A few years ago Laurent left the Chopes du Moulin micro brewery and started a new business as a micro coffee roaster. After a few years of selling on markets in all winds and weathers whilst simultaneously creating a distribution network of local cafés and restaurants on the look out for excellent, ethical coffee, Laurent decided he really needed his sitting room back. It was time to look for a commercial property and move out his coffee roaster, sacks of beans and general paraphernalia. Kaopa Café opened its doors last Spring and has swiftly become THE place to be in Lamastre, where there’s always something going on and someone to chat to. Here are Markus and friends playing outside in the summer.
One of Laurent’s initiatives is the café suspendu where you pay for an extra coffee and the slip is hung on a little washing line, to be used by any other customer. Recently some of us have been baking a cake for Saturday, which is cut into tiny pieces and served with the coffee instead of the usual locally produced little biscuit. The other Saturday it was my turn and I decided to make a gingerbread.
French people are generally not too fond of ginger, but as it isn’t the predominant flavour of gingerbread I thought I’d to go for it. It went down very well and at once the customers tried to classify it in terms of a French equivalent. They were puzzled by the very dark colour – which they had at first taken for chocolate – and the slightly bitter taste imparted by the black treacle. The closest they came was “pain d’épices” a spiced honey cake from Burgundy. I found it almost impossible to explain Golden Syrup and Black Treacle, which are unknown here and it got me thinking.
I was struck by the Burgundian connection and the use of honey.
My, largely un-researched, theory is that spices such as ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and cloves are much more commonly used in Northern European baking than in the South. Hansel and Gretel’s Gingerbread House, Lebkuchen and Speculoos are just some examples. Although spices had been imported since Ancient times via the Eastern Mediterranean trade routes, these had withered away at the end of the 15thC, after the discovery of the New World opened up new trading avenues and opportunities.
By the early 16thC both the Dutch and the English were forging trade links with the Far East. The first Dutch conquests were made among the Portuguese trading posts in the Maluku Islands, known as the Spice Islands due to the nutmeg, mace and cloves that were originally only to be found there. The Dutch East Indies, later Indonesia, provided ginger, which flourished in the lush tropical jungles and cinnamon was brought from Zeylan, now Sri Lanka.
Encouraged by such easy gains in the East, the Dutch Republic quickly decided to exploit Portugal’s weakness in the Americas and in 1621 the Dutch West India Company was created to take control of the sugar trade.
So where does Burgundy fit in? Since the Duchy of Burgundy extended into Flanders and the Low Countries until the death of Charles the Bold in 1477, when large parts of it were incorporated into the French Kingdom, my theory would explain how the spice cake found its way into the land of vineyards, mustard and Charollais cattle.
Possibly the use of honey became more widespread with the British Naval blockade during the Napoleonic Wars, when France was cut off from her sugar producing colonies in the Caribbean and turned to large scale production of sugar beet. This is still the primary source of commercially available sugar meaning that syrup and treacle, by-products of cane sugar refining are pretty much unknown.
History apart it was perfect with Laurent’s exquisite espresso, as he says: Le café qui peut se boire sans sucre.