I suppose you could call it an epiphany—if crumbling sweet pleasure can be given that name.
We were traveling in Belgium, Lucia and I. We told ourselves that it was a research expedition of sorts. A little like ornithologists delving into the swamps of the Orinoco delta, we were here to explore Flanders' astonishing diversity. I am, naturally, not referring to Brussels' pigeons but rather to another field of inquiry, mainly chocolates and beer. In the mornings we took on the assignment of spotting chocolate shops so we could rate and classify their bonbons and pralines. In the afternoons we found respite from the interminable rain behind the steamy windows of pastry shops and cafés, ever vigilant for a break in the clouds so that we might continue our reconnaissance. The evenings were, of necessity, devoted to beer—patisseries close early in Belgium.
The revelation came on a predictably drizzly day in Bruges, or rather a short distance from that delightfully medieval tourist trap. We'd decided to get a little exercise and bicycle out into the countryside—as you can imagine, all those cream-filled tortes and abbey ales take their toll. And we'd heard of an especially fine pastry shop in the nearby hamlet of Damme. So we pedaled into the mist, emerging thirty minutes later onto Damme's picturesque square, the church on one side, the patisserie on the other. Once inside, there was nothing especially quaint or ye olde about Patisserie Tante Marie: just a few plain tables, a freezer full of homemade ice cream, and a long display case of cakes and tarts. But what cakes and tarts! Lumpy golden fruit tarts oozing sweet nectar were lined up beside fudge-brown disks floating above clouds of mousse. Sheets of almond sponge barely contained a lava flow of coffee cream. Lemon tarts, the color of butter, almost shivered with fragility.
This is perhaps the place where I should point out the difference between French and Belgian desserts. The distinction is subtle but essential. In France, the pastry cook's art is a kind of ornament to the fabulous physique of French cuisine. The vitrines of Parisian patisseries resemble jewelry displays, all sparkling and precious but somehow insubstantial, all mousse and no body. In Belgium, desserts are no mere baubles. They can seem a little less polished at first, but there is depth to their sparkle. Here, dessert is not some embellishment to a meal; it is the meal, served with due ceremony, with both knife and fork.
Reprinted with permission from Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert. by Michael Krondl. Text copyright 2011 Chicago Review Press. Published by Chicago Review Press (distributed by IPG). Available in October 2011.