Stories and antidotes are great, but I always want to know more, get deeper and look at things differently after I have been on a tour. This is what we try to offer at Aquitaine Travel Guide. Take the canelé, a Bordeaux staple and probably one of the most iconic sweets from the area.
First and foremost, we don’t know officially who created the conical dessert. You might have heard the legend that talks about local nuns of the 16th century Annonciade couvent in Bordeaux who used to collect the egg yolks from the wine makers who had used the egg whites to clarify the wine (some say to seal they used the egg whites to seal the barrel but that makes less sense). The legend likes to add that they collected extra vanilla, rum and sugar shipped back from the Caribbean, and added flour and milk. It’s all very romantic, and one can envision nuns in their habits looking for the spices to be scavenged from the spice storage in Chartons (now the modern art museum). However, there are some key issues with the story.
Spices like vanilla were expensive, so they likely only used flour and egg yolks, milk and sugar when it was first created. As well, the warehouse in Chartons with all of the spices wasn’t built until the 19th century.
Desserts on their own were not entirely a thing until the New World sugar plantations made sugar cheaper and more plentiful thanks to slave labor. During medieval times, sugar was often added to savory dishes, until the 17th century when chef ‘la Varenne‘ wrote his cookbook and suggested there should be such a separation and progression from savory to sweet.
The Atlantic trade which essentially created the modern 18th century Bordeaux, did not explode until the slave trade was well established in the late 17th century. So many of these goods, like rum (or rhum in French) which was also dependent on the sugar plantations, would not have been available or widely used until the mid to late 17th century. Rum was not even refined enough to be drunk by the general population until the 18th century, having been created by the enslaved populations and enjoyed by the poorer people and seamen.
What about vanilla, a spice unknown until the New World discovery and still extremely rare and expensive when the canelé was said to have been ‘invented’. Hand pollination (which allowed for a higher yield of vanilla and the ability to grow the bean in other places around the world) was not even invented until the mid-19th century on Ile de la Reunion (read more here). So in the 17th and 18th century it was still very expensive and used only in wealthy households, not appearing in cookbooks until the 19th century.
Taking all of this information into account, the canelé as we know it is most likely a revised 19th century pastry.
Are there historical recipes that are similar? Created in small copper molds? There is always more research to be done. Canauliers were the people who made canelé and formed a guild in the 17th century. Making the canelé in ‘cannelures‘ molds. So, even the name has evolved, the name canelé was made official in 1985 when it was decided the name would have one ‘n’.
My grandmother-in-law who grew up in Bazas and Bordeaux spent an evening making canelé with me. She had made the batter the night before, much like crepe batter sets for a day. Hers are easily the best I’ve had and she uses the silicon molds, saying they turn out just as well and are so much easier than the copper molds which require beeswax (traditionally), or another non-stick substance, applied evenly on the inside before cooking.
There is also the story of an unknown chef in Bordeaux in the 19th century who rediscovered the treat, adding the spices and rum as well as changing the shape to be more fluted (like today). While I have yet to find his name or the published recipe, this does seem to make the most sense.
So, next time you eat one, think of all that history and multiple culinary influences over the centuries that came to create this one, small bite sized dessert!
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