‘Tis the season to be jolly... How better to dive into the festive spirit, than by reading Christmassy books. Featuring book #3 from my Christmas book pile.
Title – The Parisian Christmas Bake Off
Author – Jenny Oliver
Genre – Food fiction
“Bright marzipan shapes, chocolate twists dusted with sugar, sticky millefeuille layers oozing with cream, tarts brimming with frangipani, coffee éclairs lined up like fat fingers, red berries piled high and tumbling off crème pâtisserie tarts. Dark glossy liqueurs with cherry stalks poking out of the top, dusty truffles and striped caramels, fudge coated in ganche. Strawberry creams shaped like tiny fruits perched next to pralines wrapped like presents in gold.”
This is a book about food. French food. Rachel Smithson is a nursery school teacher from England. Her mother was an accomplished baker, and Rachel has spent years helping out at the family bakery. When her mother passes away, Rachel gives up baking, focusing on teaching instead. One year, her colleagues send out an application for a baking competition, and Rachel is selected to participate. The week long event set in Paris is an apprentice competition, the winner of which is chosen to work as an apprentice for a month with the great Parisian baker Henri Salernes. Henri is coming up with a new book, and the amateur competition is part of the publicity campaign.
Rachel is quite skeptical initially. She has never done any baking professionally, except for helping her mum bake, and the little baking treats for school events. But since her colleagues and her students have high hopes (plus most of the town folk knew how great a baker her mum was), she decides to give it a go. Thereby, the impromptu Christmas trip to France. Rachel had lost her mother on Christmas day years ago, and is almost phobic about the season. The trip acts as a good diversion from the festivities.
In Paris, she settles in as a boarder with Madame Charles and the housekeeper Chanal. Henri Salernes is known to be as temperamental as he is passionate about baking. The competition has been dreamed up by his publishers, and Henri doesn’t seem to think too much of the amateurs. The venue is on the floor above his pâtisserie and is a delight by itself.
“Fluffy shell-shaped madeleines, rainbow-colored macaroons, bite-sized lemon cakes, sticky rum babas and teetering piles of profiteroles. Crème pâtisserie piped into the center of perfect choux pastry balls drizzled with the darkest melted chocolate.”
Definitely a sight to behold, as also devour desserts accompanied with a cup of coffee, and oh so wonderful to get to work there, and learn from the master himself. Henri is a big name in Parisian baking, along with his equally famous chef brother, Philippe. The sweet and the savory as they are known. There are eight participants who have been shortlisted, including Rachel. Each day they get to work on a theme – petit fours, savory, breads etc. Chef demonstrates in the morning session, and post lunch they have to cook something for him. And at the end of the day they receive the theme for the next day, to ensure they practice at home and are not completely clueless in front of him.
The story follows Rachel’s journey through the demanding week, getting back to her first love of baking – the skill, the craftsmanship, the smells, the textures, the familiarity, the talent, however rusty. And confronting the demons that haunted her after her mother’s death; even sensing her mother guiding her at every step of the competition. Initially, Rachel doesn’t think too much of the competition and wants to get it done with and go home; sooner the better. But on seeing how good her craft turns out, the other participants get envious – it is a competition after all and there can be only one winner. Now Rachel wants to fight, though not necessarily dirty, but fight she must.
There are side stories featuring Rachel’s drummer boyfriend Ben, a romantic angle with Philippe, the other half of the Salernes brothers, Rachel returning to England with her newfound love for baking, but nothing takes away from the central premise of the Parisian baking. The competition and food descriptions are the highlight of the book. The character development for each of the participants is very well done. From over friendly co-participants who turn out to be backstabbers, to seemingly aloof and rude ones who are surprisingly sweet and genuine after the competition, preferring to focus on work and not socialize till the end. Rude Henri who’s passionate about baking, Philippe the absolute gentleman who is not happy with what he does, Chanal the housekeeper who treats Rachel like her own daughter, Madame Charles the landlady who seems to have it all but is lonely on Christmas Day – each of the characters makes you feel for them – whether annoyed or happy or sad. And of course, hunger features prominently here. The author has definitely done her research well with the baking terminologies and describing the array of French desserts.
This book not only makes you want to pick up something to eat, but rather get up and bake something yourself to eat. (I personally tried the Coffee Éclairs and Lemon Madeleines that feature as individual posts elsewhere on this blog). A must read book that goes so well not just with Christmas, but something to devour all year round. The writing, the reading, the baking, the eating – it just fills you with jollity that lasts much beyond finishing the book.
Rating – 5/5