Retracing our route away from Yenne that late winter afternoon the car hugged close again to the river Rhone. Only one day earlier, having admired this spectacular river amidst the man-made beauty of Geneva, Switzerland, that Saturday we saw instead a breathtaking natural tableau. The wide green river commandeered the Gorge de la Balme that incised the mountain landscape. Yenne is positioned in the westerly portion of Savoie, separated by the Rhone from the Ain (which is pronounced un, and quite interestingly is the 1st department of France!) and sits very close to the department of Isere at the south. Rather than turn onto the autoroute at the closest point where we left off, we cut through Isere on the more charming routes nationales. It is certainly true that autoroutes have allowed us to traverse France so much more rapidly, but how much we lose by avoiding the romantic smaller roadways! Even as we eventually caught back the autoroute to continue the majority of our journey, the sweet poignant mood stayed with me and I felt that I had not seen the patisserie Au Veritable Gateau de Savoie for the last time.
That sentiment endured beyond the usual holiday nostalgia, I could not stop thinking about how fortunate I had been to find such a place. I felt that I wanted to delve further into the story of this patisserie and for that reason I found myself less a month later, back following the wide Rhone watercourse, tracing back to Yenne. Following early spring rain, the river was positively heaving and rapidly flowing. The slight warmth had encouraged tentative flowers to uncurl from the ground, the snow in of Le dent du chat (the cat’s tooth) mountain ranges was thawed and blossoms on the trees bordering ranged from the softest to coral pinks. Having telephoned the patisserie a week earlier, I organised for us to visit at opening hour and speak more with its owner. Parking close to the church, with a tractor at proximity gave Yenne a distinctly small country town feeling. This time we travelled with our 10 year old daughter who was very enthusiastic to participate in our adventure without her brother! (That brother was equally enthusiastic to spend the weekend with a friend on non culinary pursuits without his sister!) Of course, la meute were always up for a roadtrip and having already that morning hurtled about at full speed with their ‘host’ spaniel at our nearby chambre d’hote, were tired out and ready for a morning nap in the car.
Madame Arista Truffet greeted us on arrival at the patisserie with her charming smile and her elegant demeanor. A perfect hostess, upon seeing that we arrived with our daughter, called to young Miss Truffet in their quarters upstairs, to come to welcome the youngest guest. The softly spoken, girl whose opening of the window to our bell chime had somehow precipitated our last adventure was again perfectly polite and delightful to encounter. Offering a drink to her young invitee, taking down and showing me up close the old steel baking moulds, she seemed mature beyond her single decade of life. Quickly it became evident that this family of three were all quiet, very thoughtful, intelligent people.
As I admired all the freshly made cakes, Arista explained each one with an obvious passion and knowledge. I was entranced by the Gateau de Savoie glinting in the morning sun, it’s crust like a fragile morning frost. Equally beautiful were puffed pastries called Conversations, dressing the counter. They were filled with frangipane paste, covered with a slick of meringue and slashed to create a dramatic crust at baking. We had arrived at a busy time amidst preparations for Easter and confirming the sheer talent of Christophe Truffet , I discovered that he was confectioning his own chocolates for the festival. Shiny dark eggs stood in elegantly, displayed cartons. Adorable little ducks, squirrels and bears, all finished with vibrant bows, silently sat on the exquisite vintage display case, its hinged, curved glass lid poised open. An adorable small pile of cakes named tome de Yenne, were a play on the use of the form and name of a regional cheese speciality, the tome de Savoie. In squat, cylindrical forms, the tome of Yenne I discovered, was two perfect discs of meringue sandwiched with a luxurious cream, dredged with icing sugar. With delight I discovered that this morning they had produced small Chiboust tartlettes, named after the recipe’s creator. Each perfect pastry case was topped with a lightly gilded, domed creme; how I adored both the taste of that creme and the sound of that name in my mouth.
Christophe Truffet arrived last, having been occupied with the oven and he ushered us back behind those lovely frosted vintage glass panes to the workrooms. He had suggested that we may like to see the oven, with an eagerness to share the passion for their produce and the workings of their atelier. Re-visiting the patisserie shop front had already swathed me with a vintage-gourmet tourist high but the real discovery was about to commence. At the first instant of heading toward the workspace it became evident that the shopfront of the patisserie was not alone in its preservation of an earlier epoque. We were delightfully stunned and Mr Truffet could have well utilised his wooden baker’s peel to scoop both of us up off the floor at our first sight of the wood fired oven! For the vintage baker, this work space was a superb time capsule. For my husband, a mechanical engineer with a penchant for the history of engineering, it was a museum beyond his greatest expectations.
The oven alone is worthy of a page of description! Manufactured in 1936 in Alsace and constructed on site, the wood fired oven takes 2 days to preheat to reach the required temperature. As that temperature slowly descends, it is given a boost each morning by firing branches to create the embers that are finally swept out; the oven ready for use. The complete mastery of this patissier of his four a bois was evident. Even the wood source is selected specially with long thin branches being chosen so as to reach far back into the oven and to burn quickly rather than a thicker log. Baking progresses through an order of pastries that require the highest heat to lowest and the oven floor, so well used it has worn down with a slight slope, requires the careful placement of goods to not cause a lopsided bake! The oven bricks absorb the moisture released from the cake while cooking, therefore there is dripping, nor necessity to open the door to evacuate the steam. Therefore, the precious flavour is locked within! The famous billowy cake, with it’s recipe dating further back than 1348: I shuffle tentatively about the subject and discover thrillingly that the secret is locked away safely!
And the moulds! I admired pile upon pile of circular tins with their distinctive multi domed daisy petal-like tops, either sugared and waiting to receive the secret recipe mixture, or empty, except for tiny flakes of residual cake after baking. I loved them, they were beautiful. More youthful than the ancient ones waiting on the shelves, these beauties were rotating day after day to create memories for the new generation of Gateau de Savoie admirers.It seemed utterly poignant that standing before this enormous oven, that Mr Truffet recounted his story within the patisserie. At the age of 16 he was an apprentice in this unchanged kitchen, under the tutelage of Mr Debauge, a man whose family had a long history with the business. Intriguingly, the name Debauge (of Bauge) shows the special regional link – the Bauge being a mountainous range not far away from Yenne, still within Savoie. After an absence of 10 years working away in an array of patisseries across France, Christophe Truffet returned with another young baker to propose purchasing the business as partners. Wise and aging Mr Debauge, who was at that point selling the business but not the building, rejected the offer made by this young partnership; it was too small to sustain two. Some years later, again but alone this time, Christophe approached Mr Debauge again and by then the aging patissier was selling both the business and building. He sold both with confidence to Mr Truffet and I smiled hearing this lovely story, I cannot imagine that his plan was ever anything other. Having himself guided the craft of this young man, he was confident to relinquish the precious Gateau de Savoie to such an invested, passionate patissier. In this touching story of the handing down of such a rich piece of Savoie history, a french legacy, I cannot impress more strongly how the story and secret is well cradled in Christophe’s hands.I asked the young Miss Truffet if she would one day like to be the patissier at Au veritable Gateau de Savoie. For now her young mind spies another career path, but she enjoys to bake with her father. I know that we are all hoping that she will somewhere along the pathway change her mind.
As we turned about the room, the patissier happily explained each piece of machinery. Demonstrating again that the huge oven was at the heart of the building, but not just for baking cakes, we discover that a smaller stove receives the swept out and recycled embers to heat the water for the kitchen. I am impressed by a row of cul-de-poule bowls, in copper or in steel, an astonishing number of accessories for whipping egg whites and cream, but I am charmed the most by the vintage, long handled beater whisk. Such simple but strong and sturdy machinery everywhere!
Almost as impressive as the wood fire was the nut grinder, with its gigantic, heavy granite rollers built in 1920. Mr Truffet explained that the majority of patisseries in France today use ready ground nuts. However, to preserve the freshest, sweet perfumed flavour, he purchases the best of almonds that are found in Provence and crushes them himself carefully resetting the rollers tighter and tighter for a delicate, fine powder. There was a small but very beautiful old copper praliniere, for rolling and tumbling nuts in caramel for praline. If you have never seen such a piece of equipment, try to imagine a curiously elegant, brilliant orange metal cement mixer – but instead for producing delicious nuts encased in a sugar shell!
So passionate for his craft, Mr Truffet even showed us to the chocolate workshop. Our daughter’s eyes were agog at the single piece of modern equipment, a machine to constantly rotate melted chocolate sustained at the correct temperature. We saw piles and piles of moulds, adorable halves of chocolate kittens ready to be dressed for sale and a devilishly tempting pile of various small chocolate fish forms, a french favourite shape for chocolates at Easter. The famous chocolate cloche (bell) was obviously present – in France children are taught that the church bell delivers eggs, rather than a rabbit! So dedicated to good produce, yet also with a spirited ethic, I discovered that Mr Truffet prefers to support a smaller, high quality chocolate supplier, Michel Cluizel, than any larger name. He buys his milk from a local co-operative producer. Could this fellow be any more perfect? Ah yes, in summertime he transforms a space in his workshop for making icecream!
After being offered a sample of each type of smooth, rich chocolate, we were ushered to a small office directly behind the glass to the store, where Madame Truffet had sliced a Gateau de Savoie and was preparing coffee for us to share. As the men spoke animatedly of the machinery, I discovered Arista was also a musician, who was preparing a concert with others for springtime to be held at the patisserie. With a curious twist, all the music selected was around the subject of patisserie – and I never imagined that there would be so many examples. She is also passionate for vintage collecting and we spoke of organising a return visit where the two of us could ‘hunt’ together.
We spent more than two hours with the Truffet family and left with a feeling of having known each other as friends for many years. Having promised I would return again for a serious shopping session, we said our goodbyes. Heading back out into the sunshine laden down with beautifully wrapped pastries in packages, the three of us were marked by the passion of this gorgeous family. Young Miss Truffet’s presence acted as an interface to engage our daughter in the workings of the patisserie and I was so happy to see her have such a positive, remarkable experience. I thank them so deeply for their welcome, their willingness to allow us to see inside this spectacular living and working museum and most of all for their dedication to preserving this precious piece of french culture.
Au Veritable Gateau de Savoie can be found at 2 Rue des Pretres, 73170 Yenne.
Telephone +33 4 79 36 70 02