NANTES, Part I
He places his index finger on the map spread out on the table in front of me and traces a careful line from the northern coast just below where land meets Channel south to La Rochelle. He wants to be closer to the ocean in a greener, quieter place than mad Paris and her lonely, dark suburbs. Closer to the ocean so this city boy born and bred can spend weekend mornings with his toes buried in the sand watching the waves crash up onto the beach, something that soothes and calms him. He wants to bring us to a friendlier place, somewhere, anywhere better for the boys yet somewhere modern and innovative where we, too, can have a productive life. We were starting over, leaving it all behind, job, home, friends, schoolmates and heading west. A new start, a new life.
We did our research. It had to be right. We were a couple without a land, homeless stragglers ever wandering the globe, looking for excitement and adventure, living on an island unto ourselves, so we really only had ourselves to please. We looked high and low, studying each and every city along the coast, listening for the one that was calling our name. And then we stumbled upon Nantes. Oh, husband had been there many times, but had never thought of it in terms of a place to rest his head and raise his family. But it had everything we desired: a city small enough to be friendly and green yet large enough, resourceful enough, innovative enough to be our hope for the future.
Mention France to any American and immediately Paris comes to mind: Eiffel Tower, Mona Lisa and Romance with a capital R. Or Provence and her luxurious rolling green countryside, fields of lavender, quaint villages, her rich, garlicky, Mediterranean cuisine. Short on time and dollars, few tourists venture outside of these well known, well-trod vacation spots. But then again, maybe one reason we chose Nantes was her lack of tourist crowds. Yet Nantes is a city with a fascinating and rich history full of powerful women, war and upheaval, struggles against foreign invaders, a playground of revolution and commerce, the birthplace of the Edict of Nantes and Jules Verne both. Fascinating, indeed.
Nantes is a city of history, both past and present, reveling in her tumultuous past while carving her own future out of exotic wood, aluminum, glass and daring. Her marketplace and monuments breathe France and her traditions, yet innovation has always been a sure sign of her personality. Henri IV selected Nantes to be the signature city of his famous Edict in 1598, an order of tolerance and religious freedom; former capital of Brittany, Nantes was the home of Anne de Bretagne, Duchess of Brittany, married to two Kings of France yet a woman who managed to keep power and control of her duchy firmly in her own hands while assuring its future unification with France. Like all French cities, the light and dark clash, a never-ending struggle in the history books; her valiant resistance during the French Revolution or the World Wars stands elbow to elbow with her turbulent role in the Commerce Triangulaire, the Slave Trade. Once one of Europe’s richest, most important port cities, she built her fame and fortune on this trade of men for goods, vanilla and spices, tobacco and rum, and her shipping magnates became very wealthy indeed.
Nantes is a city of sadness, a city of hope. Only the shadow of those former dark times whisper to us from her streets, the heartbeats and tears of how many men and women held captive pulsing up through the sidewalks where wealthy merchants sauntered, ghostly water lapping up against the sides of ships where captains once shouted orders and goods were unloaded onto the bustling, crowded quays. The streets we walk over were once this river, now sand and asphalt and tar, filled in and paved over in an effort to forget. The sidewalks still groan under the weight of the majestic white apartment buildings, elegant swirls of dark ironwork against the pure, snowy white stone, homes now buckling under the weight of time, the same once built for those proud merchants in the Glory Years of the 19th Century, apartments still paneled in wood, ceilings graced by rosaces and French windows overlooking what was once their river, luxurious buildings from which, day after day, they would step out of right into the river from which their wealth flowed.
Now these old buildings, still elegant and proud, reminders of her turbulent past, stand side by side new, gorgeous, contemporary buildings, signs of her future, all iron, wood, glass and cement, astonishing in their colors, silver, blue, orange, black & white, buildings that twist and turn and bend at odd angles, buildings that curve gracefully, buildings that incorporate the old and the new, buildings sprinkled higgledy-piggledy all over this modern town that we have grown to love so well. Gardens bloom throughout the city, Japanese gardens on the Ile de Versailles, exotic gardens built under the graceful metal vaults of former smelting works on the Ile de Nante or sprouting from iron, cement and steel of what was once the city’s shipyard. Nantes is an exciting city that lives and breathes her history every single day, this former proud capital of Brittany, home of Kings and Queens, yet equally a city that embraces everything that is new and modern, a city that has successfully and harmoniously wedded the past and the future in more than just her architecture, having given birth to such diverse festivals as La Folle Journée (classical music), Les Rendez-Vous de l'Erdre (Jazz), Utopiales (Science Fiction) and La Festival des 3 Continents (the Cinema of 3 Continents: Asia, Africa & Latin America). Nantes is the home of the outlandish machines of the world famous Royal de Luxe theatre bringing the futuristic stories of Jules Verne to the streets. Nantes was the birthplace of such forward-thinking, socially innovative yet traditional industries as LU, the world famous cookie factory and was the city of the first public transport system in the world with the creation of public omnibuses and the first city in France to have a public tramway system.
I will be offering you a 3-part series, a glance at my adopted city, Nantes. Three peeks at a beautiful city followed by three sweet recipes. You will notice that the one ingredient that ties these three recipes, these three very special, traditional treats together is rum; Nantes built her fortune on trade with the French West Indies, former trade partners, former colonies. Ships based in Nantes would be sent to Africa where their captains would exchange European goods for men and women who would then, in turn, be brought to the Caribbean to work on the sugar, tobacco and spice plantations. The ships would then return to Nantes, bringing back vanilla, pepper, ginger, cinnamon, things tropical and exotic, along with the tobacco and cane sugar, adding, in the 19th Century, rum to their cargo. Rum, that earthy, amber-colored, magical brew, shimmering like gold. Rum, dark, woodsy, exotic, heady with the scent of the West Indies, rich with the flavor of far-off lands did so intrigue the people of Nantes that it became part of their culinary repertoire, enriching the gastronomic pleasures of this part of the world. It is difficult to find a local sweet specialty that isn’t spiked with either rum or Muscadet, her own local wine.
I offer you this first recipe, a specialty of my city of Nantes. La Fouace Nantaise, the Nantes’ fougasse, is a brioche-type bread, gently sweetened, redolent of rum, shaped like a macaron or a 5- or 6-sided star. This butter and egg rich treat was created in the 19th century in the neighboring town of La Haye-Fouassière (“fouassière” comes from the word “fouasse” or “fouace”: “fougasse”), a town nestled in Muscadet country amid the vines and producers. The fouace was traditionally dunked in the local wine and now takes pride of place at the annual fête des vendanges, the yearly grape harvest festival where it is accompanied, of course, by a glass of Muscadet.
In researching this very old recipe, I gathered about 5 different versions of it, including one from my Larousse Gastronomique and a few from sites listing the gastronomic specialties of Nantes. Each one was just too different from the next in either ingredient quantities or procedure that, relying on my intuitive nature and using my bread baking skills finely honed over many years of trial and error, I came up with this recipe and it worked like magic! My fouace nantaise was light yet tender and slightly dense and chewy like the perfect brioche, barely sweet, eggy rich and heady with the aroma and flavor of rum, just a hint of orange blossom. Perfect and moist for the first day or two, use this brioche when slightly stale (or even fresh!) for wonderful pain perdu (French toast, of course) or a decadent bread pudding. Enjoy!
This rum-spiked brioche is perfect for this month’s Bread Baking Day, our favorite monthly bread-baking event created by Zorra of 1x umrûhren bitte. BBD #33 is being hosted by Baking Powders who chose the theme Breads With Booze.
I will also send this fouace nantaise to Susan at Wild Yeast for her weekly yeast-baking event Yeastspotting.
1 lb (500 g) flour, divided, plus more for kneading
2 ¼ tsp (15 g) active dry yeast
½ cup (115 ml) milk, warmed to body temperature
large pinch of salt
¼ cup (50 g) sugar
7 Tbs (100 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 small juice or wine glass of rum, about 3 oz (90 ml)
1 Tbs fleur d’oranger (orange flower water)
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 additional egg for egg wash, lightly beaten
Place 1 cup (125 g) of the flour in a medium-sized mixing bowl with the yeast and 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Add the warm milk and stir briefly just to wet all of the dry ingredients. Allow to proof for 20 – 40 minutes or until doubled in size, puffy and bubbly.
While the yeast mixture is proofing, place the rest of the flour into a large mixing bowl with a large pinch of salt (about ½ teaspoon), the remaining sugar, the softened butter, the glass of rum, the fleur d’oranger and the 4 lightly beaten eggs. Stir with a wooden spoon until all of the dry ingredients have been moistened and the mixture is well blended. Add the proofed yeast mixture and stir the together until well blended. It will be very sticky, too sticky to handle.
Scrape the dough onto a well-floured work surface. Knead the dough, adding enough extra flour until the dough is no longer sticky and it is soft, smooth and homogenous. Carefully divide the dough into 5 or 6 equal parts, form into balls and place one in the center of a parchment-lined baking/cookie tray. Place the other balls of dough around the outside of the center ball to form a star shape. Don’t worry if there are gaps between the balls of dough. Cover lightly with a piece of plastic wrap then a clean kitchen towel and allow to rise until doubled in size, 1 ½ to 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Brush the dough with the beaten egg and bake for 40 minutes. The fouace will have risen and be a deep golden brown. The “branches” of the star will have started to pull away from the center ball of brioche.
Now pop the cork on that chilled bottle of Muscadet and enjoy!