I have always encouraged my husband to drive for miles, for hours if necessary, on quests for a certain speciality or the place of origin of a recipe. My 15 year old son says I am obsessed but I prefer to think of myself as passionate. He sits beside me laughing now, ‘oh mum’s trying to put a spin on our crazy trips’. I hope one day when he is finally spat out at the other end of adolescence that he will understand – either that or as an adult he will run in horror from the glimpse of any similar outing. I prefer to take the risk of scarring the kids for life against sorties gourmande* if there is even a slight possibility that they will one day have a precious declique themselves. I can concede that my excursions can be fairly batty sorts of affairs and that plenty of people may not understand. But they have come to represent the richest experiences in my french life. Totalled up, thousands of kilometres travelled over the last decade for a type of sweet here, a piece of cheese wrapped in leaves there, a brioche, a type of olive, a special saucisson elsewhere. A piece of vintage kitchenalia too large to post that is dans son jus (literally ‘in his juice’, in its original state) where it has stood for more than 50 years, far flung from our location, my hot-wired logic and search for authenticity shouts “let’s go get it ourselves!”, but of course. What is terrific but surprising in our pairing is how we both equally appreciate the discoveries, even though my husband is as delightfully sensible as I am happily zany.
With the dispersal of so many delectable foods up and down the country, crisscrossing europe in the back of transporter trucks on freeways day and night, people probably think that surely I can find so many of these things in a local hypermarket. Often I can. Perhaps an approximation near enough to good quality, or even the real deal. As those specialities depart their origins for the lacklustre autoroutes, their beauty fades and to a certain extent the spell is broken. But there is absolutely nothing like going to the source, the cradle of a speciality and standing on the spot there to absorb a taste of history. To close one’s eyes and concentrate, to connect with the silence of the past and allow a cake to tell it’s story.Spying the exit for Yenne from the autoroute on our way home from Savoie, I insisted upon a detour so we could stop by the lieu de naissance** of the famous Gateau de Savoie. We arrived at lunchtime and most stores were closed, but there was a maison de village that had caught fire in the town centre so there were the usual fifty or so firefighters and gendarme floating about. Quite a lot of residual excitement but we had just missed the action. ‘Placate the children, damage control, all the extra kilometres for nothing?’ I thought to myself as I had been hoping we were still in time for patisseries. We found an artisan ice cream store open and the maitre glacier (master ice cream maker) was serving. I spied genepi*** flavour and he insisted that he only uses the plant, not the alcohol. Ok, I ordered a scoop. My husband waited with la meute in the street, talking to M. Le Gendarme. As I announced all the flavours chosen, M. Le Gendarme pounced playfully on mine and hooted, “well who is doing the driving, heh?” He had confirmed to my husband that yes,Yenne is the home of the Gateau de Savoie, that the patisserie is further along the street. He wished us bonne route as we peeled away, past the firemen packing away hoses. I felt flat that almost everything was closed, badly timed and I thought the search for the Gateau de Savoie might just have flopped.
Beside the turreted maison de la presse (newsagent), the very simple building sat with a banner emblazoned above to state the name, Au veritable Gateau de Savoie ‘the real Gateau de Savoie’. But it was closed of course. Blinds down and lights off, I shaded my eyes to peer in through the glass door to semi darkness. I faintly saw the gateaux de savoie lined up on the counter and couldn’t walk away without one of the most famous cakes of Europe. There were old cake tins decorating the shelves, curved glass counters, a painted board stating ‘our wood fired specialities, the Gateau de Savoie, recipe of Pierre of Yenne (1348), regional speciality the St Genix, the National, the Biscuit of Savoie with almonds’.
We saw a phone number on the door. The three kids were mortified. My son chastised, ‘You are not calling that poor patissier guy mum’. The kids were out of there, keys in hand to go and sit in the car. Of course we would call. But there was no answer. Then my husband spied the surname of the patissier on the bell next door. Of course we pressed. I was not leaving town without my Gateau de Savoie. A child tentatively pushed open the window above and softly told us, “Yes he is home, he will come down stairs.” Was he taking his midday sieste? Did I feel rude, well sort of. Would he be thinking me annoying? Perhaps, but I really wanted a Gateau de Savoie. I couldn’t go there to the township, to the street, to peer in the patisserie door and even see the jewels but go home empty handed!
He arrived. Quiet with a small smile, a kind face. What a relief! The guardian of such a treasure of french food heritage, of course he would understand. My husband waited outside with la meute all leashed together. The patissier flicked on a light, I stepped inside and felt like fainting from seeing the cakes, the molds, the perfect yet simple mid 20th century decor. To the back of the store there was a dividing wall made of frosted glass, with a crazing-like pattern, beyond which must exist the patisserie workspace itself. Even in the shade of the closed bakery excitement exploded like white light in my mind. It appeared that almost nothing inside the patisserie had changed for decades.
I felt and do still feel today like the luckiest person in the world to have seen the most sublime jewel. The cake is so well known, but how many people would go to the patisserie where the original recipe from before 1348 is used and guarded as a secret? M. Truffet, the patissier explained the succession of owners, he even went to find beautiful old framed photographs documenting the history.
One was of the cakes wrapped as today, piled high at the fair of Chambery. Another of the former patissier M. Debauge, standing behind a large quantity of the snowy batter that really did mimic the vast white mountain view outside. He scooped with a tool resembling a paddle, into a mold that is perhaps one of those sitting on a behind the counter even today.
The quiet and barely lit scene was somehow befitting to the discovery of this cake in its historical birthplace. Lined up, their form were charming, less than a half dozen on a glass shelf, each pierced with a simple white tag of price by weight. Buff coloured with the slightest sugary crust. A gateau without necessity for mirror like adornment, no still life of fruit-becomes-art on a cake canvas that we see in patisseries all over france. The gateau speaks his story of the success through simplicity. The english translation of sponge cake was disappointing to M. Truffet and I can empathise. Growing up with this name, I am able to associate the words ‘sponge cake’ to something delicious but it certainly belies a concept that the cake is an accessory, probably something dry to be enlivened by a more exciting ingredient. How wrong could that be? The gateau de savoie is the star of the show and his name is proud. Sublime in its lightness, this ethereal quality that made me feel like I was feasting on an edible cloud. With profuse gratitude I took my leave, with two white papered, beribboned packages safely in hand.
The two of us headed back to the car and recounted to the youth our adventure. They were surprised that we had not been perceived as bothersome (and on the spot they want to get their hands on the cakes). As the two adults in the car we chattered to each other about the experience with the excitement of giddy children, we were so elated. Twelve years of terrific little adventures, where I always said happily but vaguely that I would do ‘something like a blog’ became a solid resolution at that moment to finally do such. The visit to Au Veritable Gateau de Savoie altered my course. This site came to fruition thanks to that visit. I had already believed that I was wringing the maximum joy from my foodie excursions and that my excited discoveries were quite enough as they were. But whimsy, passion and fascination with all things vintage, baking and travel, well they all collided on that Saturday afternoon in a different light. It’s time to share it. I wasn’t expecting such a surprise on the way home in the car, but noticing the sign, taking that rather long detour made me take my own much deeper one. I advise others to take the detour when you see it. Clutch those little but exciting, dreamy wisps of possibility, of experience; give them a shake up like a snow globe and watching the sparkles fall.
You probably imagine that the story of our visit to Au Veritable Gateau de Savoie finishes here. In fact, that was just the start. Meet me back here and I’ll share with you the entire story, our visit behind the scenes in Part Two….
***Genepi is plant of the artemisia family that is found in the alpine regions of Savoie, used to manufacture liqueur that is ingested undiluted and sometimes as a beer. It is rather an acquired taste of a camomile and slightly minty refreshing flavour. Unlike other other artemisia such as wormwood, it has no aniseed flavour overtones.