What to Eat in France: Cream: crème fraîche, crème brûlée, crème caramel, crème chantilly…
The Normans put cream in almost all their sauces: for example, with salt cod and prunes.–La Varenne, Le Cuisinier François, 1651
C’est de la crème. / It’s easy.–French saying
Ce n’est pas de la crème. / It’s difficult.–French saying
No one loves cream or creaminess more than the French. They love it so much that they call all sorts of things other than cream “crème“: cream soups, pudding, sauces, custard filling, pastry cream, coffee with hot milk, puréed chestnuts, almond cream, cream horns, and even certain liqueurs. Just about anything creamy is likely to be called cream in French.
Cream has existed ever since milk existed. Despite our association with French cuisine, in general, cream is more a specialty of the north of France where it’s cooler, of the land of butter, than of the south, the land of olive oil and duck fat.
Normandy might well be called the cream capital of the world, or at least of France. The Vikings brought what we now call Normande cows to Normandy a thousand years ago. They, along with Jersey cows, are known for the quality of their fatty, high-protein milk, which makes excellent cream, butter and cheese. Half of all French milk and cream now comes from Normandy.
It was, in fact, the Normans who introduced butter into French cuisine, and it soon came to replace lard in that part of the country. Cream was originally used only to make butter, and, on its own, was eaten as dessert with fresh cheese. It was the chef Taillevent who started incorporating butter and cream and the concept of creaminess into the general French repertory at the beginning of the fourteenth century, but it was in the seventeenth century — when cuisine moved from the acidic sauces of the Middle Ages to fatty sauces in which cream was used as a binding agent — that it firmly installed itself forever. It was also at this time that crème chantilly, or whipped cream, was invented, probably by François Vatel when he worked as maître d’ for Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, at the Château de Chantilly.
Technically, cream is just fatty globules from milk and water, casein, lactose and mineral salts. In culinary terms, it has many meanings and a whole history:
- cresme de pâtissier or pastry cream, 16th century
- crème brûlée, or burnt cream, 17th century
- crème chantilly, or whipped cream, 17th century
- crème glacée, or ice cream, 18th century
- crème chiboust, used to fill cream horns, invented in the pastry shop of that name in the rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, 19th century
- crème au beurre, used for pastries, and which has no cream or milk in it, only butter, sugar and eggs, 19th century
- crèmes prises, meaning literally “set creams,” or flans cooked in a double boiler, 19th century
Many of these preparations are made from milk, not cream, as you see, so the meaning of the term expanded over time, and now includes:
- crème de cacao, chocolate liqueur
- crème de marrons, chestnut purée
- pot de crème, custard
- crème de gruyère, melted cheese
- chocolats à la crème, chocolates with a creamy filling
And we thought cream came from cows…well, it does, and from many other places, too, at least in France.