I remember clearly where I was when I tasted my first palmier. I was following a designated tourist route around Marseille’s Old Port accompanied by a woman from the local office de tourism: she pointed over there for the embarkation point for the fortress island of Chateau d’If the setting for Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, and there the atelier of an artist nobody has ever heard of.
Forever with an eye for something tasty I was distracted by a small patisserie that my guide (I can’t remember her name only the scent of garlic on her breath) informed me was renowned in the region for its palmiers. Having lived for some time in Paris I thought knew a good deal about French patisserie while confessing the palmier had eluded me. Of course I knew it by sight: flat, golden, and curved perhaps like palm fronds, but bland compared to its exotic siblings, devoid of the eye catching appetising characteristics of any number of tartes, eclairs, or the undisputed emperor of French patisserie, the mille fueilles.
Nonetheless, I was smitten first bite. Stirred by its crunchy texture and sugariness and the manner in which the buttery puff pastry, baked to a crispness, flakes and melts in the mouth. A simple, understated sophisticated pastry that can be eaten without a fork and napkin, like a biscuit. It dunks well too.
That was some years ago and I can’t imagine how many palmiers I have eaten since. Palmiers in Paris, throughout the Tarn et Garonne, Avignon, Brussels, London, Hastings, Southwold, Bristol and of course Cornwall, although sadly they are hard to find this far west. Truro’s Marks and Spencer is my closest source. For some years many were supplied by mother, who recognising a kindred patisserie Francaise spirit regularly supplied me with boxes of Les Malices palm sized palmiers. Not as sweet as I liked but a good day-to-day palmier nonetheless and excellent with ice cream. I admit though that I do have a preference for the full size six inch palmier like that very first one in Marseilles whilst grateful to mum for keeping our biscuit barrel well stocked.
Not a lot seems to be known about the origins of palmiers, or ‘elephant’s ears’ as they are sometimes referred to. Personally I think they look more like hearts that great flappy leathery appendages. They seems to have surfaced at the beginning of the last century and probably from Algeria which sort of explains why the French subsequently claimed them as their own. I only ever eat the classic sugary ones but for those with more cosmopolitan tastes palmiers come with cheese and ham, mincemeat and marzipan, Nutella, sundried tomatoes, olive tapenade and even smoked trout and pecorina. And should you be stuck for something to do one coffee break there are plenty of short how to make palmier films on You Tube.
Since moving to Cornwall my most dependable supply has been London, more often than not Camden Town where I often stopover. I recall finding a basket of them in a Waitrose that has since gone and telling the young assistant replenishing the bakery section that I had driven 312 miles to this bakery section. She seemed impressed the way young people are when talking to someone older than their grandparents before noticing how many I’d placed in the paper bag.
“You’ve only got two,” she remarked with a hint of concern.
Pausing, I replied that despite a passion for them I do have my waistline to consider. She appeared to hyperventilate.
More recently, again in Camden Town, I found myself in the grip of a hair netted baker who bore a striking resemblance to the late Marty Feldman. I’d mentioned that he appeared to have just the one palmier and that was broken in two. He looked at me fiercely and spoke sharply. “She’s taken them all. She takes them every day.”
In which case what time does this woman usually arrive to clear out the shelves of palmiers? He shook his head and looked annoyed. I could be in before nine I told him. He shook his head again.
“In the morning different times. She fills the bags and then goes upstairs. I followed her. She’d gone. No pay, just go.”
She steals your palmiers? “Yes.”
That’s the point at which the hair netted baker resembling Marty Feldman doing a bank job stepped out from behind his counter and grabbed my arm.
“At head office they look at the figures and see people not buying them anymore. “ Because that woman isn’t paying for them so they don’t register on the system, is that it?
“Yes. I don’t know when we’ll get more? They think they’re not selling and she’s taking them.” I bought the broken in two one and he smiled and wished me luck “my friend.”
I think it was this experience that prompted Kim to take command of the situation. Nothing phases her. She’s built a wall. Chopped off the ends of a pair of new cashmere gloves to make them fingerless so that I may type in the cold. She cuts hair, makes jam and for my last birthday served her own prawn cocktail complete with homemade Marie Rose sauce. It’s like being married to a Blue Peter presenter.
With these achievements in her curriculum vitae I wasn’t surprised to open the door to that unmistakable aroma of baked sugary puff pastry. Perhaps sensing my concern with the coronavirus outbreak she’d decided to put a roll of puff pastry in the freezer to good use. We’d bought it some time ago together with a basket of other items on their use by date. We call it sticker food, it comprising a high proportion of our diet. This was her first attempt and the palmiers were small; similar to the boxed ones mother used to give me. They shared an impressive uniformity of shape and colour except for one twisted and blackened that she had on her plate.
“Well,?” she asked as I took my first bite.
I commented warmly upon the colour and texture. Pretty good I replied.
She looked concerned as I bit again. Chewier than normal but all the better for it.
I rarely read food labels, they’re too depressing. Like the bloomer I bought some weeks ago at a supermarket that came with a shocking warning sticker, contains wheat. Whatever next? Ok, my Classic America PizzaExpress pizza that’s what. Blue box. Regular logo and images of sliced pepperoni and mozzarella. some months before a New Yorker magazine cover (shown) depicted a pair of food stalls in a park: Nick’s Heartburn Hut featuring the ‘indigestible Death Burger’ and Ye Olde Kale Kart – ‘Gluten free Gluten, 100% Taste Free’. With my non-recyclable waste on the garden path came the answer. Gluten American pizza. Who’d have thought it?
Looking at the plate of golden palmiers between us Kim said glumly “I was worried they didn’t taste of much.” And she had a point. It wasn’t that her palmiers didn’t taste of much – to be frank, they didn’t taste of anything. I agreed they did seem a bit flavour light, instantly regretting having said anything.
She’d followed the instruction in the Larousse Gatronomique to the letter. Rolling out the puff pastry on a lightly floured surface, sprinkling a generous portion of caster sugar and rolling it to a thickness of 5mm. Both long sides turned in and pinched in the centre. She didn’t return the pasty to the fridge to chill down to facilitate easier slicing into sections, but that is a bit of a moot point. Cut into 1 cm cross sections, pinched into a palm leaf shape, and well spaced upon a baking tray, dusting once more with caster sugar.
So what went wrong? We bit into another one. No taste. Not buttery. No hint of vanilla. What pastry did she use? Perhaps a savoury puff pastry by mistake? Another visit to the pedal bin revealed all. We looked at each other both thinking of the sticker food American Classic we’d bought and that New Yorker cover.
And the moral of this tale is to always pay attention to food labels. If not we risk wheat in our bread and an absence of that ingredient that makes food food.