Paris Sweets: Breakfast with Hugues Pouget of Hugo & Victor
Before I tell you what we had, I want to mention a few of the things we talked about because I found them so interesting. First, the way the shop is organized. The look is extremely modern, the space is built with luxe materials (the one little table for sipping coffee and enjoying a sweet is covered in black leather) and it’s designed to showcase the individual pastries with a depth of drama normally reserved for jewels. Against the wall (you can see the wall behind Hugues), the star flavors, chocolate, vanilla (this is the vanilla mousse on a base of sunflower seed pain des genes) and caramel, as well as the flavors of the season, are displayed in framed cases. Unlike most pastry shops, you don’t see multiples of any sweet – each pastry is shown as a unique piece, the way a painting would be shown in a museum.
Hugues worked at Laduree, but his real background is as a restaurant pastry chef – he was the chef-patissier at Guy Savoy, a Paris restaurant with three Michelin stars, for half a dozen years — so he thinks less about whole cakes than he does about plated desserts and one-to-a-person sweets. He also thinks about doing things ‘a la minute’, or on demand. And so his kitchen is organized like a restaurant kitchen. When an order comes in, there’s a ticket, just as there is in a restaurant, and, instead of a sales clerk putting together your order, the chef does it, giving the desserts finishing touches, sometimes actually constructing the pastry and always packing it in its box. Then, just as a chef puts food at the pass for a waiter to pick up and deliver, the pastry chef in the kitchen, puts the box in the pass and it’s the sales person who hands it over to the customer.
In creating the look of a pastry, Pouget thinks about the dessert as he’d think about a plated dessert, which explains why, although he sells whole tarts, he shapes his tartlets to look like pieces cut from a whole. The advantage of the tartlet: the fillings never ooze from the crust and the triangular shape gives each piece a generous amount of crust, which also means a generous amount of a contrasting flavor and texture.
And in every dessert, he builds layers of texture and flavor, each one reinforcing the others. And not one of the desserts is noticeably sweet. I loved when he said, “I use sugar the way I use salt – as a seasoning.” So for example, his Fraise (Strawberry) – Bollinger: the crust is a pate sucree, a sugar crust made with ground almonds; next there’s a layer of almond cream made with strawberry puree; covering that is a quickly-made and not-too-juicy strawberry marmalade (in fact, in making the marmalade, Hugues lightly caramelizes some of the sugar); and that beautiful pink cloud in the center is a strawberry mousse made with Bollinger Rose Champagne. And, like all of Pouget’s fruits and nuts, the strawberries are carefully sourced. They are a variety called Charlotte and they come from M. Burban in La Baule, on the south coast of Brittany (thank you Marc, see comments, for the geographical assistance).
I want to tell you about our apricot tasting, but first, here are two of the lemon verbena offerings: a mousse with a lemon gelée heart, a Hugo pastry, meaning it veers toward the traditional; and a verbena religieuse, a Victor, or more modern, pastry. To complete each flavor grouping, there’s a chocolate bonbon, a shiny, bauble of a bonbon, but I forgot to take pictures. (You can see them, they’re called Spheres, on their website.)
And here’s what we tasted this morning: an apricot éclair and a play on an apricot Tatin. The éclair was a great example of how Hugues layers flavors. Of course there was the shell, a perfectly baked pate a choux. But the pastry cream was re-thought and fabulous: the milk, the usual liquid in a crème patissiere, was replaced by apricot puree (I can’t wait to try this technique!). On top of the pastry cream were small pieces (brunoise) of fresh apricot that had been quickly sautéed, and there was a little apricot marmalade too. Replacing the normal fondant glaze was a wafer of white chocolate. “Fondant is just sugar and it’s too sweet,” said Hugues, so he uses tempered white chocolate on this éclair and, for his vanilla éclair, a light white vanilla glaze, really a ganache.
As for the apricot tarte Tatin, again, it was a classic completely revisited. The base was a dacquoise, a flourless hazelnut cake with chunks of unskinned and remarkably flavorful hazelnuts. For the ‘Tatin’ topping, there were apricots cooked in puree and finished with gelée and galangal powder, an inspired match to the fruit. And running down the center, there was caramel made with sugar, of course, and apricot puree.
At Hugo&Victor, each flavor is paired with a wine. For the apricot, the match is Cassis Blanc, which I think would be marvelous, but I don’t know for sure, since coffee was the beverage of choice at 9 am.
Sadly, for those of you in Paris now, Hugo&Victor is closed from August 1 through August 16. But expect Pouget to return filled with new ideas. He’s headed for the South of France and he told me that his first stop is a wine tasting in Bandol.