This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week three (tart week) of series three: a designer fruit tart.
Last week, Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins made some waves with an article he wrote sneering at the idea of learning languages in school as a general, rather than specialist, skill, unimportant compared to learning about history, culture, the economy, and even urban planning. As Jenkins and his editors no doubt planned, the social media backlash (and subsequent linking to his article) was robust: the article was decried as ‘stupid’, ‘foolish’ and ‘narrow-minded’. Proponents of language-learning pointed out that learning languages is inherently linked to learning culture; expands our worldview and horizons; develops the intellect; and is, often, still, even in a world in which English is often spoken globally, a very practical skill.
I work with a lot of academic researchers, and I’d like to be one myself one day, and many, many people I know would not be able to do the research they do without speaking one or more languages. The relative dearth of language skills among British scholars in my own discipline of history is considered pretty crippling by some people I know. But in addition to such lofty considerations, learning a language gives us an everyday understanding of the world that adds so much colour and interest. For example, the etymology of the word ‘gooseberry’: in English, one theory for the name of these tart, hairy green summer fruits is that they were served as a sauce with roast goose, and that this marriage was so commonplace, so ordinary, that the link became embedded in language. This theory becomes ever the more tantalising once you know that in French these berries are called ‘groseille à maquereau’ – mackerel berries – because gooseberries have often been served as a tangy, sharp foil to rich, oily mackerel. (I have tried this before – it is delicious and surprising).
The gooseberry in English cooking – sweet cooking, anyway – is almost always wedded to its seasonal partner, the fragrant elderflower, most often present in cordial form. There’s no harm in this partnership, but once I knew I wanted to make a gooseberry tart, I quickly decided the berry must have the opportunity of a dalliance with other flavourings. I embarked on extensive, slightly panicky research in which I contemplated various states of creamy, custardy fillings. However, I have a very slight aversion to the rich egginess of many custards, while loving the mouth-filling silkiness and delicate vanilla flavour of creme patissiere. I had more or less settled on the final recipe when I got the brainwave to make an almond creme pat – cue more frantic research until Michel Roux’s unparalleled book ‘Pastry’ showed me the way.
The stern injunction when announcing this showstopper challenge in series three was that it had to be the kind a top French patissiere would be proud to sell in his (or her) shop. You’d be hard-pressed, I think, to consider my offering a ‘designer’ fruit tart ‘fit for a top quality patisserie display window’. My creation is more of a paragon of elegant simplicity – even possibly leaning towards rusticity – than, say, a rose-scented tart topped with macarons as baked by eventual series three finalist (but not winner) James Morton. And yet – perhaps because I have been reading Elizabeth David recently, and enjoy her terse, bright prose much more than when I was younger – I can’t help but feel that there is something right and true about this tart, with its crisp, not-too-sweet pastry, substantial filling, and generous portion of fruit. It is unpretentious without actually being humbled for it. It cuts cleanly and showcases the bright sharpness of this seasonal fruit – and is absolutely killer with a substantial mountain of cream. But what isn’t?