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FOOD & DRINK

Meet the Frenchwoman who makes the ‘world’s greatest pastry’

Jessica Prealpato, who works at the three-star Michelin restaurant of the Plaza Athenee hotel in Paris, has been awarded the title of the best pastry chef on the planet for her unusual gastronomic creations.

Meet the Frenchwoman who makes the 'world's greatest pastry'
Jessica Prealpato has been named the best pastry chef on the planet by the World's 50 Best Restaurants ranking. Photo: AFP
Her desserts are often not at all sweet and she couldn't give a fig if people complain that they don't look great on Instagram.   
 
Instead the 32-year-old French woman is the creator of a whole new genre of guilt-free patisserie.
   
For Prealpato it is not about how a dessert looks, it's how it tastes — and the feelgood glow afterwards.
   
The subtle and sublime creations she turns out at the three-star Michelin restaurant of the Plaza Athenee hotel in Paris are a rebuff to the sugar-rush burn of food porn.
   
Yet even she has not dared to have her father — a patissier forged in full-on sugar worship of French tradition — taste her creations that match strawberries with pine shoots and lemon with seaweed. 
   
“He would not understand what I do at all,” she told AFP.
 
   
Prealpato has eschewed the sugar high to go for what her boss at the Plaza Athenee, the French superchef Alain Ducasse, calls “naturalité” — or naturalness — bringing out the full range of flavours that an ingredient already has. 
   
What Prealpato also does is use ingredients that would never normally make it onto a dessert trolley.
   
So you have malted beer sorbet with barley crumble and hop galettes, cherry olive vinaigrette or vanilla Jerusalem artichokes with truffles.
 
Sugar as seasoning
 
“We shake people up,” Prealpato laughed.
   
She has already produced a book of 50 of her desserts called “Desséralité”, including her “All Rhubarb”, where the often astringent plant is served roasted, raw, fermented, grilled and poached.
   
“I love to use vinegars and try every style of cooking so that I get the most flavours out of a product,” said Prealpato, one of a tiny number of female patisserie chefs working in three-star restaurants.
 
   
Some of her peers have criticised her for the unfussy way she presents her food, claiming that it is not sophisticated enough for such an upscale establishment. 
   
And four years ago when she was starting out at Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee she said that the famed chef left her in tears when he refused to taste one of her first fruit-based desserts.
   
“I can see why now,” she said.
   
“I had presented it like a patisserie chef usually would, with lots of mousse, cream and a tuile. 
   
“For him, a dessert didn't have to be about these things.”
 
So Prealpato “took everything away… today I rarely ever work with chocolate or coffee.”
 
Instead her desserts play with sourness and acidity, and she uses sugar as others would salt — for seasoning. 
 
Pretty isn't everything
 
“I understand why some clients may not like that,” she said.
 
Initially hurt by such negative feedback, Prealpato has become used to it.
 
It also makes being crowned the world's best pastry chef all the more sweet.
 
“I am amazed. It's enormous for me. I never would have guessed that my patisseries would go that far.”
 
   
With a frankness rare at the top of her profession, Prealpato admitted that “they aren't exactly beautiful to look at.
 
“They may seem very simple but a huge amount of work goes into making them,” she said.
   
On average it takes a month to create a new recipe and her dessert menu changes rapidly with the seasons. 
   
Nor does the Earth generally shake when Prealpato puts them on Instagram — unlike her Parisian rival Cedric Grolet who won the title last year and has more than 1.3 million fans who eagerly share his visually stunning creations.
 
“My poor 20,000 followers!” Prealpato joked.
   
Unlike Grolet — who like her is something of a sugar sceptic — she said she doesn't have the time to make her desserts look good by putting them on a white background.
   
Nor does she have anything against traditional French patisserie, which she loves — she just doesn't want to spend her life making them.  
 
“I came here (to work with Ducasse) because I was sick of doing chocolate pistachio and cherry almond all the time. 
 
   
Some of the classics “are so good I don't see how you can revisit them,” she said.
   
None of the members of her Franco-Italian family of cooks and patissiers have tasted her latest creations.
 
“When I go home we don't talk about my work, and my parents don't really know what I am up to, which is fine by me.
   
“We love to sit down together and eat food you can share — it's often not fancy at all.”

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FOOD & DRINK

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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