Mont Blanc - Aiming for the Summit
Mont-Blanc. White Mountain.
The snow-capped Mont Blanc is the highest peak in the Alps, bordering on France, Italy and Switzerland. Its magnificence has stimulated the human mind so much so that it has inspired many to attempt the summit by physical feat or artistic accomplishments. Its sheer presence symbolizes the terrifying beauty and power of nature, thus giving rise to masterpieces in engineering – Montblanc fountain pen – in literature – Mont Blanc by Percy Shelly (and also Frankenstein by Mary Shelly) and in confectionary – mont-blanc aux marrons.
The air is crisp and the sky is high and the autumn is here. The fall seems to have crept in overnight, but the memory of summer has already faded on the skin. The season seems to arrive faster each year; the fall the, the winter, the spring and the summer all roll over and into each other, a little quicker and just a little too soon.
While there are many autumnal flavors – the figs, the persimmons, the pears and the plums but in the world of Japanese cake shops, the fall starts sweetly with the brown, shiny chestnuts. Hence, the Mont Blanc to conquer here in this little monograph is the petit mont-blanc aux marrons named after that renowned mountain. Japanese chestnuts are naturally sweet, so a simple roasting will more than suffice. The rustic simplicity is all very well, yet the mind wanders, then wonders, from time to time, yearning for the possibility of the mighty and the magnificent. When it comes to artistic rendition of the mont-blanc, no other chef-d'oeuvre can surpass the sublime summit of le mont-blanc in the holy trinity created by Angelina.
The origin of this famous gateau can be traced back to the Duchy of Savoy at the foot of the eponymous Mont Blanc, naturally, but the original recipe was actually a dessert – a mountain of pureed chestnuts squeezed into thin vermicelli on a plate, then covered in an avalanche of crème de Chantilly (a fancy name for the whipped cream, supposedly whipped up by Vatel in Chantilly) to resemble the actual snow-covered peak. However, just as the former Duchy of Savoy went through several partitions between Italy and France, so did the mountain (and remains indeterminate) as well. Consequently, depending on the source, the French attribute the dessert to the Italian Montebianco, while the Italian amicably credits it back to the French mont-blanc; and the Wikipedia even claims that it was served on the Borgia’s table (although no other source or reference of this could be found in English or Italian).
However, that was still the mont-blanc of the yesteryear. At the end of the 19th century, after running a highly and royally successful chain of pâtisseries and cafés in France and in Germany, Monsieur Antoine Rumpelmayer, an Austrian, set his eyes on Rue de Rivoli, Paris and founded Rumpelmayer in 1903, which changed its German-sounding name during the war and became Angelina – also known as the place for le mont-blanc. The ingenuity of Monsieur Rumpelmayer was in the creation of the holy trinity of meringue, crème de Chantilly and marron vermicelli - the form of mont-blanc as we know today - by inverting the white mountain so that it is the brown marron paste, which covers the whipped cream, and thus converting a table dessert into an individual, portable (although not when created due to the lack of refrigeration) “gateau.” Not only so, he further added a meringue to the creamy, dreamy decadence so that there is now a touch of crunchy lightness to lift up the otherwise heavy confection.
As iconic as it is, Angelina’s mont-blanc is not the only way to reach the summit. Chef Sakota, born coincidentally in 1903, exported Angelina’s version to Japan in the 1930’s; however, instead of meringue, he used castella (which is a dense Japanese sponge cake, adopted from a Portuguese recipe) and topped it with lighter strings made from yellow-colored Japanese chestnut confits. This “yellow” monburan has remained the signature item at the namesake confectionary Monburan in Tokyo, and it has accompanied many joyous occasions for the Japanese baby boomers.
The path of this dessert took another sharp turn in 1984 – the height of the Bubble Period. Angelina crossed the ocean and opened its first oversea branch in Ginza. For the second time, this French heavy artillery dealt the Japanese palate a hard blow; nevertheless, it whetted the appetite of the future pâtissiers into thinking beyond the yellow monburan.
Today, most of the Japanese mont-blancs follow the trinity established by Angelina: a crispy meringue, smooth whipped cream and strings of velvety pureed chestnuts. Simple and yet not so simple, as the three components hide a myriad of petit nuances and it is exactly these little things which make or unmake a mont-blanc. For example, the meringue: should it shatter or should it stay; should it be crunchy or should it be just a little bit chewy? To maintain the integrity of the meringue, many acclaimed pâtissiers will only construct it upon customer’s order and, that is, if the customer swears to consume the fragile construction within the prescribed lifespan. The mighty mountain, which has withstood the test of millennia upon millennia, has been reduced to an ephemeral being, lasting less than sixty minutes (the shortest is ten).
The second question is the cream: how high should the fat content be? 42% for a lightness or 47% for a knock-out? Furthermore, the consensus is not to add sugar in the whipped cream, but how about a little pinch of salt to subliminally stimulate the taste buds? Then there is the whipping concern – a stiff peak or a soft peak?
The last rung up to the peak poses the biggest obstacle yet: which chestnut should be used? Japanese vs. French. On the one hand, pro-Japanese, then the pastry can only be made during the chestnut season – in the fall – although the modern refrigeration has drawn out the season to the following spring. Chestnuts need to be aged in order to fully develop the sweetness as the starch coverts to sugar. Even within Japan, not all chestnuts are created equal: chestnuts from Kumamoto are robust and large, but the ones from Ehime are more aromatic. In any case, the chestnuts of Nagano are the best in terms of texture and taste: just as in Chamonix, the nature has so decided that what is good for skiing is also good for the chestnuts. On the other hand, if pro-French, then a pâte, puree or crème de marron is used so that a climb up the mont-blanc will not be swayed by the season and is made available all year round as it is at Angelina. As a matter of fact, the emblematic Angelina swears by Maison Imbert, but most Japanese pâtisseries rely on Sabaton.
While these three branches are enough to keep a pâtissier quite busy, there are other sideway tracks of distraction. For example, if the Japanese chestnuts are chosen, the camp is for keeping the purity intact by not adding anything else – no rum, no brandy and no vanilla beans. However, if the pâtissier is going for a full-fledged French gateau, there is nothing wrong with adding a little fragrance to perfume the palate. If we further elaborate on the theme of mont-blanc, why not bury a marron glacé in the middle? Or coat the meringue with chocolate for accent and to make it moisture-proof? There is only one mountain, but indeed there are infinite routes to reach it.
To confine the matter to more finite plane, however, let us follow the paths of two mont-blancs, which have both chosen a mixture of Japanese chestnuts and French marron paste, sugar-free whipped cream with a touch of salt and a bottom of meringue.
The first route was to revisit the main highway: Pâtisserie Rechercher. Rechercher’s mont-blanc, tasted and tested two years ago, had proven to be a formidable climber, forceful and yet elegant in its beautiful balance of Japanese delicacy and French audacity. For truth be told, if the trinity were kept pure and simple, the cake can become quite Japanese, or too Japanese, because the part of the meringue and the part of the chestnut are oil-free and fat-free, therefore, the resulting flavor leans toward “wagashi” – despite the addition of cream (many pseudo Japanese sweets use butter and cream these days anyway). But Rechercher had brought the creation back to the world of cakes with the use of French chestnut puree, but more significantly, by the hefty pinch of salt in the whipped cream. The saltiness cut through the heavy cream, whipped stiff to match the sturdy chestnut vermicelli akin to that of Angelina, yet Rechercher’s version surpassed the icon by being less cloying and less unctuous.
However, the previous success showed cracks this year. Not only the Japanese chestnut was flavorless (the provenance undisclosed), but the firm texture and the darker color of the marron spaghetti suggested a higher ratio of the canned pâte de marron than the freshly mushed Japanese chestnut. Furthermore, the cream was notably oily, almost like buttercream instead of crème de Chantilly. The tongue awaited rescue for the customary saltiness to cut though the grease, but it waited in vain. Has Monsieur Murata forgotten the magical pinch or did he reach for the wrong pot? Because the mont-blanc this year was unforgivingly sweet. One searched for salvation at the bottom of the pile – in the form of the meringue – yet, the overly fragile, thin meringue had already noiselessly crumbled under the dreary weight. Therefore, in the face of the insurmountable chestnut mountain, without help and fearful of saccharine and unctuous asphyxiation, a defeat was proclaimed.
The first mountain climbing of the year thus ended in a hasty retreat. The second attempt at the mont-blanc was recalibrated to go through a less trodden route in an obscure corner of upstate Osaka – at Pâtisserie à Terre. True to its name, the small pâtisserie has its feet firmly on the ground, eschewing the limelight of magazine and television, the convenience of purchased almond poudre or hazelnut pralines, and fills its showcase with earth-colored classics. Its smaller mont-blanc is also modeled on the traditional trinity, in fact, quite similar in concept and construction to the one at Rechercher.
Similar, but not the same. The freshness of the Japanese chestnut, although light, shone against the shadow of French puree – a ray of late sunshine falling through the fall foliage. Fresh milk seeped through the delicious cream, which was mellow but airy. However, the arresting feature was hidden in the bottom meringue, simultaneously crusty and chewy – not because the meringue has already absorbed the moisture, but because diced hazelnut praline had been mixed into the meringue. Now, the sticky toffee did admittedly stick to the molar initially, but the whipped cream came to sweep it away in a cloud of creamy foam, so that after a couple more crunch on the nutty praline, all that was left was a bouquet of the fall – the irresistible aroma of roasted hazelnuts, the bitter-sweet browned caramel and the earthy chestnut – all enveloped into the white, whipped cream.
The miniscule pinch of salt was not obvious at first, yet it dutifully guided the tongue through the many branches of chestnuts: because despite the rich texture and flavor of the cake, it never became heavy. On the contrary, as one waded deeper through the layer, the invisible grains of salt carried us forward and upward, to the exuberant summit of mont-blanc. Therefore, the initial reserve turned out to be only an introduction: the mont-blanc at Pâtisserie à Terre climbed slowly and surely and culminated in a deep contentment.
In contemplation of the next ascent, let us reflect the natural wonder in the lines of Percy Shelly:
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears—still, snowy, and serene;
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter's bone,
And the wolf tracks her there—how hideously
Its shapes are heap'd around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarr'd, and riven.
Until we ascend again.
Patisserie à Terre
Address: 1 Chome-2-3 Jonan, Ikeda, Osaka.
Hours: Closed on Wednesday.
Address: 4 Chome−5 Minamihorie, Nishi War, Osaka.
Hours: Closed on Tuesday.