When I first met Philippe, one of the first laughs he had at my expense was expounding on the terrible food that English people eat: everything was covered in a terrible brown floury sauce; we ate mountains of greasy ‘feesh and chips’; and of course, there was the famous ‘Engleesh triffle’ – a ghastly concoction of green jelly and solid custard. I quizzed him – had he actually been to England and eaten any of the food? His answer was “No”, but he’d heard all about it from his friends.
The reputation of English food in France is both legendary and apocryphal. I have done my best in the thirteen years that I’ve lived here to disabuse my French friends of some of their prejudices – but Philippe has remained sceptical. When I invited him and his wife Nathalie to lunch this weekend, he threw the gauntlet down. “I’ll only come if you make a trifle,” he said. The challenge was accepted.
My memories of trifle go back to childhood, but the pudding I ate in those days was perhaps a little closer to the ‘concoction of green jelly and solid custard’ described by Philippe’s friends.
My mother’s version involved slicing a ready-made Swiss Roll sponge and using the roundels to line the base of a large cut-glass bowl. The sponge was then splashed with whatever sherry was left over from Christmas before she added some tinned peaches, a layer of Rowntree’s raspberry jelly (made with jelly cubes), a layer of Bird’s custard, and finally, a topping of whipped cream.
My job would be to decorate it with glacé cherries and particular merit was given to ‘the cherry in the middle’ – maybe because it involved second helpings. It was the source of many squabbles between my sister and I as to who would get ‘the cherry in the middle’. But we both loved my mother’s trifle and it never occurred to me that there was any other way of making it.
Years later, when my passion for cooking had become a near-obsession and I would happily go to bed with a copy of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cookery or Jane Grigson’s English Food as my bedtime reading, I discovered that English Trifle had very ancient origins and bore little resemblance to my mother’s version.
Because of its simplicity, it’s hard to point to a particular moment in history when trifle became Trifle but it’s easy to spot some of its antecedents. The earliest use of the name trifle was in a recipe for a thick cream flavoured with sugar, ginger and rosewater, in Thomas Dawson’s 1585 book of English recipes The Good Huswifes Jewell.
In the 18th century, biscuits or cakes (probably a little stale) soaked in sweet wine, began to be added, along with fruit-flavoured jellies.
Today there are as many variations as there are cards in a pack – I once ate a most wonderful whisky and orange version of trifle served up as an alternative Christmas pudding – but if you ask me to make a trifle, I always return to the version I first discovered in Jane Grigson’s English Cooking, which also includes Elizabeth David’s Everlasting Syllabub for the topping.
Accepting Philippe’s gauntlet, so to speak, I set off in search of the ingredients. Not as simple as you might think here in the south west of France.
I like to use Italian macaroons (as per Grigson’s recipe), but they are notoriously difficult to buy outside Christmas time, so I settled for a classic sponge cake based on the French recipe called Quatre Quarts. This is made with equal weights of sugar, flour, eggs, and butter – hence the name.
As for the cream, I will confess there is nothing like the choice of cream available back in Britain where there is single cream, whipping cream, double cream, extra-thick double cream, and of course the crème de la crème – clotted cream! I suspect that’s because so much French cream is diverted into cheese and the ubiquitous crème fraiche. Even worse, I have discovered (from reading the small print), that the double cream I’ve been buying for years has E407 (otherwise known as caragheen or seaweed), added to it to improve the thickness – back in Britain, cream is 100% cream and nothing else!
I also wanted to find some sherry and phoned quite a few local ‘cavistes’ but no, no sherry. I was obliged to make do with a sweet white wine and chose a Cuvee des Brumes from Pujol-Izard, bought from Adrian Mould, an excellent wine merchant in nearby Montolieu.
Despite these small contraries in terms of ingredients, the end result was just right. Oldest son Tom cooked a most excellent British roast with shoulder of lamb and, after an interlude of French cheeses, we finished with the trifle. Philippe and Nathalie both had second helpings (as did I), and they very happily took home the rest of the trifle in a container.
Philippe readily admitted that proper English Trifle was a pudding worthy of a much better reputation than it has here in France, so I have appointed him an official ambassador of English Trifles and asked him to spread the word far and wide. The French may excel at patisserie but when it comes to puddings, English puddings are simply the best!
English Trifle (with a gracious nod to Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David)
Preparation – start the day before. Serves 6
For the syllabub:
8 tbsp of sweet wine
2 tbsp brandy
Pared rind of one lemon (scrubbed even if it says unwaxed/untreated)
60 gm caster sugar
300 ml double cream
For the trifle:
A good sponge cake (in the absence of macaroons)
6-8 soup spoons of sweet wine (in the absence of sherry)
3 punnets of fresh raspberries
2 tbsp caster sugar
2-3 tbsp of water
600 ml double cream
6 large egg yolks (I used 7 as they weren’t ‘large’ enough for me)
50 gm caster sugar
1 dessert spoon cornflour
1 dessert spoon pure vanilla extract (which I couldn’t include as it was still in a cardboard box somewhere!)
Flaked almonds toasted under the grill or in a dry frying pan.
The day before, place the lemon peel in a small bowl, cover with the wine and brandy and leave in a cool place to steep overnight.
Now heat the water in a pan with the sugar and when the sugar is melted, add the raspberries and stir until they’re beginning to cook. Take off the heat and allow to cool overnight.
The next morning, slice the cake and cover the base of the bowl. Pour over the sweet wine to moisten all the sponge, then add a layer of the raspberries with a slotted spoon to avoid adding too much raspberry juice.
For the custard, mix the egg yolks with the caster sugar and the cornflour in a pudding bowl.
Gently heat the 600 ml of cream in a heavy based saucepan and when it’s just about to simmer, pour the cream into the pudding bowl and whisk into the egg yolk mixture. Return to the pan and heat slowly, stirring gently while the custard mixture begins to thicken. Err on the side of caution as it’s very easy to end up with a scrambled egg mixture so when it’s showing signs of thickening, lower the heat and when ready, pour over the raspberries and sponge. When it’s a bit cooler, place in the fridge to chill.
For the syllabub, strain the wine/brandy mixture and pour into a large mixing bowl. Pour in the cream and start whisking. My electric whisk is still in a cardboard box somewhere so I had to do this by hand using a large balloon whisk. It’s one of those acts of faith, akin to a jet plane taking off, that a bowl filled with watery cream and wine will somehow, through dint of a flexible wrist and some steel wires, turn into a thick creamy mixture. Forty-five minutes later, the laws of physics triumphed and my syllabub was ready!
Pour the syllabub over the now-chilled custard and add a topping of lightly toasted (cooled) almonds – or whatever you fancy. It could be some fresh raspberries – or even – some glacé cherries!