Just before Christmas, neighbors A. and P. were talking during dinner about how to make perfect mushrooms.
She was having trouble with hers and wanted his advice – that much I caught, of the rapid colloquial French. They were both very concerned that it be done correctly.
There is nothing unusual in this conversation in our region. Mushrooms, like most food, are sacred, and P. is the man who taught me personally to sautée cèpes properly a few years ago. So I had no doubt that A. was soliciting his expert advice for her own kitchen.
But then I realized that they were talking about Bûches de Noël, and that changed everything. They were talking about the little meringue mushrooms that grow out of the traditional Yule Log cakes!
It turns out that forming them perfectly is almost as important a process as cooking real cèpes. You want to get those meringue mushrooms just right, because they come around just one week a year.
My friend P. told me that he had just made Bûches de Noël desserts for 600 students in the local middle school where he works as the chef. These photos capture the magnitude of that operation.
600 students means 600 little meringue mushrooms, and each one must be perfect and convincing – an individual gift to charm the senses of that one diner.
Yes, the middle school in this tiny backwater town has its own fulltime chef, and not just any chef, but a patisserie expert, and the son of a patisserie expert, as well – raised to the business of making sweets.
Imagine your feelings about school lunch if they had been this routinely gourmet and served in courses like they are in lil’ol’ Bessières. Imagine if they came with tiny meringue cèpes for the holidays, hand-sculpted with a dusting of cocoa over the top so they looked more realistic.
Would the food supply chain have figured more prominently in your imagination? Would cola and shrinkwrapped honeybuns from vending machines have seemed so good?
Every day I live here I am in awe of how seriously the public around me takes all cooking: Procuring the best supplies, preparing the food, eating it, remembering it, and sharing it. Like at this dinner, the traditional subject of conversation during truly good meals is other truly good dishes. It’s not a competition, but a celebration of them all.
Eventually P. and A. were able to come to some understanding about her problem, which was how to get the meringue mushroom caps to stick better to the squat bottoms (a 20-second delay, apparently, to let the meringue set up tacky before capping, and then two hours in the oven at just exactly 90c to keep them from collapsing), and so the art has been passed on yet again.
May it always be so.