Style secrets of the French by Casilda Grigg
Here’s a thing. There are so many French people in London that we now have some very niche concepts coming across the Channel. One is a pastry shop called Aux Merveilleux de Fred that does just two things. Yes that’s right – just two things.
They are: 1. Brioche. 2. Meringues
So that means no chocolate éclairs, no millefeuilles and definitely no croissants.
It sounds, frankly, disappointing. But the idea of Aux Merveilleux de Fred’s founder, Frédéric Vaucamps – aka Fred – was to do two things and do them perfectly. Fred’s story is a rather charming one. He started making cakes age nine, learnt his trade at 14, bought his first bakery in a small village in the Pas-de-Calais at 19, and according to the regional newspaper La Voix du Nord ‘made nothing but mistakes.’
In his late twenties, Fred saw the error of his ways. ‘I realised that it made more sense to sell one cake in 50 boutiques than 50 cakes in one.’ The rest, as they say, is history and Fred now has nine shops in France (five of these in Paris), one in Belgium and two in London.
The brioche comes in a classic version (£1.90) but also in three other flavours: sugar, raisin and chocolate chip. Sadly I can’t tell you what any of these are like because I’m not a fan of brioche. But in any case it’s his meringue balls that the French are really mad about.
These boules de meringues parfumées, as Madame Figaro calls them, are covered in whipped cream, then rolled in all sorts of things. There’s the excentrique (cherry), the incroyable (white chocolate and speculoos biscuits) and my favourite, if only in name, the sans-culotte (caramel). You can buy them in combination, boxed up, or singly. On one of my sleuthing expeditions to South Kensington, I went to Fred’s shop opposite Byron on Old Brompton Road and tried a mini-magnifique, a praline meringue made with almonds and caramelised hazelnuts (£1.70). It was rather good but I soon forgot all about it.
But then a former ballet dancer called Virginie, who does her food shopping on Northcote Road in Clapham, where Aux Merveilleux de Fred has a second branch, said she used Fred’s praline meringues to make a high-speed version of Eton Mess. This struck me as a very good idea. Strawberries, smashed meringue and cream just happen to be one of my favourite things in the world, so back I went, this time over the river to Clapham.
I watched the pastries being kneaded, piped and rolled in the window, then snapped up six mini-magnifiques at £1.70 each.
Here is my recipe. I like to think my hero Edouard de Pomiane, who wrote a funny and brilliant cookbook 84 years ago called Cooking in Ten Minutes, might have approved. I managed to make this in record time and it was a great success with my friends. The trick is to serve it in individual wine glasses. You could put a sprig of mint on top like chefs and food writers do but in my view meeting a mint leaf in a summer pudding is never nice.
Aux Merveilleux de Fred is in South Kensington at 88 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 (020 7581 0226) and in Clapham at 55 Northcote Road, London SW11 (020 7223 0771).
Eton Mess with Fred’s mini-magnifiques
I was so depressed at the sight of strawberries from California at my local supermarket that I decided to make this with frozen raspberries instead. For extra crunch and flavour I added nuts to the recipe.
6 mini-magnifique meringues from Aux Merveilleux de Fred
1 punnet of frozen raspberries (I found mine at Marks & Sparks)
four spoonfuls caster sugar
half a lemon
small pot double cream, softly whipped
a couple of handfuls of nuts (I used a mix of walnuts, pecans and almonds)
*Carefully break up Fred’s meringues (this feels like a very naughty thing to do but hold your nerve).
*Purée half the raspberries in a blender with the sugar and the lemon. Tip into a bowl and add the rest of the raspberries. Taste and add more sugar if too tart.
*Add the broken meringue to the whipped cream.
*Carefully spoon the meringue and raspberries in alternate layers into four tall wine glasses.
*Dry fry the nuts (no need to add oil), shaking the pan from time to time. Once they’re golden and toasty sprinkle into each glass.
*Remove from fridge at least 1 hr before serving.
*Eat with teaspoons.
The origin of Eton Mess
According to the blog, British Food History, Eton Mess was invented during a cricket match at Eton when a Labrador set upon a strawberry pavlova, squashing it. It turns out the story is nonsense and the summer pudding was invented by a cook in the 1930s. But I like the Labrador story best.