Today my application to culinary school was accepted. I will start the Diplome de Patisserie in April. It’s currently October and I’m in New Zealand. My endeavour is to spend the next months learning how to bake. I have no culinary background, I have no experience of patisserie beyond the home kitchen. I made jam tarts with my grandmother for the first time when I was perhaps six and since then my culinary endeavours have peaked at a strawberry cream shortcake at the age of 12 and plummeted to the depths of a soggy ‘chestnut’ meringue in my twenties.
Like many I fancy myself a baker and can put together a pretty good batch of biscuits but, to be honest, who can’t? My bread making adventures are limited to an uneven set of loaves produced for therapeutic purposes throughout my teacher traning; I seem to remember a couple of decent cracking crusts and some fluffy innards, but I can also recall some rather dense, raw episodes. My family do insist on wiggling their eyebrows at me when the current Great British Bake Off series ends and the adverts pops ups for applications for the following year. I always wrinkle my nose, partly in disdain of ‘reality’ baking (which I greedily watch) and partly in disbelief that they would qualify me as even an amateur baker.
During the past years (my early twenties) a desire not to follow the masses along the path of steady weight gain has meant that I developed a neurotic interest in nutrition and eating for health. I was quick to join the finger-pointing-sugar-haters and my opinion of sugar still stands true; it’s pretty evil stuff nutritionally. I would dare to assume that no pastry chef will advocate cake as health food, but more on that later. Circumstances such as living alone, reading ‘Healthy Food’ magazine, and typing things like “green smoothie ideas” into Pinterest has meant that the hours of my life spent fondling pastry are probably very few.
So why on earth have I volunteered to spend £15,000 to sweat in a kitchen and have my sweet things critiqued by the professionals at culinary school? The answer is complicated in its history but simple in its essence; nothing makes me happier than food, in particular the sweet variety.
For the past five years or so I have worked as a teacher. I taught Photography, my degree was in Photomedia. I started very young and the whole process felt like a challenge. At one point during this stint I reached the conclusion that it just shouldn’t feel so much emotional effort. It felt like swimming against a persistent tide. I am not naive enough to assume any job is easy but I certainly have hope that, in terms of a career, it is possible to find something that is worth the stress and the early mornings. I was sure I’d heard of individuals who had worked day and night to follow a dream and forevermore existed in a working world that they loved. In terms of teaching there were points of satisfaction (all related to the students and their individual stories and talents) but never enough that I felt motivated to get up and go to work, it was always a struggle and I quickly grew resentful. Teaching is particularly thankless from a professional viewpoint, students are quick to express their appreciation but the rest is a long, lonely battle against prejudice, grade boundaries and unreasonable expectations. I had colleagues who loved their subject enough that their passion would override the negative aspects of the job and they would deem the hard work a worthwhile battle to fight. I didn’t have enough passion.
About a month ago I sat by the river in Berlin at a table outside a tiny Patisserie. The shop was manned by an eccentric French man who I assume was responsible for the modest assortment of pastries and tarts on the counter. I had chosen a little, individual Brioche aux Amandes (I say that as though it was easy, every pastry choice I have ever made has left me mourning all of the beautiful things didn’t choose). I cut into it with a knife and ceremony. It was so completely perfect. I do believe that company and environment contribute to every eating experience but I’m sure that even if had not been sitting next to someone I loved by a sunny riverbank on a slow Saturday morning I would still have marvelled at the simple marriage of brioche dough and buttery almond cream.
This moment by the riverside in Berlin was one of many moments in my life where the act of eating had been so completely consuming in its pleasure that all other conscious thought had stopped. As someone known for obsessive behaviour, who suffers from chronic overthinking and indulges in the art of anticipatory worrying, these moments of presence have left quite an impression on me.
Is it unreasonable to see such intangible emotional experiences as a foundation for a career investment? Well I’m about to find out. I’ve been told that I am a ‘dweller’, a perfectionist with a penchant for self-criticism and the determination of a terrier. I dwell on problems that I cannot solve and obsess in detail about detail. For my own mental health I am a person who needs full engagement with a practical, creative task to quiet my mind. The kitchen promotes a state of child-like absorption, a meditation. In the pastry kitchen my obsessive tendencies may become an asset, not a hindrance; an ally rather than an enemy.
On the subject of sugar and its health implications I can say only this; the sugar that concerns me is the sugar I cannot see. It’s the poor choices of daily diet; the habit of simple carbohydrate with every dish, the ‘healthy’ fruit juice in the meal deal, the ‘naturally sweetened’ granola sold in health food shops. I am not worried about a Sunday morning croissant with my coffee, I am worried about an obligatory chocolate bar with my petrol. In my mind the art and soul of patisserie is aimed entirely at sensations, it does not blunt the senses in the manner of jelly sweets and energy drinks, it does not disappoint or masquerade as taste when it is, in fact, chemical. Real patisserie, as I understand, is anchored in tradition; an art that holds onto values established in a time before now. The methods and preparations are often lengthy, time must be invested in preparation as it must be invested in enjoyment. Indulgence in pastry calls for slow behaviour; languid mornings in bed eating warm pain au chocolat, long relaxed dinner parties ending in good coffee and petite fours, macarons with tea and an afternoon with an old, dear friend. The ritual of dessert, of pastry and fresh bread demands a moment of our time, it demands respect through involuntary, sentient absorbtion and we must submit.
And so it commences. I have several months to come to terms with my fate and to prepare myself for the heat of competition, practical exams and (I don’t doubt) ruthless judgement. But I also have several months to engage fully with the meditative art of baking, to consider the textures and behaviours of sugar, butter, flour, eggs and melted chocolate. I have time now to make mistakes, to sniff, to touch, to break to feel, to poke and prod and play. What a wonderful choice I have made to consider such ‘work’ to be work.
I’ll start with the simple stuff.