Nuns, Wine, and a Crème Brulée Pastry

The best part about pastries in France are all of the incredible regional delights that most people have never even heard of, let alone have the opportunity to taste, without visiting that region of France. The other best part about regional french pastries? The legends and stories that surround their origin.

We had the chance to try one of these such pastries on our third day in France while in Bordeaux, when our couch surfing host just ~casually~ mentioned that we just couldn’t leave the city without trying the one and only Canèle. This crunchy, spongy, sweet little gift is one of the Bordeaux region’s best kept secrets.

What do you mean crunchy and spongy?!

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The Canèle is a delightful personal-sized cake with a caramelized-sugar outer shell and a light, airy, yet slightly chewy center. Though traditionally made with rum for flavouring, every Canèle shop in the area sells versions that replace the alcohol with vanilla as well. The rest is all really quite the same as any other french pastry, because the French have a formula that just works, and as they say in France “ne change pas une équippe qui gagne” a.k.a.- if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!  The basic ingredients are:

  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • Butter
  • Egg
  • Salt
  • Whole Milk

What makes these pastries different from others is in their preparation. They are made using specific Canèle pans that not only provide their characteristic shape, but also help to create that caramelized sugar shell reminiscent of crème brulée.

As always, at The Taste Archives, while munching on our very first Canèle we wondered “Who was the ingenue who created this masterpiece, and why?”. Like many French pastries, the origin is unclear.

It always starts with the Nuns and a Glass of Wine

 

Perhaps they feel it is their God-given duty to bestow the Lord’s blessings on those around them, or perhaps it’s God using the nuns to shower small bits of heaven on earth. Or maybe it had to do with nuns being industrious and educated women… either way, they always find themselves at the center of at least one origin story of France’s foods.

The legend says that nuns from the Saint Eulalia church in the years before the French Revolution made little cakes called canelize. They made them using the leftover egg yolks generously given to them by local wine makers who only used the whites to clarify their wines. Whether or not this is true we’ll never know, since many of the records lost and destroyed during the Revolution.

The other story recounts that the people of Bordeaux collected the flour that spilled out on the loading areas of the shipping docks to make the small treats to give to poor children. Again, whether this is a true story or merely folklore, we’ll likely never know!

The only fraternity we’d ever want to be a part of

Over the centuries, the Canèle’s popularity has wavered. There was, in fact, a time where you could hardly find them anywhere, even in Bordeaux itself. In the late 20th century, however, the Cannèle experienced a surge in popularity and began popping up in shops all over France. They were being made in all shapes and flavours, instead of the traditional fluted column shape in rum or vanilla.

The patissièrs of Bordeaux realized that they were at risk of losing their precious pastry to the rest of the world, so they created an actual brotherhood of the Cannèle, Le Confrérie du Canèle de Bordeaux, to protect the secret recipe and method of preparation. On top of that, to make it clear to the rest of the world that unless it comes from Bordeaux, it is not a real Cannèle, they changed the spelling!

The 88 patissiers of the brotherhood dropped the second ‘n’ from the original name, changing it from Cannele to Canele. Now, if you try to purchase the dessert made anywhere but the Bordeaux region, it is known as a Cannèle Bordelais. So basically, if it’s got two n’s in the name, it’s not the real thing!

If you find yourself in Bordeaux, make sure you find yourself in a Canèle shop

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No matter how many famous Bordeaux wineries you visit or how much time you spend in the lively Place Gambetta, you have not truly experienced the region if you do not try this famous pastry. It’s sweet without being that sugary, hurt-your-teeth sweet, and is as light and airy as french pastries come. After all, could a cross between a pastry and a creme brulée really ever be bad?

No, no it cannot.

Bon appétit!

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