April 7, 2023 | FEATURES | By Lorelei Smillie
I’m in France and it’s absolutely freezing. At first, I tried not to complain because the tendency to shut off the radiator is necessary to alleviate the massive electricity bills brought on by the war in Ukraine. France is trying to reduce energy consumption to reach carbon neutrality, something the U.S. government is continually shoving to the back burner. People here are generally more conscious about their behavior as it relates to climate change, and I’m grateful for that.
I’m still cold. This chill has crept under my skin and burrowed inside of my bones for the past two months. Even if I crawl into bed with countless blankets around me and put on four pairs of socks, I go to sleep each night knowing dawn will bring a cloudy winter sky and a bitterly cold walk to class.
So I’ve taken to seeking warmth wherever I can find it. In the city of Tours, it’s taken in the form of a hot tea, a thé gourmand to be specific. The dish is a cup of herbal or black tea served with a spread of tiny little pastries, typically consisting of some iteration of chocolate, cream, and fruit. It is wonderful.
In France, you can order a thé gourmand at virtually any restaurant or coffee shop. It was traditionally served with a shot of espresso, but as tea drinkers have started to gain a little respect in this hyper caffeinated world, you can now get it with either beverage.
It’s a relatively modern dessert invented in the 1990’s in order to speed up the restaurant meal by allowing customers to order coffee and dessert at the same time. It seems to have the opposite effect, however, as I see most people lingering for much longer at the end of their meal to enjoy the sumptuous array of pastries with indulgence.
It is always a surprise. You never know what you’re going to get because the desserts are never specified. You’re trusting the kitchen to provide you with what you need, and they always do. First is a scoop of dark chocolate mousse, or a little lava cake dusted with powdered sugar. Something bitter and intense. Once, I was simply served a pile of dark chocolate shards to enjoy on their own.
Next, is a tiny glass pot filled with some kind of cream. Maybe it’s a creme brûlée with a delicately set interior of velvet and a crispy-crackly-top that breaks with a firm tap of the spoon. Dipping into the broken iceberg of burnt sugar reveals a sea of soft caramel that envelops the tongue in notes of maple and vanilla. Sometimes it’s a cold and tangy yogurt with a thin, sweet raspberry jam layered on top. It’s rich and gorgeous.
A cute little combination of fruit and nuts is almost always third. It could be a slice of cake with almond frangipane and orange zest, or a mini muffin with crushed hazelnuts and cranberries. I find these to be tragically over-baked most of the time, but they do benefit from a nice splash in the tea.
Every place puts its own spin on it. The dish can be a blank canvas to represent the restaurant in a playful and sugary form. The owner of my favorite tea parlor makes all the pastries in house, and he does a matcha flavored custard and an earl grey infused crème brûlée. The flavors are complex, earthy, and just sweet enough. This is not the disappointingly dry scone or tasteless brownie that you get at the overpriced coffee shop in Colorado Springs – this is art.
The French have figured out how to make gluttony elegant, and for that I am truly in their debt. Why have one dessert when you can have four or five tiny ones? That is the question I will ask myself for the rest of my life.
And with each sip of my thé gourmand, I get just a little bit happier and a little bit warmer.