How French Is Crème Brûlée? (And Hey, Why Should We Care?)

My first experience of crème brûlée was born of desperation. 

I was working in a kitchen at the time (my side-job, when I was a student) and because of an emergency with a dishwashing machine, I was last to reach the food laid out for the staff. All the nicest stuff was gone – all the starters and main courses. Nothing left but a single white ramekin containing something burnt-looking. 

“No, it’s really nice,” said a colleague. “I would have had it, but I’m full after my delicious Thai coconut curry with noodles.”

Cursing under my breath because I could have absolutely murdered a plate of Thai curry at that moment, I grabbed a spoon and prodded gently at the top of the dessert in the dish.

“It’s gone solid! Does that mean it’s still safe to eat?”

The top layer of crème brûlée is a thin, caramelized sugar crust.
The top layer of crème brûlée is a thin, caramelized sugar crust.

The sensual joy of a crème brûlée is…well, there are endless layers of experience to them, but primarily, it’s two things: the crunch and the scoop. The top layer is created with caramelized sugar (if you’re in a very professional setting, they’ll do it in front of you using a tiny, fancy butane blow-torch) and it’s designed to crack, like the ice on a winter lake that fisherman have to break through. It has to be smashed to become useable – which is a lot more fun than it sounds, especially as the layer of custard just underneath is usually still hot from the flamethrowering of all that sugar above it, and your first spoonful of it, containing shards of broken caramel, is the very best you’ll have in the whole dish…

It’s now that crème brûlée reveals its true nature as a vanilla custard dessert: gone too quickly, but a marvel for the taste-buds all the way to the final spoonful.

If you’re eating in French restaurants (as some of us are doing in Fall of next year), you’ll always see crème brûlée on the menu. It’s the country’s best-loved dessert – and it became indelibly associated with France when Audrey Tatou lovingly cracked the surface of one in 2001’s smash-hit Amélie.

But just how French is it?

Crème brûlée is a silky-smooth French custard with a luscious vanilla essence.
Crème brûlée is a silky-smooth French custard with a luscious vanilla essence.

As I noted before when looking at the Eton Mess, British educational establishments are famous for being the birthplace of a huge number of experimental desserts – and burnt-glazed vanilla custard is no different. It’s Trinity College of Cambridge that has the strongest claim here: in 1878, it introduced a dish it called “Trinity Cream” or, less attractively, “Cambridge burnt cream”, with the college arms pressed or perhaps scorched onto the top with a branding iron. 

But even earlier than this, there are suggestions that England was its origin: the legendary early 18th-Century French chef François Massialot referred to a similar dessert as crême à l’Angloise, or ‘English cream’. (It’s also noteworthy that the term crème brûlée is missing from French cookbooks until the late 20th Century, according to The Oxford Companion Of Sugars And Sweets.

There’s a lot of ambiguity here: was the Cambridge version (typically unsweetened with a much thicker crust) really what’s now called a crème brûlée, with a lineage traceable to today’s offerings in France, or was it one of a wide range of adjacent dessert experiments that would remain a regional niche delicacy?

The people to ask are the Spanish – or more correctly, the inhabitants of Catalonia. The earliest reference to creme catalana is from the 14th Century, and it looks conclusively similar: bottom layer of custard, sugar over the top, burnt to caramel with a hot iron rod. The big difference is that creme catalana uses milk instead of cream, and a few of the spices used to flavour the custard are a little different, but – aren’t we quibbling unnecessarily here?

Crème brûlée: a decadent, creamy classic with a golden caramelized sugar lid.
Crème brûlée: a decadent, creamy classic with a golden caramelized sugar lid.

(If that wasn’t complicated enough: as legend has it, Massialot was chef to Philippe d’Orleans, brother of Louis XIV and when visiting the south of France he tried an unnamed sweet dessert made with Catalan cream.When attempting to replicate it, the dish cooled down to quickly, so Massialot heated the sugar topping with a hot iron…and that’s how he claims to have discovered it for the first time.)

This would be an important issue if crème brûlée operated under a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) designed to stop competitors undermining trade exports. But at this point, because of its incredibly tangled history, there’s no enforceable version. The closest might be Crème de Bresse, which is in fact…not close at all? 

So perhaps this is that rarest of things: a chance for everyone to resist squabbling over who gets bragging (and trading) rights to a signature dish, and consider themselves members of a family of dessert-makers that spans multiple countries. Yes, there’s nothing more French than a French crème brûlée – in exactly the same way there’s nothing more Catalan than creme catalana, or English than…whatever the English decide to call theirs (come on, make up your minds, guys). 

It’s all good, and it’s all delicious, and surely that’s something we should be able to agree upon?   

Join Wheel & Anchor next year for a 10-day culinary journey through the enchanting regions of Lyon, Aix-les-Bains, Pouilly-Fuissé, Dijon, Beaune, and Côte de Nuits. Your adventure will lead you through a gastronomic paradise, where you’ll discover the flavours, traditions, and landscapes of these renowned French destinations.

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