I’ve spent the last five months picking up new skills and techniques and working hard to try to perfect the essentials of traditional French Pastry at L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Pâtisserie (ENSP). I’ve also been living the small-town experience in the countryside town of Yssingeaux, where the school is located. From ‘character-building’ 6am starts to gruelling 11 hour days, from jam-packed weekend getaways to seemingly endless hours of boredom, and from many a tarte au citron to various petits gâteaux, my time in Yssingeaux was unforgettable and I left with a heavier heart than expected.
I took part in the international program called French Pastry Arts, or FPA. This is a program designed for beginners, available to those with no prior experience in commercial kitchens. As such, it was comforting to meet the rest of the group and find that almost everyone was going through some sort of career change. When I left Australia, it felt like taking a huge risk. It still was a risk, but at least other people were in the same boat. We’re 9 girls and 1 guy, and we came from Taiwan, China, Czech Republic, USA, Russia, Mexico and Australia.
The main component of the whole program was a total of 530 hours working in the labs spread out over 21 weeks. It started with 8 weeks of introduction to pastry, which involved first and second attempts at all of the basic skills required of a pâtissiere. This was followed by the ‘theme’ weeks, with classes in specialised skills such as boulangerie and viennoiserie (bakery), confectionary, ice cream and sorbet, petits fours, modern tarts, modern entremets, plated desserts, cake decoration, chocolate sculptures, sugar sculptures, petits gâteaux, savoury petits fours and other mixed skills. Without a doubt it is an intense program, but it does get easier over time. It’s designed to teach work ethic required for lab environments as well as hard skills. Whilst most of us had come from professional backgrounds, the learning curve was still there, particularly in trying to adapt to such a physical profession. It was fortunate that we were able to work with some very dedicated chefs, who have a passion for their craft and a genuine desire to help and to teach.
The program also included some classes in Food Science and Technology, Visual Communication, as well as an unexpectedly enriching 80 hours of French class – to prepare us for work and to provide a well-rounded cultural experience. I’m slowly beginning to overcome the fear of all new languages sounding Indian coming from me.
A TYPICAL DAY
4.30am: Alarm rings.
5.15am: Roll out of bed after hitting snooze 5-6 times, put on chef clothes.
5.30am: Leave home.
6.00am: Start lab class – getting straight into the recipes made it easier to deal with that early hour in the morning.
9.00am: Break – a glorious 20-30 minutes of sitting down, with terrible coffee and delicious pastries made at school. On a good day, with wi-fi as well.
9.30am: Back to lab class. On a Friday, we would usually be finishing off our products at this time. At the end of each of Friday, the best looking products are displayed on a buffet.
12.00pm: Clean the lab.
1.00pm: Head back home, eat lunch, catch up on tv shows. Unless there was another class like French or Food Science – then we could be at school for up to another 5 hrs. In that case, at 1pm, I play pool.
5.00pm: Go to the gym. This lasted for the first couple of months. After coming back from the Christmas/New Year holidays, 5pm just meant continuing to do nothing.
7.30pm: Cook and eat dinner. Sometimes accompanied by some choice red wine or whatever beer is available at the convenience store.
9.30pm: Try to sleep and hope for enough hours before having to do it all over again.
Eat leftover desserts from school
Binge-watch TV shows
Hit up the local bar for a change of scene OR
Visit another city for the weekend
There’s no denying how far we’ve all come. From amateur home cooks to semi-professional pâtissieres. The hard work paid off, which is particularly noticeable when looking back at photos of our products. It’s also worth noting that with the right equipment and the right instruction, it’s easier to make progress.
A lot of people who’ve heard of what I’m up to say ‘there’s no better place to do it’, meaning that France is the best place to learn French Pastry. That’s true. But what we don’t realise is that whilst France is home to many of the best pastries and desserts, there are also a ridiculous amount of terrible products being sold. Some mass produced, some made on site…but without love, it seems. If there’s one thing that really pleased me about the school, it was their insistence on producing each item to the best quality, even by French standards. It also made me realise that in Australia we borrow a lot of other cuisines, but we have a very good idea of quality and authenticity.
Here are some pics! LOTS of pics…
Boulangerie & viennoiserie – bread & pastry
Confectionary: Marshmallow, pâte de fruit, sugared almonds, jellies, chocolate bonbons, soft caramels, nougat
Ice cream and sorbet: Vanilla, hazelnut, raspberry, strawberry, apricot and passionfruit, pineapple, lemon, various ice cream cakes.
One off tarte mont blanc – for learning French in a lab setting
Savoury petits fours – for our graduation buffet
I spent my first night in France at a hostel in Lyon, where I explained to a number of people, both local and foreign, what I’d be doing and where I’d be studying. Not a single person had heard of Yssingeaux. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a little amusing to me. Where the hell was I going?
As it turns out, Yssingeaux is very small and rather disconnected. Apart from one bus a day, it’s not that easy to get in and out. We relied heavily on that one bus, as well as blablacar.fr – a great carpooling service in Europe for ride sharing and for practicing French.
Despite the fact that there are international students visiting the school and Yssingeaux regularly, we were still a bit of a novelty for some of the locals, with many people inquiring about our nationalities. Whilst my mixed features and slightly muddled accent did make people more inquisitive at times, as it has all over Europe, my initial introduction as Australian almost always got the same response – ‘Australie? Avec les kangourous!’
When I think about Yssingeaux, I feel blessed, because it was a wonderful, charming small town experience. A far cry from suburban Melbourne. I was fortunate enough to stay in an apartment in the centre of town. It was the type of scene where people greet each other on the street, where the guys at the local bar and takeaway joints treat us as regulars, where people would lean out of the windows of there homes and watch us carrying our desserts home and where there are many furry friends. It has the feel of a place that hasn’t changed in decades, with trinket shops, stone clad buildings and, often, snowy rooftops. The school was a little out of town, a 15 minute walk through the picturesque French countryside, complete with sloping farmland, ponies and even a babbling brook.
Perhaps I will return to the school some day, for a short course :)
As part of our program, we are required to complete two month internships working in a commercial setting. 8 of the 10 in my program are working in pâtisseries or pastry shops in France. We have one working in a restaurant in England. It seems I will be doing a bit of everything.
Right now I’m writing from the Château des Vigiers, between Bordeaux and Bergerac. It’s a country club with a golf course, a spa and a hotel. For the first month I’ll working in the brasserie to assist with restaurant service and the bakery items for breakfast (croissants, brioche etc). In April, Les Fresques – the restaurant gastronomique – will reopen, and I will work there. Throughout my internship I will be working alongside Michelin starred chef Didier Casaguana. Admittedly I’d never heard him before, but that makes sense now that I’m at the château, because this place is in the middle of nowhere. But after looking into his work history and speaking with him about his experience, I’ve found that he’s both very impressive and very kind.
Oh and yes, once again I find myself with little, or in fact no transport options. In fact I am even more disconnected from civilisation here, with the nearest town/supermarket/other walks of life being at least 15 minutes away by car. However, you’ll hear no complaints from me here, with accomodation and meals all included, it’s as good as a paid internship and I’m still blessed. My focus right now is learning as much as possible and keeping my goals in sight…and maybe improving my golf swing.
Peace and love as always,