1 December 2012

A rum little cake

Most towns in France have their gastronomic specialities (produits de terroir) and Bordeaux, as home of the canelé, is no exception. A canelé (or cannelé, meaning grooved) is a small cylindrical cake with fluted sides, height and diameter about 4cm. They are quite agreeable to eat, if a little stolid, and are usually flavoured with honey, vanilla and curiously, rum. I say curiously because South West France is a famous grape-growing area and the locally-made spirit is brandy – Cognac is to the north of Bordeaux and Armagnac to the south - whereas rum is distilled from fermented sugar cane, a crop grown far away.

The only historical account of the canelé that I’ve come across explains that in the sixteenth century the sisters in a Bordeaux convent made little cakes for the poor. However, a visitor to the local history museum might draw a different conclusion. In 2009 the Musée d’Aquitaine opened a gallery with four spaces devoted to the Modern Era: Bordeaux in the 18th century, trans-Atlantic commerce and slavery (Modern as opposed to gallo-roman and prehistoric). As the museum’s website explains (in English):
The source of [Bordeaux’s 18th century] prosperity is examined in the second space, which considers the challenges of Bordeaux maritime commerce, depicted by model ships and an impressive collection of objects relating to navigation. While this commerce initially took the form of direct trade between Europe and the Caribbean, the increase in the triangular trade at the end of the century established Bordeaux as one of the second level slave trading ports in France. The methods employed in the trade in captives from African merchants are here explained, destroying in the process a number of pre-conceived ideas. The tragedies of the decimation of native peoples and the disasters resulting from the colonial wars are not forgotten.  
The organisation of the slavery system in the Caribbean is put in perspective in the third space. Here, documents relate the living conditions and social relationships on the plantations. The sale of slaves, physical abuse, infanticide, the organisation of work, mortality, liberation, maroon societies and revolts are also mentioned.
On the equivalent page in French, “slavery system in the Caribbean” is système esclavagiste dans les îles à sucre (ie the sugar islands). It seems a reasonable surmise that rum being brought back to Bordeaux on the home passage of the triangular trade (left) started to be added to a local cake, probably increasing its popularity. Rum from the French-speaking Carribean islands is distilled from fermented sugar cane, not molasses. Until visiting the Modern era gallery, I had not appreciated the extent of South West France’s involvement in Haiti, Ste-Dominique as it was called, until independence in 1804, and the relatively late date at which France agreed to the abolition of slavery (1835).

However, despite the role of Britain and the Royal Navy in slavery’s abolition, there some matters that South West England should not be so proud of. The impressive Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade was published by Yale University Press in 2010 (its four contributors are all forenamed David!). Their Map 22 (selection below) reveals Plymouth’s early involvement in the slave trade.

Op cit Map 22 Ports outfitting slave voyages 1501-1641 (detail)
This was later eclipsed (selection from their Map 26 below) by Bristol, as is better-known, with minor participation by Lyme (Regis), Poole and Dartmouth. By then London and Liverpool had become dominant in the English slave trade.

Op cit Map 26 Ports outfitting slave voyages 1642-1807 (detail)

To end on a more cheerful note, canelés are not difficult to make at home, providing you have the right mould, example left. These can be purchased at a cost from amazonuk, less from amazonfr or in street markets in SW France. Individual copper moulds, although ornamental, are very expensive unless you are setting up as a pâtissier. Below is a recipe which works, but Google will locate plenty of others:
Canelé de Bordeaux  
500g sugar  
250g flour  
2 whole eggs  
3 egg yolks  
1l of whole milk  
2 dessert spoonfuls of rum  
3-4 dessert spoonfuls of vanilla essence (30%)  
Description: Mix the sugar and eggs in a large bowl until you have a white batter. Add the flour and mix thoroughly. Heat the milk and take off the heat before boiling, then pour gradually into the bowl with the mixture. Add the run and vanilla, mix well. Leave the batter to stand overnight. Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 10. Lightly butter the canelé moulds then fill with the batter. Cook for 20 mins at gas mark 10, then for 1h10 at gas mark 7. Leave to cool. Canelés are best eaten in the 24hrs they’re made. They will keep well for 2 days.

ADDENDUM 24 January 2013

This post has turned out to be surprisingly popular.  Perhaps canelés are the new cupcakes as an article by Ann Limpert in the Washingtonian, Bordeaux Beauties: Why Canelés are Our New Favorite Sweets, might suggest - but these are smaller (not unknown in SW France) and there is no mention of rum!

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