Inside the bakery #1: Nothing compares to choux…

Bakeries and France are like peas and carrots. It’s unthinkable to imagine the country without their intoxicating displays and heady smells, and they’ve shown they can hold firm, clinging on to France’s streets with unwavering authority no matter what big supermarket chains can throw at them (i.e. not bloody much). Nothing compares to tucking into the nubbin end of a warm baguette on your way home, and as for the pastries, well, the reason for many a gym membership. You could almost say heading to one is a religious experience…

When talking about simple delights, food is naturally at the heart of the French philosophy. Whether an expertly constructed croque monsieur in a neighbourhood brasserie, or a plate of pain perdu washed down with a steaming coffee (ok tea, British tradition holds strong) a few euros is all it takes to transport yourself to gastronomic heaven. And if it’s that you’re explicitly after, then the bakery provides you with a dizzying array of tickets.

But what to choose? Forget the road to heaven, trying to decide what to have, and then trying to get it home before you cave in and devour the thing in two whole bites is a special kind of hell. Luckily, I have selflessly conducted extensive research on the matter, and can now introduce you to one of my bakery counter favourites – la religieuse. Shake her hand, give her the bises, and if you don’t like her, then keep in the loop as I’ll be presenting other delicious candidates as the year progresses.

When thinking of choux pastry (so called since the little puffs look like mini cabbages or choux), it’s the humble eclair or profiterole that normally springs to mind. But the choux family has another, rather pious member, dressed to the nines in honour of your gustatory pleasure, usually cruelly overlooked in favour of her better-known cousins.

Literally translating as ‘nun’ a religieuse is a two-tiered choux delight, complete with natty little outfit and a tender heart of crème patissière – that thick pastry cream with a calorie count worth running a couple of marathons for (but c’mon, who’s counting?). It’s designed on purpose to resemble a good sister, with a head and body covered in an icing habit delicately joined together by a piped buttercream ruff.

Said to have been invented in 1856 at famous Parisian café Frascati (perhaps the chef had a few sins to absolve but a shift schedule that didn’t factor in time for confession), this edible abbess typically comes in chocolate or coffee flavour, though luxury bakery La Durée often flies in the face of conformity and peddles colourful morello cherry and pistachio versions (amongst others). Pricey at €7.50 a pop, it’s a bold move when dicing with such a traditional food heritage, and frankly, as an expert, I don’t think much of their ruffs.

All wrapped up in a dainty little package from around €2.20-€2.50 (depending on the postcode, obviously) all that is left after the all important selection process is complete, is to transport la soeur home, and decide, whilst swiftly whispering a prayer, whether to eat the head or the body first (I hope you can appreciate just the sacrifice I made in delaying my personal gratification whilst I took photos). The singing of hymns in praise of French bakeries afterwards, is entirely optional.

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