One of the real joys of foreign travel is serendipity. If you’re lucky, you may accidentally come upon the workshop of an Old World craftsman. And if you’re ridiculously lucky, you might have a chance to witness the moment of creation for a dying tradition you've never heard of, and perhaps even discover a rare craft that may only be practiced in the 100 square feet where you are standing.
On a winding road, high up in the Hautes-Pyrénées of southwest France on the way to the Cirque de Gavarnie, Francis Caussieu is keeping the lost art of the Gâteau à la Broche alive in the small hamlet of Sia. As he’s done since 1982, Francis builds a lindenwood fire in the open two-sided hearth of his tiny rustic, free-standing, stone kitchen workshop. He then covers two cone-shaped mandrels, bottoms together on a spindle, with aluminum foil. As he places the spindle on a rotating electric spit, the fire is roaring and scrolls of smoke escape up the chimney.
Out comes a large, shiny copper bowl filled with an exceedingly rich butter and egg, pancake-like batter flavored with rum and orange blossom water. As the mandrel slowly spins before the flames, Francis carefully ladles the batter in a thin layer over the cone-shaped mold with a long-handled spoon. For the next 20 minutes, he tends the cake, as the batter builds up layer upon layer just like rings of the evergreen tree the cake is designed to mimic. As the gateau rotates, the thin batter wants to drip but is frozen in place, browned by the flames, producing an uneven tree-like silhouette.
The cake is removed from the spit and placed horizontally on a rack to cool slightly. Then Francis picks up a large knife and carefully splits the finished warm gateau into two tree-shaped cakes that he places upright on the foil-covered tile counter to cool completely.
It’s time to open a bottle of local cider for refreshment prior to repeating the entire process again and again; Francis’s painstaking approach produces only 20 cakes a day.
Luckily, prior to visiting the charming stone building where the Gâteau à la Broche tradition survives, I was lucky enough to have a marvelous lunch at the charming La Brèche de Roland. This lovely dining room, just down the road in the village of Gèdre, is the lone restaurant to serve Francis’ creations. And the plated dessert is not what you’d expect.
The kitchen splits the tree-shaped cone from top to bottom and then slices the cake crosswise into one-inch-wide pieces. But because the gateau is made up of thin layers cooked on a spit, each “slice” is really a hollow but rigid crescent that is brought to the table resting on its two ends —— like the moon bridge in a Japanese garden. Three slices of cake are served on a slate rectangle with powdered sugar, fresh wild blueberry sorbet and a ramekin of crème anglaise. The Gâteau à la Broche is very tasty, but not quite like any cake I can recall. The high butter and egg content makes for a dense, biscuit-like cake without any crumbs. The pleasing flavor combo of orange, rum and vanilla goes well with the toasty notes from the lindenwood flame.
For a peripatetic foodie, one goal of travel is to eat locally. Usually that means fresh food, close to the source. It also means tasting regional specialties using ingredients that may prohibit a cook from recreating a dish in a home kitchen — perhaps thousands of miles from its origin — with any degree of authenticity. And then there’s the unexpected discovery of a tradition so specific, like the veritable Gâteau à la Broche de Sia, which exists only in one specific place in the world. For that, we must be grateful to Francis Caussieu for keeping this hidden gem of gastronomic culture alive and well.
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