“For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”
I blame Geoffrey Chaucer. It was he that first plucked a perfectly normal saint’s day out of the darkness and sent it into the glare of the popularist light. Before you knew it, Shakespeare, Donne and Spenser had followed suit, and by the 18th century all was lost with a sickly sweet nursery rhyme immortalising the words seen in millions of greeting cards the world over on Saint Valentine’s Day.
Now it’s a day that is seen as a massive revenue raiser for the cut flower, greeting card and trinket sectors and a really tricky night for most restaurateurs. A room full of tables of two can sometimes be a little light on the ambience. And then there is the question of what to cook for a Valentine’s Day menu. Do you go the aphrodisiac? Oysters. Or the sultry? Spiced quail in a rose petal sauce. Or maybe even a classic that is too big for one and therefore has to be shared. A classic chateaubriand complete with chateau potatoes and a shallot and wine sauce.
But there’s one thing to be sure – there really needs to be something heart-shaped that appears somewhere on the menu. And my default dish for this? It’s the very lovely coeur à la crème: literally, a heart of cream. Traditionally heralding from Anjou in France and a very close relation to crémet d’Anjou, it’s a set cream to be eaten with a fruit purée and fresh fruit. More often than not, that fruit is berries.
There is something about the process of making coeur à la crème that I find unashamedly romantic. I faff about making my own fromage blanc, a process that takes milk and culture and, with a bit of heating and waiting and straining and hanging, you end up with a cultured set cream/cheese. This is then sweetened and lightened and set in little heart-shaped moulds lined with damp muslin.
The joy of the processes becomes a sort of food alchemy to get lost in. The ultra-fine pattern the muslin leaves on the set cream. The little one-purpose-only ceramic heart moulds with their perforated bottoms. They are all redolent of the love I have for the processes that create a finished product.
This recipe is a little less fuss – more like a bachelor’s quick fix for a romantic dessert. And don’t just pull it out in February. It is a delight to eat any time at all.