Whenever I’m not in Bordeaux and I see those little Bordeaux cakes, called canelés (or cannelés), for sale, I buy them. All of them. Without question. Whether I’m elsewhere in France or back home in Australia, I can’t resist the rum and vanilla flavoured Bordeaux specialty.
Canelés are baked in individual fluted copper cake moulds and each one comes out like a sparkling golden-brown jewel. They’re soft in the centre and the chewy and caramelised outside is reminiscent of the top layer of crème brûlée.
Not only does the sight of canelés in the pâtisserie window make me happy, but it evokes vibrant memories of Bordeaux. When I smell the vanilla custard-like centre of a canelé, I recognise it as the smell of Bordeaux, especially of the city centre.
As I remember Bordeaux, the smell of canelés infused the streets where cyclists rode by with flowers and baguettes in their bicycle baskets. The smell of canelés even scented the air at the Bordeaux Saint Jean train station.
But how can a small cake awaken such sentimentality for Bordeaux? It’s perhaps because the story of these little cakes is intertwined with the history of the city’s lifeblood: wine.
At a restaurant off Bordeaux’s Sainte-Catherine Street, I asked the waiter about the canelé. He told me the nuns used to make canelés for the poor children using egg yolks donated by wine makers who used the egg whites to fine the wine. Although there are other theories about the origin of the canelé, I prefer the waiter’s story and I think the Bordelais do too.