lunch.
During each course, Karen also takes you through her photography tips at the famous table, as we know so fondly on her instagram feed. Her expertise is so catching that the queue waiting time was starting to become long …
As part of the bread-making course, we loved testing out this typical provençal fougasse. This was far better than many of the fougasses I’ve tasted in Provence, when we visit the parent’s-in-law in Saignon.
While the ambience here is both relaxed and fun, I personally came away with inspirational ideas and a zest to return to the kitchen. It’s a real home from home address where you instantly become friends with the teacher. It’s also in an area where there is just so much to see I can sense a return trip should be on the cards. Are you game?
A huge thank you to Karen for inviting us for a taster of her cookery school, for being such a perfect hostess and to Malcolm for being chauffeur extraordinaire and a real hoot! Oh, and Malcolm, I wish I’d learned French from you years ago, as I could have saved myself so much embarrassment with the French! And grazie mille to Christina for such a girlie flying foodie trip. Come back soon! To read Christina’s account of the trip including all her photographs, pop over to Christina’s Cucina.
Karen is currently on a press trip in Canada but she’s taking bookings for her return back to France in October. And yes, it’s so new that a page is still to be put on Karen’s website but in the meantime, to sign up for any of these courses, just contact her through the website below.
Lavender & Lovage Cookery School
Auberge de la Fontaine
Chinon is the perfect escape with only a 3-hour drive from Paris. It’s over 18 years since we were here last. Don’t ask me why but family life just got in the way. So when Jamie Schler and her husband, Jean-Pierre took over the Hôtel Diderot at the start of the year, it was the best excuse to return to the Loire Valley with Antoine for a few days.
We couldn’t resist, however, a slight detour en route down via the medieval town of Loches. I hadn’t heard of the place but Antoine was right to stop, as the royal town behind the hill’s fortifications is worth seeing. You must check out the local speciality for a teatime treat: may I tempt you to some Breasts of Agnès?
Angès Sorel as the first official mistress of the Kings of France. Her liaison with Charles VII was legendary and so her beauty was too, apparently. Antoine and I bought a couple (of course) and as one of us devoured and another nibbled, this rather heavy cake revealed a shortcrust pastry encasing an amaretti tartlet with hints of candied citrus fruits. Oh-là-là! Not for the faint-hearted, as I did find them rather heavy. I’ll leave you to think of puns on that one, as I contain myself.
I’ve followed Jamie through her inspiring writings on Life’s A Feast for the past 4 years, thanks to discovering her via the fun MacTweets blog, where macaron lovers would rise to Jamie and Deeba’s monthly insane challenges and post their artistic macaron Mac Attacks.
I miss it but Jamie is forever juggling many other projects on the go: such as Plated Stories, a talented creative duo with photographer Ilva Beretta including workshops, to to mention Jamie’s writing career with books (note the plural) on the near horizon.
How Jamie manages to do all of this and run a hotel with 26 rooms beats me. And she’s so relaxed and welcoming with all of her guests, stopping to chat outside under the shade of the banana tree. So what does she do in her spare time?
“I make jam”, she says. Proof for starters is layer upon layer of jam classics and intriguing combinations stacked to the brim in her confiture dresser in the dining room, ready to serve at breakfast.
I thought foolishly that I could try them all during our stay: fig, pear & grape; banana & mango; strawberry & rosemary; greengage; 3 plums; banana; raisin & rum; confiture pour les Soeurs Tournet (rhubarb and raspberry for a couple of regulars); orange marmalade with cocoa; warm kisses (strawberry, cherry & cinnamon).
The list goes on but who couldn’t also try the fresh local goat’s cheese with walnuts and honey and chives from the neighbour’s garden?
With such a start to the day what is there to do around the medieval town of Chinon? The beauty of the Hôtel Diderot is it’s so central and within easy walking distance to the castle on the hill (there’s now even a lift!), museums, churches and restaurants (we particularly loved La Part des Anges in rue Rabelais).
On Thursday mornings, the market is just next door in the square of Joan of Arc. References to Jean d’Arc are all around the town, as is the Renaissance writer, doctor and humanist, François Rabelais, born in Chinon. In our room were a few fun quotations like
“Half of the world doesn’t know how the other half live“.
A surprisingly familiar Art Deco statue was looking down on us from the hillside just above the hotel. Known as the Sacred Heart of Chinon, this 7.4m statue has been watching over the town since 1943 thanks to the local priest, Archpriest Vivien.
He intended that this statue provide divine protection during the war. Sculpted by Paule Richon, it was influenced by the Christ the Redeemer (Corcovado) statue in Rio. Coincidence on our return from our family holiday in Rio de Janeiro?
Can you imagine living in the Royal Fortress dominating the Vienne River just before it joins the Loire, the longest river in France?
We headed to Candes-St-Martin, one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”. I’ve shared a few views of the town on social media, complete with a stunning panorama point where the sandy banks of both the Loire and the Indre rivers merge.
Cyclist tours are popular here – it’s largely flat and there are so many attractions to visit, including wineries. That’s another of our hobbies. Just saying. That would take another post!
This region around Chinon is the Touraine, also known as the Garden of France. Driving from Candes-St-Martin along the l’Indre river, I’d recommend a stop at the Château at Rigny-Ussé.
The gardens at Ussé were designed by Lenotre, just as with Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles.
Over the past 20 years the castle has been renovated and it’s quite an achievement. This castle is perfect for family outings, as the tower includes many rooms devoted to the Sleeping Beauty, as Charles Perault on coming here was inspired to write his famous classic. Like the Belle au Bois Dormant tower, there are life-size models all around the castle, which makes it all rather charming.
In the bigger castles like this one, the owners were obliged to prepare a room for their Roi, the King of France – even if they slept in them or not. Just for the record, the other nearby fairytale castle, Azay-le-Rideau (see my blog post on this), is currently being renovated but worth a visit to see how it’s being done.
Another must visit in the area around Chinon is Villandry Castle. More famous for their gardens we appreciated having a guide to take us around inside the castle. The parquet flooring also echoes the love garden theme below. The higher you climb the stairs in the tower, the more you can appreciate the gardens’ grandeur and symmetry.
Our guide told us the good news, “Now enjoy the stroll through the gardens and don’t forget that to pick the grapes and taste them if you think they’re perfectly ripe”.
Stopping in Tours on Saturday morning, returning home to Paris, the market at Les Halles is legendary. Especially the cheese counters, including a Meilleur Ouvrier de France‘s gigantic selection of the local goat cheeses. As I turned to leave, one last wink came from Agnès with these beautiful ashen-coated specimens, perfect with the local white wine of either Sauvignon blanc or Chenin.
Cheers to you from Chinon, readers, and thanks again to our lovely hostess, Jamie at the Hôtel Diderot! Well done Jamie in finding such an idyllic setting. Antoine and I have found yet more excuses to return again very soon.