What do you call this–mixing additives E 102 (Tartrazine); E 122 (Azorubine); E124 (Ponceau 4R); E 131 (Patent Blue V); E 132 (Indigontine); E 407 (Carrageenan) and E 953 (Isomalt) along with industrial sugars, synthetic dyes, and a lot of fat? The answer for more than two decades is high-end pastry.
There are those among us who remember in the better restaurants the chariot de desserts bearing the weight of cakes, tarts, mousses, flans, stewed fruits, fruit salads, ice cream and sorbets, fresh fruits with crème fraiche and then some. These overburdened two-tier dessert carts (some good, others not so) were the finale to a great meal and the work of honest craftsmen.
When will you see one for the last time? These chariots have all but disappeared like so much else in great gastronomy. In restaurants, the desserts are prepared à la minute, which can be very good; while in the pastry shops, the big-name pâtissiers come up with creations that are brighter and more elaborate and playful than ever, with brilliant colors and remarkable forms. Because they produce “the beautiful”, certain pastry chefs are the new stars on the culinary scene with their TV programs, cookbooks, and magazine articles, many of whom are so trim that they look as though they never consume their creations. Tasting? That’s for the artisans of the past. Today, people have to think you’re an artist. Never have cream puffs, macarons, and eclairs been so pretty; never has a pastry defied the laws of gravity as the ones being made today. What knowledge! What talent! What cheaters!
Pure pastry chefs haven’t invented anything. After all, flour, butter and eggs are more or less the same. Is it reasonable to think that a handful of people have revolutionized an entire genre, or that generations working with the same ingredients have somehow failed? What has changed are the suppliers.
Today the additive and aroma industries are firmly rooted in pastries. Look, for example. of the catalogue of the French company Louis Francois with its emulsifiers, colorings, and blends that facilitate making meringues and donuts. If you want to believe the pastry chefs, hardly anyone uses synthetics and the trend now is for the natural and less-sugary. But if no one uses them, how do Louis François and its competitors survive, especially since this company puts a video on-line with well-known pastry chefs who showcase their products? Among them are Camille Moenne Loccoz, a chef for Pierre Hermé. Another pâtissier steps in to tell you that he has known the company since the 1980s when their products were first used for industrial food and then for gastronomy. Ironically, the food industry is subject to controls and some (if not a lot of) transparency, including listing side-effects in products that contain more than 10% of E 953 (Isomalt) and may produce a laxative effect. The phrase “May bring on hyper-activity or affect the attention-span of children” is marked on food packaging containing E 102, E 122, E 124, E 131 and E 132. Admonitions such as these are nowhere to be found at the pastry shops. Secondary effects? Safe quantities? These questions are rarely posed when it’s a matter of selling these spectacular visual creations. (As one employee of a giant agro-food company told me, “It’s the world of the Baccalaureate minus five years versus the world of the Baccalaureate plus five years” meaning chefs who left school early to apprentice in restaurants are using these products as if they hold a degree in chemical engineering).
While manufacturers are forced to inform the public, chefs and pastry chefs are sowing the omerta, or code of silence. Indeed, there is even the refusal to inform customers. I went with a friend to a fancy pâtisserie in the center of Paris that also has a branch In Switzerland. I explained to the saleswoman that my children don’t tolerate well the potentially-toxic food dye AZO. I asked her to show me the ingredients or composition of the pastries that were written on a tray behind her. I could see that my question upset her. She also refused to telephone one of her superiors. In the end she offered to write down my address and reply by post. At no time did she tell me that her “artisanal” shop refuses to use industrial additives.
Trying once again, I got into a discussion with a pastry chef who remained elusive, but assuring us that he sells “only happiness” and that his clients trust him. But that would be a wrong move if their definition of happiness was in fact based on ersatz sugars such as Sorbitol, Mannitol, Isomalt; various dyes; and emulsifiers like Carrageenan, which can cause inflammation and intestinal cancers according to several studies.
I love sweets as much as, or more than, the next person. But since pastry chefs refuse to tell me about the composition of their products and I remain more informed when I buy a pack of chewing gum than when I purchase an éclair. I’m going to abstain. My confidence in cheaters has its limits.
Ponceau 4R: http://www.ukfoodguide.net/e124.htm
Patent Blue V: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patent_Blue_V