It’s occurred to me in recent weeks that there’s more going on than you think when you’re offered dessert in a French restaurant.
Now, I’m talking here about the kind of restaurant where they don’t print a menu – but of course you already know to avoid those, don’t you? The most this sort of place has is a chalk board with the menu du jour scribbled on it. But the menu du jour usually only lists the first two courses. So the available desserts always come as something of a surprise, and you really have to get your tactics right when it comes to choosing one.
If you’re very specific about what constitutes a dessert, then you may already be limited to a couple of choices. If you want something chocolatey, you’re not likely to be offered more than mousse or fondant au chocolat. So that’s easy. If you’re a pie-eater, then you probably don’t even that much choice in large swathes of France – here in Normandy and in many other areas it’s always apple. Although where I used to live in the Limousin my other half got so blasé about the prune tart he now so desperately craves that he would only eat it if all the other variants (pear, apricot, peach etc. etc.) had run out. But even there he did once play an extremely good trump card in the dessert menu game and was rewarded with a piece of mirabelle tart, which he still reminisces about to this day.
Anyway, the way the dessert game goes is this. The waiter/waitress will sidle up and begin the manoeuvres with the traditional “Vous prenez un dessert ?” To which, of course, the only response is “Yes”, even if you already feel like your stomach is bursting, because once again this is a particular type of restaurant and the chances are that the price you’re paying includes dessert – and quite possibly coffee too.
The starting position thus established, the waiter/waitress is once again forced to make the first move. They rattle off the list of desserts. If your French isn’t good, or if they’ve got an impenetrable accent or a bad cold, you may have to put yourself in a disadvantageous position by asking them to repeat the list. Or you may – as I often do – simply panic at the plethora of choices and end up going for the first thing you’ll definitely like, only to hear something much nicer being offered to the next table five minutes later.
However, there’s an interesting thing about dessert menus, which I’ve only recently managed to formulate. If you wait right until the very end…. and then beyond it, you may just be offered the secret dessert.
Of course it’s not a secret to the restaurant staff, because it’s often the one they’ve squirrelled away for their own delectation later in the afternoon when you’ve all been turfed out full of boring old fromage blanc and îles flottantes. But they will offer it to you, if you can keep your nerve.
It has to be said at this point that the hidden dessert may actually be something that’s no nicer than the other things on offer. But you’ve got, in my estimation, a 30% chance of it being something absolutely stunning.
This happened to me recently (and the discerning reader will note that this was clearly not in Normandy). The exchange went something like this:
Waiter: “J’ai mousse au chocolat, tarte au pomme, crême caramel, îles flottantes, tarte à la pêche, baba au rhum, de la glâce, des sorbets…”
Me: (maintaining an expectant silence) …
Waiter: (faltering) “Et (sighs)… j’ai également une tarte bon accueil.”
Me: (brightening) “Et c’est quoi ?”
And the Tarte bon accueil (created by and named after the restaurant) turned out to be an indescribably good concoction of egg and mystery that tasted rather like the smell of an old French farmhouse, with added sugar. Smoky, acrid, sweet and fabulous. One to go on the list of Top desserts I have unearthed along with the Tarte délice au rhubarbe that I ate precisely once, about 12 years ago, and can still taste.
Today, however, I was outplayed by the waitress and patronne of the restaurant, who cleverly played the Age card just at the perfect moment:
“Il y a mousse au chocolat, crême brulée, tarte au pomme, fondant au chocolat avec crême anglaise, buche glacé…” Here she looked a little nervous and I really thought I had her – until she continued, with a slight quaver in her voice, “mais je ne me souviens pas de quelle saveur…” Then she came to a stop.
Only the Cruelty card would have trumped this, and I really didn’t have the heart to play it. A simple “C’est tout?” or even a suitably timed sigh might have worked, but she really is extremely elderly and I worry every time I visit the establishment that she’ll have retired, the place will have closed down, and that I’ll then have one less venue where I can hone my dessert hunting skills. So I caved and had the fondant au chocolat. And very nice it was too.
Just… probably not as nice as the dessert she had tucked away in the fridge to eat later.