Typically, there are three favorite dessert categories people choose from when dining in a French restaurant. There are the crème brûlée lovers, the mousse au chocolat [or anything chocolate] lovers and then there are fruitarians who crave tarte tartin or other fruity things.
When I watch people eating these classic desserts I sometimes live vicariously with a mental spoonful. Mostly I remain distant from what I consider their banal desires. This is because of an intensely passionate affair I had with Baba au Rhum.
It began casually, with an innocent introduction. We skipped over flirtation, as things rapidly accelerated to a lusty peak, then slid rather quickly into unmet expectations. Inevitably it dwindled to a wistful end. Such is the cycle of most affairs.
A series of events led to this unexpected relationship. For two months I worked as an assistant to a French woman who conducted cooking classes for tourists. She was between student “stagiaires” in a busy season so I volunteered to fill in. Lessons began at 9:00AM with a walking tour through a market street, followed by preparation in her professional Parisian kitchen, ending in a three-course luncheon. My job was to pay the vendors, schlep items home, prep and clean up while clients chopped, stirred, watched and listened. As they nibbled on regional cheeses and sipped white wine around the large kitchen work-island, I set the table, refilled glasses, or washed dirty dishes and utensils.
“Payment” for my services was mostly in the form of laughable stories. Once, a 500gm block of butter fell to the floor and was stepped on. I was told to “clean it because it was still usable”. So I wiped the smashed butter with a lot of paper towels until only a small “usable” sliver remained. Then I hid it.
At the end of this brief tenure, I was invited by my chef friend to join her for lunch in a small, classic restaurant off the Boulevard St. Germain. She ordered dessert for both of us and so, without formal introduction, I met my French love.
Placed in front of me was a shallow white bowl containing a cylindrical piece of spongy cake, a side dish of smoothly whipped cream, and an open bottle of Martinique rum.
First, a generous amount of rum was slowly poured over the cake. Then I took a spoonful of rum-infused cake with a little cream and…well, the sensation can best be described, figuratively, as sharing a magic carpet ride with “Ali Baba” himself.
Here is the curious part; I don’t drink rum or even think about it, ever. I shun plain squishy cakes as unnecessary calories. Whipped cream is so “dairy” and off my nutritional needs list. But all together, the sum of the parts turned into obsession–dark, lusty Caribbean rum plus airy booze-drenched cake mingled with cool, vanilla flecked cream. All of which dissipated into a cloud of vaporous desire in my mouth. I was hooked at first bite.
Thus began my affair with Baba au Rhum. It wasn’t perfect. We had our ups and downs. I rejected restaurants that did not offer the rum bottle tableside, or served pre-fab, stale, even crunchy cake. Quelle horreur! I knew what I liked and what I wanted. Expectations were extremely high from the start.
After several months of reckless indulgence I made a profound discovery. And ultimately, it was the beginning of the end. The best Baba au Rhum I ever had was not found in Paris.
In the spring, we took a road trip into the beautiful countryside of Bordeaux. Near the town of St. Emilion, we stayed in a charming guest cottage in the middle of the vineyards of Troplong Mondot. One evening we dined in the upscale restaurant of the Château. The menu was fixed. Dessert was Baba au Rhum. Of course I was thrilled. It was served in the usual trilogy with one notable exception. The cake was lightly warmed. A variation that perfectly accentuated the cool cream along with the smooth velvety-ness of the rum. I immediately knew this was the best it had ever been. And might ever be.
Intense relationships often run their course. So it was with Baba and me. After Bordeaux, I tried it a few more times, but it was never quite the same. Finally it faded into a fond memory. Now when I see a menu and there is a flutter of recognition, I question whether to dabble again. But I’m certain my expectations won’t be met. And, truthfully, they can’t be. Such is the nature of these kinds of affairs.
I enjoy telling friends and guests about Baba au Rhum’s charms, urging them to give it a try. It seems to fall into the love/hate category. Maybe it’s too unusual, too extreme, or too far removed from normal desires for chocolate, crème brûlée, or fruit tarts.
I really do believe that many of life’s greatest pleasures are enjoyed around the table. A bite of sweetness, of any choice, is a fine way to spend time with others. Which is why I still remain friends with Baba…