La reviste inglesa The Economist dedica este escrito al recientemente fallecido pastelero Lenotre.
IMAGINE a macaroon, its pink surface smooth and delicate as paper, crushing through into a soft crumb perfumed with rose petals. Or a croissant, crisp as thin caramel on the outside, breaking into slightly gluey, buttery white flakes. Or a dome of the bitterest dark chocolate, giving way to a silky chocolate ganache, subsiding into a hollow of crème brûlée infused with aromas of green tea.
Gaston Lenôtre thought of such things all the time. They accounted for his radiant, almost constant smile, and his cry of “Allez-y, les enfants!” when encouraging his chefs. And yet he was not just having fun. Pastry-making, he insisted, was a science closely akin to mathematics. It required exact weights, exact times, exact proportions (tant pour tant, in the language of his kitchen-laboratory), focus and iron discipline. Sheer rigueur had put him at the top of France’s pastry tree, beside Carême and within a whisk-beat of the great Escoffier.
The elements of his craft seemed simple enough, when laid out on the page:
1 cupful caster sugar
One ½ stick unsalted butter
But in Mr Lenôtre’s world the eggs were laid that morning, fresh out of the straw and kept for half an hour at room temperature. The butter (and cream) came from a dappled and contented cow, grazing under an apple tree in his native Normandy. Egg-yolks were to be beaten until an egg-ribbon, trickled over the pale yellow surface, took five seconds to dissolve. Sponge fingers had to be baked until they were just springy to the touch, and not a moment more. Butter, melted for crêpes, was ready when it gave off a “slightly nutty smell”. And this was all before the tricky stuff, when chocolate was cut into fans with a fine-bladed knife, or the final swirl of mango coulis was licked on with a paintbrush.
A dish of rice pudding
Food of all kinds he loved and lavished. At the banquets he organised at the Elysée Palace or Versailles—for he was also, from the 1960s, a caterer in the grand style, happily feeding thousands—peacocks of Parma ham stood on the tables, alongside whole stuffed pigs. His base in Yvelines, a suburb of Paris, was an industrial-sized site incorporating a school where, on any day, 400 working chefs would be retraining in every branch of cookery. But patisserie-boulangerie was his passion. Visiting Paris as a hungry teenager, his chief impression was of bread: “good bread, real bread”.
His first sweet creation, a rice pudding, had been offered to his discerning chef-parents when he was 12. Pocket money came from making batonnets glacés for patrons of the Bernay cinema. There followed a brief apprenticeship at a baker’s in Pont Audemer, sufficient to show him that making étouffe-chrétien brioches and madeleines was not the way forward. Ten years later, in 1947, he bought the shop and filled it with delectables; ten years after that—for it took ten years of practice, he claimed, to make a decent chef—he opened in the rue d’Auteuil in Paris, where the ventilation ducts carefully piped the scent of pains chocolats out into the street.
Huge fame followed. By 1976 Mr Lenôtre had acquired Le Pré Catalan in the Bois de Boulogne, a restaurant with 12 reception rooms. By this year his brand brought in $162m and had 53 boutiques across the world, where $50 would buy you a Lenôtre box of chocolates with a recipe and an apron, and individual bouchées came cased in Limoges porcelain. Maison Lenôtre was always a family affair, with wives and children helping and his chef-students happily supporting. His 80th birthday party, a grand picnic in the middle of the Champ de Mars, featured a cake depicting scenes from his life: a ten-metre tower of ganache and meringue decked in blown sugar, spun sugar and royal icing.
He was often mentioned in the same breath as his friends Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé, as a nouvelle cuisine man. Certainly lightness was his watchword. Flour featured as little as possible in his recipes, and sugar was rationed. Whiskings went on to the point of foaming or voluminousness, and the word “gently” featured often, keeping the airiness in. Rivalry whirled round his wildly fashionable, featherlight, multicoloured and multiflavoured macaroons; if Mr Lenôtre was not their inventor, he still named his house Villa Macaron after them. He made square ones, too.
Yet he was also a Norman and proud of it, the son of a cuisine flowing with butter, cream and cheese. He could never renounce them. Butter featured in his books by the chunk and the double-tablespoon. Cream was unctuously ever-present. He always said he abjured crème patissière as hotly as he did margarine; yet the vanilla cream he devised as a replacement began with three egg yolks, beaten with sugar, and went deliciously downhill from there.
In his 80s he kept his generosity, his curiosity and his appetite. The day began with a couple of well-buttered tartines, and in the course of it he might well get a millefeuille ready. At Pont Audemer he had made them three times a day, to be sure they were fresh. They had to be taken from the oven, he advised, when the puff pastry was “just a little more than golden brown”.
How fitting, said a chef friend, but how sad, that he died just as he should have been enjoying a fine galette des rois