NANTES: Part II
Le canicule. The heatwave. I stepped off of the train on our very first day as nantais, true residents of Nantes, walked out of the station laden down with bags and boxes, a violin case slung around my neck, my arms dragged down by all of the precious, fragile things that we didn’t want to push into the moving van, and was slapped in the face by the heat. And not just any normal August heat. A sweltering, searing, oppressive heat. Le canicule! Accompanied by Clem, equally weighed down, I took a very deep breath, filling my lungs with steaming, leaden air and tried to orient myself. Clever son exclaimed, “Oh, I know the fastest way to get to the apartment! I did it with Papa when we came to clean.” So off we trudged, me following in his unruffled, adolescent, apparently-immune-to-the-heat wake.
I had absolutely no idea where we were going. As directionally challenged as I am normally, this trip had me totally discombobulated. Weighed down, cases and bags pressing into my already overheated body, onto my sticky, burning skin, I could feel the anger and impatience work its way up from the cobblestones pushing up into my feet, inching its way up gleefully and ready to burst out of the top of my already throbbing skull. Leaving the train station behind us, up and around the Chateau, over the uneven paving stones and through tiny, winding streets barely a jot cooler even in the shade of the teetering ancient buildings, I could contain it no longer and began complaining, the words jagged and sharp, aimed so cruelly at my son who kept reassuring me that he knew exactly where we were going. By the time we worked our way around in a very huge circle, pausing every few steps to rearrange the baggage strapped all over our flushed, feverish bodies, I found myself wondering aloud why in God’s name we had ever considered making this life-changing move, regretting every single, painful step. But we finally made it. Like Robinson Crusoe finally making land, like discovering a cool, green oasis in the middle of the arid desert, we finally unlocked our new front door and dropped our load onto the hideous green carpet and collapsed. Home.
I must explain. JP and I had visited Nantes exactly twice. The first weekend he brought me here to explore, discover this city and decide if we did indeed want to move here. By complete chance, we bought a paper, looked through the real estate section and found the apartment of our dreams: 200 square meters of old office space smack dab in the center of Nantes. To renovate. Completely. Before leaving the city on Monday morning, we placed an envelope in the agent’s hands with an offer and less than one week later she called and said the magic word “Yes.” Our second visit to Nantes found us in the notary’s office signing papers and handing over a check. And this, my third visit, was to stay.
And we moved. Two days spent packing and loading up the moving van, a day for Clem and I to head over to Nantes in order to be up at 8 a.m., the fourth morning to greet the van and begin unloading. JP, Simon and Kikka (our beloved boxer) would drive over later that day in our car. And we managed all of this sans air conditioning anywhere (house, apartment, car) during the height of the most famous of European heatwaves, the four hottest days of what seemed to be the hottest summer ever. Clem and I slept on the floor of the new apartment with little more than a couple of single futons, two sheets, an ice chest filled with rapidly melting ice and every window flung open. The apartment was like an oven, there wasn’t even the suggestion of a breeze, the temperature hovering somewhere north of 40°C and pressing down on us, strangling us. I was grumpiness herself, complaining, kvetching, but doing everything I needed to do to get our new home ready for our belongings and our new life.
Everything arrived, we set up what would eventually turn into a two-year long campsite, the weather finally began to cool down and we settled in.
The next two years were spent discovering our new city, renovating our new home, the first we had ever owned! Our huge office building plate glass windows overlooked the hub of this charming city, the main drag, and day after day we would stand watching life go by, mesmerized by the movement, the diversity of people who populated our town, and this was the best entertainment we could possibly have, hours spent watching, laughing, better than TV could ever be! We wandered the streets, getting to know every sidewalk, every cobblestone, watching as the bright, clean Chateau was unveiled after 15 years of renovation, exploring her new museum and learning all about the history of this exciting city; watching as Nantes herself was renovated, an immense, ambitious project, from the center out, renovated, beautified, sections of the city brought back to life more lively and stunning than before. As our apartment evolved, walls knocked down, carpets ripped up, wooden floors refurbished back to their original beauty, walls painted deep autumn orange, gold and sage, sexy charcoal, luscious raspberry and cherry red, the kitchen was installed and the bathroom made livable, so did Nantes, buildings knocked down, new, gorgeous, fascinating buildings erected in their place, gardens planted, artwork sprinkled here and there, made lovelier and more livable as well. We grew as our city grew, our apartment evolved into a home as our city evolved into something just as beautiful, just as lively, just as comfortable and well-known, and we loved both more every day.
We have since sold our apartment five busy, long years later, and now are once again happy renters, always ready for a change, always open to possibilities. Nantes fits us like an old, worn sweater, is as familiar as an old friend. In these seven years, we have grown and changed just as our city has. We’ve learned lessons, we’ve lost and we’ve won, we’ve suffered heartbreak and frustration, we’ve felt love and joy. We’ve watched our sons grow and change as well, living through rough patches yet emerging as generous, adventurous adults, slowly finding their “sea legs” in life. Things happen by choice and things happen by chance and we have experienced the clashing of the two together, meeting unexpectedly like strangers bumping into each other on a street corner as evening falls.
I present to you the Gâteau Nantais, Nantes’ Cake, the second in my series of local gastronomic traditions. The Gâteau Nantais is an invitation to travel, a densely satisfying cake drenched in West Indian rum, kissed by a subtle hint of almond and sweet with the perfume of the South Seas. Cloaked under its familiar, elegant white icing, the Gâteau Nantais has been pleasing the locals since the 18th Century when rum was king with its intriguing flavor and drunken bite. Sweet and sassy to be eaten just a sliver at a time, the Gâteau Nantais quickly becomes addictive. And like this magnificent city that lends her name to this elegant pastry, the Gâteau Nantais is easy and smooth, infused with the flavors of the past yet oh-so rich with a modern, exciting kick, a hidden secret savored by those who know her and love her so well.
This recipe for Gâteau Nantais was given to me by our former neighbor, Mme. R., une Nantaise born and raised, who changed and adapted the traditional recipe to fit her own personal taste. You will notice that the icing has a hint of brown rather than being perfectly white; this is because Mme. R. replaces the water in the original icing recipe with yet more rum to heighten the overall flavor. The Gâteau Nantais is simple, dense, moist and luscious, and even those averse to the flavor of rum will find it oh so very difficult to stay away from this delicious, intriguing cake. To be eaten in moderation.
LE GATEAU NANTAIS
Will serve 8 to 10 people.
125 g (9 Tbs) salted butter, softened to room temperature *
150 g (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
125 g (4.4 oz or @ 1 1/4 cups + 1 Tbs) ground almonds
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
40 g (1/3 cup) flour
100 ml (3/8 liquid cup) rum
100 g (7/8 cup, 3.5 oz) powdered/confectioner’s sugar
1 cup syrup **
* salted butter: do not forget that Nantes is in Brittany where salted butter reigns
** Syrup: Place 75 g (6 Tbs) granulated sugar + 155 ml (2/3 liquid cup) water into a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid and, over medium heat, bring to a rolling boil, stirring constantly. As soon as the liquid comes to a rolling boil, remove the pan from the heat, fit the lid on the pot and set aside until cooled to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter a 22 cm (8 ½ inch) cake pan (no bigger, no smaller, it must be 22 cm), line with a circle of parchment paper then butter the paper lightly.
In a large mixing bowl, cream the softened butter with the granulated sugar with an electric beater until blended, light and fluffy. Add and beat in the ground almonds.
Beat in the beaten eggs in 3 or 4 additions until well blended.
Add the flour and 1/3 of the rum to the batter and beat just until smooth and blended.
Pour and spread into the prepared pan. Bake for 45 minutes. Cover lightly with a sheet of aluminum foil during the last 10 or 15 minutes if the cake looks to be browning a bit too quickly. The finished cake should be a deep blond/golden color and set in the center.
Your sugar syrup should now be cool. Stir 4 tablespoons of the remaining rum into the syrup.
As soon as you remove the cake from the oven, slide a knife around the edge to loosen the cake from the sides of the pan then carefully turn out onto a rack, peel off the parchment paper then flip upright onto another cooling rack. Immediately brush generously with about half of the rum-spiked sugar syrup. Allow the cake to cool completely.
Once the cake is cool, brush again with the remaining rum-spiked sugar syrup.
To make the icing, simply stir the rest of the rum into the powdered/confectioner’s sugar until very smooth. Using a spatula spread the icing over the top of the cake, allowing it to run down the sides if you like.
Let the Gâteau Nantais sit and macerate, the icing solidifying, for a day before enjoying.
The Gâteau Nantais should be served in thin wedges.