• This French upside-down pear cake is all about the caramel and the fresh fruit (Marie Williams)Source: Marie Williams
Eating farm-to-table was at the heart of Marie Williams childhood in France. Now it's a key part of her country Victoria boulangerie.
By
Marie Williams, Presented by
Elii Jacobs

26 Oct 2020 - 1:41 PM  UPDATED 26 Oct 2020 - 1:44 PM

Raised on a pig farm, in a small country town in Vendee, a department in Western France, Marie Williams remembers catching eels in their dam, which her mum would marinate and grill over an open fire.

Williams recalls, "I grew up in a family where my mum, Michelle, cooked a lot – a three-course meal, every meal, every day."

Across households in farming communities, it was common practice to enjoy meals consisting of an appetiser, entrée and a dessert for lunch and dinner. Seasonal veggies, meats, soups, fruits, and cheeses were served fresh and homemade daily.

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Williams remembers a household rule: the same meat protein couldn't be served two days in a row.

"My dad, Gilles, hunted, so we had access to different types of fresh meat including pheasants, pigeons, rabbits and ducks," she says.

"We also would raise a cow and sheep to kill every year, as well as pork."

Living on a farm provided ample space to grow their own food. "Mum always cooked from scratch and most of our vegetables and fruits were grown in our garden," she says.

"Eating fresh fruits directly from the trees was always the best, especially the plums and nectarines."

During the summer months, Williams loved the garden where she'd pick tomatoes from the vine and eat them before her mum would catch her. She would also pick strawberries to slice and layer on freshly baked, buttered bread. She'd sprinkle the snack with sugar after school.  

She'd use any leftover strawberries to make a fruit salad – water, extra sugar, and a splash of rum or eau de vie, a brandy to bring out the flavours, made a quick but mouth-watering dessert.

"Eating fresh fruits directly from the trees was always the best, especially the plums and nectarines."

However, Williams didn't enjoy working on the farm or in the garden.

"I wasn't an outdoorsy type kid, so I didn't like being forced to go out and do things in the garden or harvest the green beans – a task that was expected from me and my sister during our summer holidays. It wasn't what I enjoyed."

But she didn't mind helping in the home kitchen. "I would help mum preserve fruits and vegetables. We would make dozens of jars of plum jam and preserve pears for winter desserts. We would also freeze stuffed tomatoes with pork meat, and I would spend hours shelling peas."

Desserts and baking were also a big part of the household.

"Every week mum would make desserts, such as pot de crème – a loose custard, rice pudding and pain perdu. At least three times a week we would enjoy a different baked dessert rather than just fruits or yoghurt," she says.

FRENCH TOAST OR PAIN PERDU
French toast (pain perdu)

The origin of this famous French dish actually goes back to Ancient Rome. It became popular in France in medieval times when cooks needed to use all produce on hand, such as stale bread – hence the name, ‘pain perdu’, meaning lost bread.

At eight years old, Marie fondly remembers learning basic cooking skills from her mum and grandma Therese. 

"Mum taught me how to cook quite early to help her out, so if she wasn't there, we knew how to make something or at least get it started for her."

Marie's first food memory was making bottereaux, an old-fashioned sweet dough which was fried, sprinkled with icing sugar and eaten cold or with pot de crème or a flan.

With grandma Therese, she would make merveille, orange-scented fried dough that they would braid into a knot shape, deep fry and serve hot. 

As an independent spirit though, Williams was eager to do things on her own.

After a Sunday lunch of steak and frites, they would enjoy an upside-down caramelised pear cake, kind of like a tarte gratin, but with a spongy base rather than puff pastry. That was the cake Williams liked the most, and at age 10, became her first attempt at cooking solo.

"I watched mum make it and I loved the process so much that I started bugging her to make it by myself. So, when she got caught up working until late at the farm one evening, I baked my first dessert.

"I don't remember how it turned out, but I do know it was fun to watch the caramel colouring, and then making the cake batter to pour over the pears and caramel. The best part though was being able to lick the raw batter."

A taste of old-fashioned French Patisserie in Australia 

After high school, Williams went on to study hospitality as a way to "escape" her little town and travel the world.  

"I left France in early 1999 for an island near Canada to work as a waitress at a resort," she says.

"But once I found myself in a cold, isolated place eating mostly processed foods for the first time, I realised how much I missed all those 'taken for granted' farm products and home cooking. 

"I really had no idea that the fresh foods that I was used to wasn't the norm."

"I really had no idea that the fresh foods that I was used to weren't the norm. I knew that French cooking had a certain appeal and notoriety because of my studies, but I thought what I had at home was more usual."

After travelling between Canada and France for a couple of years, she met her husband Paul - a pastry chef - in Ontario in east-central Canada.

"We moved together to England for a year and there I was able to once again begin cooking using fresh produce. I also introduced Paul to the upside-down caramelised pear cake for the first time."

Marie Williams with her husband Paul.

In 2005, they visited Australia and stayed with Paul's family in Canberra. The intention was to leave after six-months but they ended up staying.

Eventually, they moved to Sydney for work, then to Melbourne. Two children later, Marie wanted to create the French boulangerie of her childhood: a hole-in-the-wall, husband-and-wife team who serve fresh bread, baguette sandwiches, croissants and pastries - all sourced from local farmers. Of course, such boulangerie would also feature her favourite upside-down caramelised pear cake.

And that is how in 2011, Le Peche Gourmand was born in Creswick, a town in west-central Victoria.

"We thought it would take years for the locals to visit regularly but they came through the door from day one and have been supporting us enormously ever since, which was a pleasant surprise."

The upside-down caramelised pear cake, now made by Paul, has become a local hit.

"Certain customers visit us just for that cake, and if I don't have it, they won't buy anything else.

"I don't blame them for that."


Marie Williams French upside-down caramelised pear cake

Ingredients

  • 50 g butter
  • 50 g sugar (caramel)
  • 400 g tinned pears or fresh poached pears
  • 100 ml milk
  • 100 ml oil
  • 150 g sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp rum
  • 150 g flour
  • 15 g baking powder

1. Turn on the oven at 170°C fan-forced.
2. Line a cake pan, roughly 20 cm diameter with baking paper.
3. In a saucepan, melt the butter and sugar together to make the caramel. Bring it to a light brown colour and pour in the bottom of lined cake pan.
4. Cut the pear in half or quarters and lay them in the bottom of a cake pan, over the caramel.
5. In a mixer, cream your eggs with the sugar, then add your flour and baking powder and mix again.
6. Add your rum (or any other flavour), then your milk and oil while mixing at medium speed.
7. Pour the mix on top of your pears and bake in the oven for about 45 min. Check that it is fully cooked by picking in the centre. If the colour gets too dark, cover the cake halfway through cooking with foil.
8. Once fully cooked, let it cool down for about 15 min, then turn upside down on a platter.
9. Serve slightly warm with crème fraiche or ice cream.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @ellijac.

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