Whenever we’d make the annual trip to Cambrai to see my northern French grandparents, Mamie would have a cake in the oven. A cake she made so often, actually, that it eventually acquired her namesake. Her Gateau Paulette was spongy, light and moist. The colour of farmhouse butter and perfectly risen. A cake I’d always assumed was the yoghurt sponge I once wrote about here. But no. Sometimes it takes the passing of a life and a lost (and found) recipe to reveal the myths we live by. Her Gateau Paulette came out around teatime. And much like the yoghurt cake I seem to remember so clearly (but which she baked far less often), it too arrived on a china platter, plonked on the middle of a frayed tablecloth ready for the crumbs and hot chocolate we’d inevitably spill.
There was always hot chocolate. Served – as is the way in France – in breakfast bowls, ready to soak up morsels of crumbly cake or the edges of a torn buttery pastry. In anticipation of my request, Mamie always bought tea and that too came ceremoniously in a bowl. Always, of course, alongside a jug of thick fresh milk and white sugar cubes stacked in a perfect jenga.
As we ate, Mamie would hover around us, relating her morning’s trip to the boulangerie, to the farm, to the market, what Madame L said to Madame F and how much Monsieur X was charging for his old chickens. She always knew where to get the butteriest croissants and the creamiest salt-speckled butter cut like cheese and sold by the kilo. We half listened as she chuckled along, recounting and recalculating her shopping list aloud… endives, prunes, tomates, fromage Maroilles, jambon, sucre... before handing out sweets and sitting down for her fix of badly dubbed sitcoms.
As her world dimmed so too did her afternoon reveries. Still, her cake unfailingly appeared, but forgotten tricks and an unconfident hand left it under-baked or over-risen, collapsed in on itself or flaunting gaping cracks along its once perfect ridge. My grandmother’s sense of time expanded and shrank like the cake she baked so often. Blind spots appeared where they hadn’t been.
We failed to acknowledge her fading mind until it was too late. Instead, her amnesia became the excuse for our own, allowed to creep around the edges of our daily lives until we realised too late what we’d never bothered to learn in the first place. The ease of a freshly whipped mayonnaise, the clever thrift of sweet eggy pain perdu or the tender meat of an old poached hen. The simple pleasures of salted cucumbers doused in cream, of home-grown potatoes licked with butter or churned into smoother-than-smooth purée. The heady scent of sizzling chicken livers basking in butter. My grandmother carried her recipes with her and there they stayed.
When Mamie passed a few months ago, the family assembled. And for the first time in the 10 years that she had been absent, we were finally able to recount our memories of the woman who had birthed us all. Her five children and 11 grandchildren, most of us living so disparately these days. We sat together sharing our memories of the same smells, tastes and rituals that governed Mamie’s kitchen, and all of our early lives. I asked everyone to write them down on scrap pieces of paper. Here they are, translated into English.
Christmas Eve hot chocolate with brioche and redcurrant jam for dunking, chicken and broth-soaked rice, her apricot tart, the smell of hot milk, chocolate spread on hot toast, baguettes jambon-beurre for supper, the sweet cabinet, Kinder eggs, her shouting up the stairs – “les enfants! Venez chercher vos petits pain!” – hot chocolate and cream, homemade frites and perfectly dressed green salad, Gateau Paulette hot from the oven, steak napolitain from the butchers (the best steak in the world!), picking redcurrants in the garden, Sunday morning petits pains, fried potatoes, roast leg of lamb, the sound of spoons against bowls eating soup in front of the TV, the oniony smell of her vegetable pantry, the best soft-boiled egg and soldiers, ile flottante au caramel, wild rabbits gutted and cooked with prunes, tomatoes, onions and garlic, with good potato purée…
How many of our grown-up cravings for comfort, our food habits and hates are shaped by these childhood moments, and the memories that we created as a result? What is our food history but threads of stories preserved in the meals we turn to? And what happens when we forget, or never learn, how to turn those stories into food that nourishes us? Earlier this year, my grandad found a recipe written in Mamie’s hand. It was her famous Gateau Paulette. My mum and I recreated it, reading between the lines of assumed knowledge. Plucking at the invisible threads of our shared history. Would she have done it like that? Do you remember how she added the eggs? Recipes, like memory, can be unreliable.
It tasted almost, not quite, but almost just like hers.
200g plain flour
1 packet of baking powder (6g)
100g melted butter
Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Separate the egg whites and beat them until stiff peaks form. Beat the yolks and stir into the dry mixture along with melted butter. Fold in the egg whites and add just enough milk to form a batter. Pour into a greased loaf tin and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.
butter – eggs – milk – cream – potatoes – chicory – leeks – chicken – beef – rabbit – tomato – onion – garlic – peppercorns – sugar – coffee – apples