Chouquettes from Gourmet Rhapsody
Muriel Barbery is a French novelist and professor of philosophy best known for her sublime second novel. The Elegance of the Hedgehog follows the relationship of an unexpectedly well-read concierge, Renée Michel, with the bourgeois inhabitants of a Parisian apartment building. Gourmet Rhapsody, Barbery’s lesser known but equally elegant first novel, is set in the same apartment building but focuses on an elderly food critic whose imminent demise has thrown the life at Rue de Grenelle into disarray.
Monsieur Pierre Arthens is dying of cardiac insufficiency. He, quite literally, has not heart enough to support his own passions (food, mainly, and possibly wine). This near-heartless man cares not a whisker about final adieus to his long-suffering wife or steadfast mistress. He has no wisdom to impart to his under-valued children. In the space that his heart should have filled there is only an insatiable longing for one particular food, a flavor par excellence, that he cannot quite identify. From his deathbed, Monsieur Arthens explores his culinary memories from appreciation of his grandmother’s gravy to becoming France’s most revered food critic.
In a lifetime of writing about food, the gourmet has entirely missed the point. Food should be relished, not picked apart. In dissecting every meal he has let the heart of it escape. By excluding his family he has turned his back on the most essential of all seasonings. In bite-sized chapters his wife, children, neighbours, employees and protégé each take turns to pour scorn, defend or grieve the dying gourmet. Meanwhile, Monsieur continues his search for a single, elusive taste of…something.
Gourmet Rhapsody is a book to make your mouth water. Every single page exudes an aroma of browning butter, or drips a deeply reduced jus, or is stained with a ring of Burgundian wine. Barbery's descriptions of food go beyond tastes or aromas. She captures the feeling of food.
'The raw tomato, devoured in the garden when freshly picked, is a horn of abundance of simple sensations, a radiating rush in one's mouth that brings every pleasure. T he resistance of the skin- slightly taut, just enough; the luscious yield of the tissues, their seed-filled liqueur oozing to the corners of one's lips, and that one wipes away without any fear of staining one's fingers; this plump little globe unleashing a flood of nature inside us: a tomato, an adventure.'
It is a delicious book but, like a balanced cocktail, Gourmet Rhapsody has an Angostura bitter note. It brings to mind the very best of food you have ever eaten while at the same time reminding you that you will most likely never experience that food, in the same place and in the same way, ever again. Muriel Barbery warns against a constant search for perfection and offers a reminder to enjoy the small, imperfect things in life. Lick the bowl, kiss the chef, enjoy the chouquette.
Chouquettes are small choux pastry puffs often eaten as a small snack, le goûter, by peckish French people to stave off hunger in the long gap between lunch and dinner. They are traditionally studded with crystals of pearl sugar which may be sourced online or substituted with any crunchy sugar. Dark chocolate drops work wonderfully but need careful watching to catch them at the brief moment when the chouquettes have puffed and browned but before then chocolate burns.
Monsieur Arthens describes the pleasure of chouquettes:
‘Painstakingly I detached one chouquette from its fellows, carried it religiously to my mouth and swallowed it down, closing my eyes...
...the ineffable nature of that sensation, of lightly touching then gradually crushing the moist batter in a mouth that has become orgasmic. The sugar had soaked in moisture and did not crunch; it crystallized as you bit it, its particles broke up without violence, harmoniously, your jaws did not break the sugar, but scattered it gently, in an indescribable waltz of creamy and crunchy.’
100g (3½oz)sieved plain flour
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
140mls (4fl. oz) water
75g (3oz) unsalted butter
3 eggs, beaten
Glaze: 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 teaspoon of milk
Toppings: pearl sugar crystals, chocolate chips or Demerara sugar.
Preheat your oven to 220˚C (425˚F) and line two baking trays with parchment paper.
Combine the water, butter, sugar and salt in a saucepan. Heat gently, stirring constantly until the butter melts. Next, bring the mixture to a rolling boil and immediately remove from the heat.
Add the flour to the pot and beat the mixture with gusto until it comes together into a ball.
Return the pot to a medium heat and stir for 1 minute until the mixture begins to leave a ‘fur’ or residue on the bottom of the pot. Remove the pot from the heat and allow it to cool for a minute. You should be able to comfortably hold your hand on the bottom of the pot.
Add the beaten eggs gradually, in four or five portions, beating with as much elbow grease as you can muster so that each addition of egg is combined before the next is made. The mixture becomes smooth and shiny with a dropping consistency. Forgo adding the last drop of beaten egg if you feel the mixture is becoming too wet to hold its shape on the baking tray.
Use two spoons, or a piping bag if you prefer, to form walnut-sized mounds of paste on the trays.
Brush the top of each mound with the egg glaze and generously sprinkle with your chosen topping.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until the chouquettes have puffed up and are golden brown.
Pierce each chouquette to allow the escape of a gentle puff of steam. This will prevent undesirable soggy bottoms. Eat these with as much haste as good manners will allow.
Muriel Barbery's third novel, The Life of Elves (available here), was published in September 2016.