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Edward Bottone: Sweet EverythingEdward Bottone
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Sweet Everything

by Edward Bottone

“Dessert is sweet after dinner ends,” wrote the lyric poet Pindar in the fifth century BC, “even after limitless food.” Here! Here! I say.

It’s nice to know that the most looked forward to part of the meal, dessert, has an ancient lineage. Of course it wasn’t always called dessert, which derives from the French, desservir, meaning to remove what has already been served. But that’s just what it was, and when and how it was served. Little has changed and it is still something that awakens the child in us, restores a smile, and is that something for which we all “save a little room.”

Proper feasts in ancient Greece and Rome included the much anticipated “second tables.” For the Greeks, dessert was the tragémata, or what one chews alongside wine; for ancient Romans, mensa secunda. After the savory part of a long banquet had concluded, the tables, scattered with leavings and gustatory detritus, were literally cleared away and the ‘second tables,’ festooned with cakes, sweetmeats, cheeses, dried fruits and nuts were brought in along with more wine.

It was, and is, the saving of the best for last. In the indulgent court of pleasure mad Trimalchio, of Satyricon fame, it was the fruit festooned figure of a pastry Priapus that would end a long banquet and perhaps signaled the beginning of more licentious behavior. Of the pastry chef, chronicler of ancient Rome, Martial wrote in the first century CE, “His hand prepares you thousands of sweet forms; the honey bee toils for him alone.”

At the well-to-do medieval table, a meal would end with wondrous ‘soteltes’ (subtleties) — creations in spun sugar, sweets, jellies and pastries molded into eagles, lions, crowns or the family coat of arms — as well as edible sweets.

In 1530 Count Cesare Frangipani invented the almond pastry which bears his name. He certainly isn’t remembered for anything else.

On one Renaissance pope’s banquet menu there were three courses each including many dishes; 26 in the first, and 24 in the second. The dessert course, however, had 88 bowls and 128 dishes distributed among forty guests filled with “candied fruits, preserves, sugared almonds and pine kernels and boxes of quince paste.” Dessert reigned.

In the lavish court of the gluttonous, glorious, Sun King, Louis XIV, important dinners were of eight courses with eight dishes in each course. But it was the Pieces Montée for which everyone opened wide their eyes and held in the breath — and loosened their breeches. These elaborate sugary decorative pieces, both edible and inedible, reinvigorated the overly sated appetite.

Antonin Carême, (b. 1784), perhaps the greatest chef of all time, without whom there would have been no modern gastronomy, was first and foremost a Patissier — a confectioner and pastry chef. An architect of sugar Carême perfected the Pieces Montée.which helped open the door for him to the great Tallyrand’s kitchen.

There is just no short changing the importance of dessert. Everything undeniably changes with the dessert course. It even requires its own set of utensils; in times past dessert was preceded by a ritual of finger bowls to make ready for the supreme moment.

A relaxed demeanor invades the room when dessert is brought out, the possibility of mirth peeks out from behind the tasseled draperies of formality. Dessert, lets face it, no matter how serious or elaborate an undertaking, is always perceived as frivolous, light hearted, even silly. Why do you think we have so long enjoyed that popular, easy-to-make confection called a “Fool”?

Those who make desserts posses a different temperament, are set apart. The pastry chef, the maker of desserts, is regularly referred to as an “artist.” The patissier must create like the painter, sculptor or even musician; requirements that are rarely expected of those who deal in savories. At times the Patissier must be a deceiver creating architectural and sculptural wonders, cakes that resemble buildings from antiquity, towers that would make Christopher Wren weep, or an animal, a musical instrument, a Venetian gondola, or a pastoral scene. Even the traditional French Christmas yule log attempts to fool the eye. The simplest dessert, a creme caramel, a poached pear, a crepe, is often elaborately garnished to trumpet its significance, as if we didn’t already venerate its very existence, didn’t find its fascination inescapably compelling.

Should you have any lingering doubts about the powerful artistry of dessert making, read what Marcel Proust wrote in Memories of Things Past of the final dish in a long list of dishes of a Sunday dinner in the volume Swann’s Way: “… a cream of chocolate, inspired in the mind, created by the hand of Françoise would be laid before us, light and fleeting as an ‘occasional piece’ of music, into which she had poured the whole of her talent. Anyone who refused to partake of it … would at once have been lowered to the level of the Philistine … To have left even the tiniest morsel in the dish would have shown as much discourtesy as to rise and leave the concert hall while the ‘piece’ was still being played, and under the composer’s eye.”

While there may be a world of difference for some between a tart au citron and a lemon meringue pie, between a gateau chocolat and a devil’s food cake — it’s all dessert to me. I don’t feel the meal at an end until something sweet has passed my lips. It is fundamental to the gestalt of dining. “The dessert,” wrote master chef Louis De Gouy in the middle of the last century, “should be dramatic. It should have glamour.“ Basically, there is no such thing as a sweet nothing.