The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
You’re the crème in my caramel
As long as it’s done well, this is a dessert that delivers – even when it’s delivered in the midst of a building site
When I was teaching myself to cook by going to top restaurants in London and copying the food I was served, I used to write little reviews on the back of the receipts. I didn’t really think much of them at the time; they were meant as an aide memoire, a reminder of whatever aspects of the food I thought might be important, either in technique or principle.
Luckily, I kept these receipts: they make much more interesting reading now than they did at the time. They act as a useful warning against looking back on past experiences through rose-tinted specs. Along with all the glorious food I tasted at my favourite restaurants in their heyday, they record a bland cod main course at Marco Pierre White – not to mention the hour-long wait for a prune and armagnac soufflé which followed it. They note that the puddings at La Tante Claire were a bit of a letdown after such great mains; they even testify to a piece of overcooked fish at Chez Nico. I didn’t remember any of this.
Clearly, it is worth setting down our thoughts on events at the time they happen, otherwise memory will play tricks on us and our brain will alter the picture so we remember things as we want them to be. I guess that is why the police are trained to make notes. Maybe it goes even further than that, and knowing that we are going to make a note of something makes us more observant.
I came across a reference to today’s recipe on one of my old receipts from a short-lived restaurant called Bistro Bruno in Frith Street, Soho. The site was slated for redevelopment, so chef Bruno Loubet, a rising star at the time, decided to take a short lease. (The site later went on to host many different restaurants, most notably Arbutus.)
On the receipt (from January 1995) I recorded that the crème caramel was beautifully executed – a reminder that a classic dish simply presented is a thing of beauty – but served in what looked not unlike a building site (the receipt mentions “chipboard everywhere”), its perfection in stark contrast to the surroundings.
Often as chefs we push for innovation and change, but a classic is a classic for a reason. It works, so why feel the need to change it? I can still remember the wobble and the bitterness of the caramel contrasting with bland, gently sweet milkiness. If there is one thing which distinguishes a professionally made caramel from an amateur one it is how far the caramel is taken. A professional one will be a dark amber colour after being prepared at temperatures that would make an amateur uncomfortable. No wonder it is so ubiquitous on the prix fixe menus that, pre-pandemic, were eaten up and down France every day.
Many of these will have been bought in by the restaurant, however, rather than made in house. So begins the process of undermining a classic. The need for preservatives or stabilisers to keep the smooth texture during a potentially long shelf life. The tonguescorching sweetness (another hallmark of a product that has been designed with a long life in mind), masking the subtle interplay between the milk and burnt sugar. All of this has gradually, and almost imperceptibly, eroded the “classic” credentials of crème caramel. Throw poor execution into the mix, and little by little the prestige of the dish was nearly lost.
This brings us back to my Bruno Loubet receipt. Just because something is not new and doesn’t challenge us is not a reason to disregard it. How much would we give to go back to a time when every French town had a restaurant that served you a simple, perfect home-made crème caramel?
So here I stand, a self-declared restaurant nerd, in my anorak, with the trainspotters and the detectives, all scribbling away, recording the world as it is – not as we want it to be.
Often as chefs we push for innovation and change – but a classic is a classic for a reason
Stephen Harris is chef-patron of the multi-award-winning Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent. His cookbook, The Sportsman, is published by Phaidon