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Petit fours

By Fred A. Reed

We often nibble on a petit four or two to accompany our afternoon coffee. And since Morocco is a former French protectorate, honesty requires me to admit that our country of adoption has proved a pupil worthy of its stern mistress. These dainty sweetmeats are available everywhere, from the high-end downtown patisseries to seemingly bottomless bins in the souk, of varying quality but of startling and gratifying abundance.

They are made with local ingredients like crushed dates and dipped in honey, while others feature various iterations of almond paste. Walnuts and almonds are a frequent garnish, while the best of them contain several ingredients. These tiny multi-ingredient delicacies are super-saturated-honey-and-date-based sweet and may reveal, one bitten into, three or four distinct flavours and textures, a sweet-tooth’s version of the sushis and makis we used to eat in Montréal.

We admit to mild swoons at the prospect of cornes de gazelle, a distinctly Moroccan invention of pâte sablée shaped like a half-moon enveloping almond paste and flavoured with orange-blossom water. While gazelle’s horns are commonly taken with mint tea, we prefer ours with coffee.

The best of them are saturated with butter, in quantities that would bring a smile to Julia Childs’ face.

Frequent are the pleasant hours—well, okay, minutes—we spend of an afternoon speculating about how and where these minuscule goodies are handcrafted or manufactured. Some say that each patisserie makes its own, defying the competition just down the street. Others, the author of these lines included, pointing to the seemingly endless supply, speculate that there may be a subterranean facility hidden deep beneath the surface of our fair city where they are handmade by legions of nimble-fingered post-pubescent young women. They may even be the daughters of the stolid ladies who toil by night in the fish canneries.

For everyone knows that such female dexterity is second to none, as Iran’s finest carpet weavers for centuries, even millennia, have well understood. They alone can execute the finest and most detailed movements, knot the thinnest of threads to form a harmonious whole, or create the multi-levelled pluri-ingredient morsels that we purchase from our favourite sweet shops.

Should this hypothesis possess a grain of truth—as butter encapsulates the individual grains of flour in a proper pâte sablée—then there would have to be a sophisticated mechanism linking the central depot to the existing network of outlying retail outlets. Such a mechanism would be quite unlike the bread delivery system, in which small displacement motorbikes fan out from each individual bakery, the fresh round loaves transported in a capacious wicker basket and protected by a piece of burlap.

No, to guarantee freshness the sweetmeat distribution system could only be a complex and sophisticated, surely a pneumatic tube network, of the kind that connected all parts of Prague until the end of the last century, and used to be a feature of any self-respecting Canadian department store, as readers of this blog will certainly recall.

You paid for the item you wanted to buy, handed the money to a clerk who then placed it in a capsule, inserted the capsule into the tube, closed the aperture and then, with a discreet whoosh, payment was sent off to the central cashier’s office, which would forthwith dispatch exact change, or perhaps the small article you sought to purchase. On one occasion, a pneumatic tube system is said to have transported a cat.

Eaton’s, the great department store network that collapsed in 1999, was certainly Canada’s exemplar and boasted the country’s prime pneumatic tube network, a model of streamlined efficiency that could possibly been seen as a harbinger of the now (alas) omnipresent debit card.

(Readers who may question how we have transitioned seamlessly from Moroccan petit fours to pneumatic tube networks should hold their peace and/or breath. No hypocritical concern for narrative consistency need interrupt the teller of tales. So. I continue.)

But Eaton’s was not only the flagship of Canadian department-store-dom. It was a component of the myth generating mechanism that allowed immigrants to become a part of the Great Canadian Family. From its sumptuous show windows with their extravagant Christmas displays to the ladies who operated the elevators, smartly outfitted in uniforms and gloves, Eaton’s primary function seemed less to make money than to impress on the foreign-born the solidity and the massiveness of the Canadian economic establishment in which they dreamt of participating, and of which the pneumatic yuube system was clear evidence of invisible forced-air driven efficiency.

One such foreign-born individual was my late mother-in-law Viivi Kaukinen. Having established the family home in a not-unprosperous section of Toronto, she would spend many happy hours cruising up and down the aisles of Eaton’s Queen Street flagship store, where she purchased items that she often returned under the store’s satisfaction guaranteed or money back policy. And on one of the occasional tables in her living room, made by her husband and master craftsman Joseph Brunner, would throne the Eaton’s catalogue. This, in a home that did not boast of an immense library. Or, to speak frankly, had no library to boast of.

Mother-in-law Viivi, affectionately know to her grandchildren as “Mummo”, Finnish for grandmother, had emigrated from her homeland during the depression years. One of thirteen siblings, she met her Austrian husband at a Finnish social club (where the best-looking girls were to be found) event and embarked upon a new life.

Although the happy product of their union was my intrepid wife and life-companion Ingeborg, candour requires me to admit that my relations with my in-laws were somewhat strained. While what they might have expected of their daughter remains protected by the impenetrable mystery of death, my parents-in-law reacted to the new member of the family with a mixture of dismay and suspicion.

Here was an American draft resister with avowed left-wing sympathies and, worse yet, with a beard. Viivi Kaukinen, on the other hand, had no love lost for anybody connected with the World Communist Conspiracy. Hadn’t she and her family been driven from their prosperous farmland in eastern Karelia under the Karelian Autonomous Republic? Did she not suffer from nightmares about being pursued by a knife-wielding Joseph Stalin?

Extreme love, pampering, spoiling, and fractured syntax on the other hand, characterized Mummo’s relations with our children. We would send them every summer to the family cottage in the Ontario water-land east of Georgian Bay, striking in its resemblance to her native Karelia with its lakes, rivers, swamps, bogs and mosquitos. They would return weeks later plump and rosy-cheeked, fattened up on a diet of Finnish pancakes and pulla, the Finnish coffee-bread made with cardamom that is mentioned nowhere in the Kalevala and for which I rapidly developed a taste.

Few things today, years later, would please me more than to order a slice of Mummo’s pulla, now that she and I are reconciled by time and mortality, and have it pop fresh and hot and buttery from our imaginary time-spanning pneumatic delivery tube system. And by return delivery, we would send her fresh Moroccan petit fours.

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