Eating Authors: Sebastien de Castell

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Sebastien de Castell

As I prepare this week’s EATING AUTHORS post, I’m far from home and surrounded by aliens. Which is to say I’m attending the 22nd annual conference of the Klingon Language Institute, as I warned you about last week. For days now we’ve been barking and spitting at one another, singing songs of battle, and telling uproarious stories. And we’ve done it all in Klingon. As always, it’s been glorious and alas ends all too quickly.

But it’s a fitting background for introducing this week’s guest, Sebastien de Castell, whose curriculum vitae reads like the description of an over-the-top action hero. Doubtless this lends a level of verisimilitude to the swashbuckling derring do to his The Greatcoats series, which presently includes Knight’s Shadow and Traitor’s Blade. So it’s hardly surprising then to discover — as you will when you read of his most memorable meal below — that the man is a romantic as well.

And I, for one, think that’s a good thing.

LMS: Welcome, Sebastien. Thanks for coming by to tell us about your most memorable meal.

SdC: I’ve never been much of what people call a ‘foodie’. I mean, I like to eat, sure, but sitting there and analyzing every ingredient and its preparation? Ech. Just wrap it in brown paper and let me the eat the thing so I can move on to something more interesting, won’t you?

Memorable meals for me have always been about a unique combination of a place, a person and well, sure, food. Food just tastes different when you’re in a different country and sharing it with someone who fascinates you. As for the food itself? Well, the key there is it needs something you can’t just find elsewhere. That’s hard to do these days when every style of food seems to be available on every street corner.

Traitor's Blade

I guess that’s why the enigmatic and unreproducible Versailles Raspberry Tart is my most memorable meal.

First, the place: Versailles, France. I don’t mean the palace (which is lovely, of course) but the nearby town. I’d been to France before but most of my time had been spent in Paris which, despite its rich history, feels like a modern city to me—things are big and at a distance. In Versailles on the other hand, you’ll walk along a side-street and look down to see a basement window. From that window emerges the smells of baking bread or patisserie being prepared and then passed up to the store upstairs. I had the strangest urge to reach inside one of those windows and steal a baguette just pulled out of the oven.

Now, to the person: I was with my girlfriend and this was her first trip to France. Among her many wonderful qualities is an ability to truly appreciate the world around her — to be excited and moved by new places. There’s something about being with someone like that that heightens every experience — that makes every trip feel like you’re the first person to ever set foot in that city or that country.

Knight's Shadow

So there we are, walking along the street on our way to visit the palace, when we see this little pâtisserie selling the usual assortment of cakes and tarts and eclairs. We stopped in and purchased what looked like an ordinary raspberry tart. Walk by pretty much any bakery and you’ll see something that looks almost identical to what I was looking at. I mean, sure, the raspberries looked fresh, the yellow-ish topping looked less fake that what you might see in the grocery store. The pastry shell had an appropriately flaky texture. Big deal, right?

Then my companion and I each took our first bite.

I feel sad for you, gentle reader, that you weren’t walking with us down that street in beautiful Versailles on that particularly fine summer’s day, that you didn’t sit outside with us on the brick sill and feel your teeth break through the soft crust, breach the fresh raspberries and then slide into the creme cheese custard. Had you been there with us you, too, would have wondered at how the combined effect achieved that perfect balance between sweet and tart, between rich and light.

All at once my girlfriend and I couldn’t stop staring at the tart, then at each other, then at the tart again. As I said before, I know nothing about food, really, and yet even a culinary dullard like myself understood that I had just tasted the raspberry tart — the Socratic Form from which every other raspberry tart is merely a shadow.

Spellslinger

You would think, gentle reader, that we would have immediately run back into the pâtisserie, ordered a dozen boxes each holding a dozen tarts only to change our minds and double the order. But for some strange, inexplicable reason, we didn’t. Instead we smiled, held hands and set off down the street to visit the palace. Like all fools who have briefly wandered into Faery, we just assumed we would find it again once we were ready.

We didn’t, of course. It’s been years and years since we found that pâtisserie. Never again have we tasted the perfect raspberry tart (and not for lack of trying, I assure you.)

Maybe it’s because that one place had the ultimate recipe, or that one baker had the magic needed to create such a delicate dessert—so simple on the surface, and yet… that creme cheese custard thing… how did he do that? I’ve never found anything that tasted remotely like it. Maybe it’s that ingredients have simply changed over time — raspberries aren’t what they used to be and somehow global warming is wrecking our tarts. However I suspect it was simply this: there was a beautiful, undiscovered place and a special, fleeting moment and a fascinating person to share it with, and from such ingredients are the most memorable meals made.

Thanks, Sebastien. I can’t help but wonder how many other people are out there in the world who are also doomed to be wistfully and forever haunted by thos raspberry tarts.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

#SFWApro

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