“Those of us… who can afford to eat, who have the blessing of food in our life, I think to take it lightly is a bad thing. There are people who haven’t got food, and those of us who do, to not take pleasure in it seems such a distortion of any sensible values system.” – Nigella Lawson
Crème brûlée is the source of much tension within the dessert world. Or should that be Trinity cream? I may even offer the name crema catalana. For years the French, the English and the Spanish have vied for mastery of this tortoise-shelled custard. It’s not hard to see why the three nations are so hellbent on making it theirs; there is something infinitely beguiling about the rich, voluptuous custard, the top of which is sprinkled with a thick layer of sugar, caramelised (usually by blow-torch à la nouvelle cuisine) in a blazing show of culinary mastery. Then the magic: the crack of the custard’s blistered carapace as the golden velvet beneath is unearthed. Salivating yet? It is clear to see why European gastronomes are in rapture over this pud.
As a Cantabrian, you’d think I ought to be loyal to the Trinity Cream story. Apparently, Trinity Cream, or Cambridge burnt cream, was put on the menu at Trinity College in 1879. The college quite literally put their stamp on it; the blistered sugar carapace was embossed with the college arms by way of a branding iron. The English have latched onto Trinity’s dedication to the custardy delight; whilst they do not claim to have produced the original recipe for crème brûlée -that is an argument fought on either side of the Pyrenees – they do insist that they made it an unquestionably British dessert of today. Yes, the French may well have produced the first recipe in the 17th Century (a fact disputed by many a Catalonian), however, the French did not install it into their culinary hall of fame until well into the 1980s, when it became, according to the food writer Colman Andrews, ‘’a symbol of that decade’s self-indulgence and the darling of the restaurant boom.’’
The French resurgence of the crème brûlée in the 1980s is, according to Gallic opinion, due to the reappreciation of the work of chef François Massialot, whose 1691 cookbook Cuisinier royal et bourgeois contains the supposed first recipe for the dessert. Massialot was chef de cuisine to the Sun King Louis XIV, a role which, according to the creation of the crème brûlée, involved dealing with the petulance of Louis’s younger brother, Philippe d’Orléans. Crème brûlée is said to have come about following the prince’s Goldilocks-esque complaint to the chef that his custard was too cold. Massialot had the idea of placing a hot iron on the top of the cream to warm it a little, the result of which was the caramelisation of the sugar on the surface without heating of the cream underneath. The contrast between hot and cold was ‘just right’ for Philippe d’Orléans; he continued to ask for more and Massialot developed the recipe.
Massialot created a blueprint recipe that he loved so much that he suggested many developments of the classic vanilla-scented custard, the aroma of which is so redolent of the nursery. In the original recipe, the chef offers many ideas:
“Il y faut mettre un peu de cannelle en bâton, & de l’écorce de citron vert haché, & d’autre confit. On y peut aussi hacher de l’écorce d’orange comme celle de citron ; & alors on l’appelle « Crème brûlée à l’orange ». Pour la faire plus délicate, on y peut mêler des pistaches pilées, ou des amandes, avec une goutte d’eau de fleur d’orange.”
“[Regarding the mixture] … Put in a little cinnamon, alongside lime peel and other candied peels. You can also add orange peel, or lemon peel, to the mixture; then it is called ‘Orange Crème Brûlée’. To enhance the delicacy of the mixture, you can mix in crushed pistachios, or almonds, with a drop of orange flower water.” (My own translation)
The French view Massialot as having brought into existence a monumental dish of the French culinary canon which never went away, but was simply taken to new, innovative heights in the 1980s (anybody for crème brûlée flavoured with lavender or basil?).
All this Anglo-French rivalry doesn’t even take into account the claim to crème brûlée mastery put forward by the Catalonians. According to their view, the Massialot’s crème brûlée is just a cheap imitation of their crema catalana, a dish which supposedly made its debut on the Catalonian table in the 14th Century (the first known recipe comes from the Llibre de Sent Soví). Crema Catalana is a little different from the French 17th Century creation: it uses cinnamon and lemon zest for aroma in place of vanilla, milk is preferred over cream, and only the egg yolk is used as opposed to the whole egg. The recipe was first referred to as crema catalana in 1745 by the Spanish friar Juan de Altamiras. Could the origin of this resplendent pudding be made any more confusing? Well, it just so happens that de Altamiras may have got his recipe during his residence in the Portuguese city of Monsaraz.
So, who claims primacy in the world of blow-torched custards? To put it simply, I don’t care. Or at least, I think it shouldn’t matter. As a historian and a linguist, the curiosity regarding the origin of the crème brûlée is principally academic. It is undoubtedly interesting to consider the roots of certain dishes, and the light this can shed on international relations. Is the debate over the crème brûlée just another example of Anglo-French rivalry that has existed ever since William the Conqueror set foot in Hastings? Well, perhaps. To place the dish in its historical context in this way is productive. To psychologise the dish, to consider the importance of it in each respective country’s national psyche, is also tempting, and an interesting approach to understanding the importance of food to national identity.
I would argue, however, as a foodie, that focusing too heavily on the origin of the crème brûlée masks its beauty. Food is undoubtedly social history on a plate, however I believe there is something in appreciating food for what it is, and not getting too bogged down in culinary truths. When French food is en vogue, the burnished custard dish will become an object of Francophilic adulation, whilst a renaissance in British cooking will crown the dessert as the archetypal British comfort food. Arguing too fastidiously about the origins of dishes is just another form of snobbishness.
Food is not about fashions. Food is not about fads. Food is about eating what tastes good. Trusting your palette and forging your own path in the pursuit of good food, regardless of the academic arguments surrounding you, is the best education a foodie can receive. Food is about exchange and sharing a pleasure that brings people together. Food is universal, a form of love. Let’s focus then on the gastronomic pleasures that unite us, rather than the national differences that seek to segregate us.