When I started writing The Art of Baking Blind, I was so preoccupied with the British obsession with baking it didn't occur to me that it might appeal elsewhere. Which was pretty blinkered, I realised this week, as I spent three days in Paris promoting the French edition of the novel - or La Meillure d'Entre Nous.
I hadn't been to the capital for ten years, and had forgotten that every street seems to boast not just one, but two or three patisseries or salon du thes or boutique shops selling just a few choice profiteroles or macarons. These weren't just shop windows filled with garish blasts of colour - the vibrant reds of a giant tarte aux fraises; the eggy yellow slabs of clafoutis; the rich curls of dark chocolate - such as those seen here:
These were more like exquisite jeweller's shops, with the wares laid out beneath glass cabinets - and the prices so high, one hardly dared to ask. Shops like this one in Le Marais, which sold only profiteroles - some flavoured with rose water and decorated with gold leaf:
Or Bontemps, perhaps 100 metres away, which sold exquisite sable biscuits sandwiched with mango, citron, vanilla or chocolate creme pat - and showcased its flans behind vintage duck-egg blue cabinets and on antique plates:
Little wonder, then, that when Livre de Poche held an evening for bloggers - or blogeurs - in Colorova, a stylish patisserie/librarie in the Jardins de Luxembourg area, a good 25 of them turned up. Even though the weather was glorious - a heady 21 or 22C - and the parks were crammed with Parisiens basking in the first real heat of spring.
They listened attentively as my publisher, Veronique Cardi, enthused about the book and I read a speech, explaining the novel's genesis and themes, that I'd prepared in French. And no one looked disdainful as I fumbled my way through their questions, mixing my grammatical constructions and sometimes turning to the novel's translator, Alice Delarbe, when the vocabulary defeated me. Why were many of the men unsympathetic? (Necessary dramatically); Why were the cakes technical and not as creative as French constructions? (We're not as good at baking as you; to which they nodded.) Why was I obsessed with motherhood? (I'm not obsessed; but I found it a profound experience. It's more women in general - their conflicting needs and roles; and the pressures they impose on themselves - who fascinate me.)
It was a real joy to hear readers' takes on the novel; and to be told by one, for instance, that it conjured up memories of a patissiere grandmother and moved her in a way no novel about food had before; or by another that she didn't usually read "girlie books" - "Do you mean women's fiction?" I asked, gently - but, and this was said with genuine surprise: "I really enjoyed this: it was intelligent!"
And then we were let loose on the champagne and the patisserie. And what patisserie! My novel features a tarte au citron in the first chapter - "The viscous yellow glows against the crisp golden pastry, blind-baked to perfection" - and this later appears malevolent (if a pudding can be malevolent). "The triangles sit quivering in the gloaming. The fluorescent yellow filling wobbling, tantalising her. "Eat me, eat me.""
And so Livre de Poche, with an attention to detail that would befit the best baker, arranged for the patisserie to involve citron mousse and creme pat, perhaps with a mango coulis thrown in. The Paul Sesame (a pun on Paul Cezanne) involved passion fruit gel on a mousse au citron, sesame tuile, black sesame creme pat, citron creme pat and black sesame shortcrust, all topped with a tiny, sesame dusted meringue. I managed one - the citron creme pat rich yet refreshing - and, despite my best efforts, was later defeated by a second.
The next day, we did it again. Not such exquisite patisserie but delicacies made by customers of Mots en Marges (http://www.motsenmarge.com), a bookshop run by Nathalie Iris, who reviews books each week on French breakfast TV. Buoyed by giving a radio interview in French, I spent a couple of hours chatting to around 50 enthusiastic readers, who talked at length about what food, and baking in particular, meant to them.
I had recipe books pressed on me, and delicate canales de Bordeaux - tiny pastries with meltingly-soft custard centres and a caramelised crust - and a speciality walnut, parsley and olive bread made by Nathalie. One customer told me she had spent the day reading my novel and making 100 macarons in seven different flavours - blackberry, citron, pistachio, vanilla, chocolate etc - for a friend's macaron pyramid birthday cake. "You're a good friend," I commented, as I bit into her light-as-air pistachio creation and listened to the tiny coos from other women, doing the same; and she shrugged and said: "It was nothing." As Jenny, one of my characters, says: "Food is love."
Perhaps it isn't so surprising, then, that these readers are interested in a novel about baking. For this is a culture that not only appreciates food - and spends far more of it than us Brits - but values the perfectionism and obsessive attention to detail that marks out many a baker - and is prepared to pay a high price for it.
"The bakes in your novels are technical but not creative like those we make in France. Why is that?" the journalist Elsa Menanteau (www.pournouslesfemmes.com) asked. And while part of that may be a failing of my writing, I do believe that our bakes, and by implication our culture, are not as exacting as those of the French. The perfectionism required by these jewel-like patisserie steps up a level here.
Watching these slim, stylish women, who view gateau as a treat to be indulged in occasionally, I hoped they would be kind to the vastly-inferior bakers in The Art of Baking Blind. And perhaps they will. For the reviewers understood that this is a novel about being a woman as much as about baking. As a glorious review in French Elle puts it: "The novel, more subtle than one might imagine, effectively pinpoints the diktats that society imposes on women: motherhood sold as the panacea or the tyranny of slimness. Devour at once."
As I bought my profiteroles, before catching the Eurostar back home, I told the young shop assistant I'd just written a novel about why we bake. (I am shameless about it now and hustle everywhere.)
She raised a perfectly-arched eyebrow, this woman who had just sold over 20 euros of choux pastry to the previous customer, and I could swear she rolled her eyes.
"Now that," she said. "Is a very good question."