Monday, 20 March 2017

Indian sweeties, Italian pastry, and nuns' farts

One of the delights of travelling is being able to taste different countries' cuisines. If you have a sweet tooth (and I do) sweet shops and pastry shops are a particular temptation, and one definitely not to be resisted.

I remember getting up early in Pushkar and wandering down the still dim street leading towards the Brahma temple, as confectioners stirred their huge cauldrons of halva, and the sugary steam hazed the air. Sweeties are prasad too, a standard offering to the gods, who love them as much as we do. Stick around an Indian temple for a while and a small child will probably come up and press a sweetie or two into your hand.

Indian sweets are almost all milk-based - the cow is central to Indian culture and milk, cream, paneer and ghee are focal points of Indian cooking. I was pleased to see an identification guide to Indian sweeties recently; though it misses out wheat halva and carrot halva it's good on the various types of milky treat. Then many towns have their own specialities - a crescent of crunchy fudge in Chittorgarh, little dragee-style disks in Chanderi.

In Venice, I discovered a tiny pasticceria that made castagnaccio, a rich chestnut flour cake with a deceptive hint of chocolate. It's not a Venetian tradition so much as one from the Apennines, where chestnut trees spread their bright foliage across the mountain slopes. While you'll find panforte di Siena or Italian ice cream in many grocers outside Italy, castagnaccio seems to have refused to spread beyond its homeland.

Having discovered castagnaccio, I found plenty of other ways of using chestnuts - soups, chestnut and sage with pasta, chestnut risotto. Originally a cheap source of foraged food, the chestnut has become a luxury, but the recipes are still faithfully recreated.

The delights of French patisserie, of course, are well known. But besides the taste, there's a further amusement - the names of different cakes. For instance, the Paris-Brest, a sort of doughnut-shaped eclair filled with praline cream and scattered with toasted nuts and icing sugar, commemorates a cycling race - encapsulating at the same time the French frenzy for competitive cycling and the national affair with patisserie. There are langues de chat - cat's tongues, little tongue-shaped biscuits.

The ancien regime survives in religious cake names - the Jesuite (three-cornered like a Jesuit's hat, I'm told), religieuse ('nun', made of a small chou pastry ball on top of a larger one, filled with cream and topped with ganache), and, best of all, pets de nonne - nuns' farts.


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