Homage to a Cake: The Gateau Basque Museum
I’m not sure what I expected, maybe a small regional museum with docents dressed in old-fashioned garb (think Williamsburg with cake), but whatever I imagined, this wasn’t it.
We followed the signs to the town of Sare, parked our car, as instructed, near a faded step van, then proceeded to walk down a steep curving path with signs that begged us not to pick the wild fruits and berries. Toward the bottom of the hill, we came to a small, hand-built ticket kiosk (closed until 10 minutes before the tour would begin), a tool shed and two buildings: one clearly a home and the other evidently the museum.
Since we were early and the only people around, and since you could only see the museum as part of a tour, we wandered a bit, pressed our noses against the window of the modern bakery in the back of the museum and the found the gift shop, where we bought a mini Gateau Basque.
If this were all we’d get for our hours of travel, Michael and I decided it would be, as Michelin says, “Worth the voyage.”
Time out to describe a Gateau Basque: It’s a double layer of dough, more like a thick tart crust than the word “gateau” would lead you to believe, encasing a layer of either vanilla pastry cream or dark cherry jam, a local specialty.
By the time we finished making our mini gateau last as long as possible, there were 20 other cakelovers in line and our guide, Bixente Marichular, appeared.
I was surprised to see him dressed in chef’s whites and even more surprised to discover that what we thought would be a tour would be a 90-minute talk and demo. During what probably seemed like an eternity to Michael, who neither bakes nor speaks French (although he caught most of what the chef said), our guide revealed the secret to making a crust that won’t crack when rolled – coarse sugar, the kind used for making jam; admonished us never to use any other preserves but the cherry jam made in nearby Itxassou; and showed us the traditional way to differentiate a cream-filled cake from one filled with jam – the jam cake should be topped with a piece of dough shaped like a Basque cross:
Not only did I learn a lot about the Gateau Basque, I learned a little something about the French, too.
At the start of the demo, Bixente grabbed a hunk of his beautiful dough, handed it to the guy in the first row and told him to taste it and pass it along. Having given many baking demos, I couldn’t help thinking how different things were in France: No one was wearing plastic gloves; no one complained that the dough was being pawed and passed from hand-to-hand; and no one said peep about the raw eggs in the dough. And, when we were given cookies and told to dunk them in the pastry cream and the jam, no one snitched on the double-dippers.
When the demo was over and people were wandering off, I stayed to talk to the chef. During the class, I’d asked to see the sugar and the chef, hearing my accent, asked where I was from. When I said, “New York,” he fired back quickly, “You can probably get sugar like this at Dean & DeLuca.” So, my first question to him apres class was: “When did you work in New York?”
Of course he laughed, and of course he had worked in New York. He’d been in the City in the late ’80s and early ’90s and had worked with Gray Kunz at the Peninsula Hotel.
Once again, the food world had made the real world a tiny place. Here we were, in a very small town in the middle of the French mountains and we were talking about shared friends, colleagues and memories. I love when this happens and I love the community that makes this happen.
When I got back to Paris, I made this Gateau Basque (with the wrong pattern on top – I hadn’t left enough dough to craft a cross):
It was pretty good, but it wasn’t Bixente’s. I’m still working on it …