Howard Jacobson: France brings out something preposterous in us, like the hunt for the perfect croissant

Life gurus tell us we should live in the present. I tell them there’s no such place

Howard Jacobson
Friday 22 June 2012 19:12

In France the other week, ostensibly for the translation of one of my novels, but actually in pursuit of the recollection of a taste.

No, not the madeleine. Memory is not stirred for me by the boring little shell-shaped sponge cake that did the business for Marcel Proust. That the association is not dependent on the finally remembered thing itself, I perfectly understand – just as the recollected first throb of love is often independent of the person who inspired it. Here is the tyranny of writers: it's the memory of memory that interests them, and the objective causes of it, in so far as there are any, can go hang.

Which is why, by the by, a real person should never complain that he is or isn't in a novel. There is no real person in a novel, no one who isn't the novelist on the trail of a memory, and sometimes an anticipation of a memory, of his own.

That said, the madeleine is still a bit of a comedown. My own remembered food of choice is a bagel, followed closely by a croissant. And it makes no difference that I'm able readily to lay my hands on either. The bagel whose essence I pursue is of another place and time; the bagel of my northern English childhood, bought and buttered for me, toasted for me, filled with herring or cream cheese for me (kes, she called it) by my grandmother, who was of another place and time herself. Though she was born in England, you could tell she was really from Eastern Europe, somewhere in Poland or Lithuania. You could see it in her wind-roughened cheeks, you could hear it in her fatalism – "The Almighty will decide," she used to tell me – and you could taste it in the bagel.

That I know I'll never be able to replicate the taste of that bagel, just as I know I'll never be able to replicate the sense of safety in which my grandmother enveloped me, doesn't stop me searching. In fact, I've found many a bagel since that's tastier – chewier, nuttier, sweeter, crustier on the outside and more elastic within – than my grandmother's bagels ever were, but taste, as I've said, is not the criterion. If I get nearer to her in a Manchester bagel than I ever do in a London bagel that's not because they make bagels differently in the North. It's because – but it's obvious what it's because. It's the minute associations of early childhood I'm after, of which the most minute and particular was the love my grandmother showered on me.

It's different with croissants. For one thing, I consumed my first croissant later in life than my first bagel. My first "real" croissant, I should say, to differentiate it from those dead twists of prawn-shaped rubber that come prepacked in a supermarket, or the railway station sandwich croissant that might as well be two slices of dried-out Ryvita, and here's a clue to the object of my search: the croissant I was seeking had to answer to the ideal, Platonic croissant, which can only be found and eaten in rural France.

I am no expert in things French. I own no ruined barn in the Dordogne and once lost a good friend when his wife told me they were holidaying that summer in Languedoc-Roussillon and I was unable to stifle my laughter. "So what's so funny?" they wanted to know. "Languedoc-Roussillon," I said. Not the place itself, but the way they put their lips around it. France brings out something preposterous in the English. An ex-teacher of mine moved from East Anglia to Kent so he could the more easily drive to France every other morning to buy fresh baguettes. I thought him pretentious. He thought me uncivilised.

So there was no reason for me to suppose, so many years ago, that early one morning in September I'd scramble out of a tent pitched in a field in the middle of the French countryside – all right, it was Limousin and Auvergne, not far from Languedoc-Roussillon – smell a freshly made croissant, and be lost for ever. I was sharing a tent with my friend Gabriel, who knew about tents, spoke excellent French and had a good nose for tracking down smells. "Suis-moi," he said.

Half an hour later, we were sitting on a rickety bench outside a little bakery, drinking coffee and pulling apart a croissant which was to other croissants what a bagel is to an Energen roll. How much of this was the croissant, how much the memory I was already preparing, of camping with a friend in a foreign field, of aching with the fragile beauty of being young and impressionable, I can't say. But I do know it was a marvellous croissant, flaky and yet feathery, resilient and yet melting, of a texture and tactility impossible to attain unless the butter had been of the best, the yeast dissolved in warm milk coaxed out of a Limousin cow, the fingers of the baker French, and I from somewhere else.

And did I recover the taste of it in France the other week? No. I got waylaid by the creaking of a baguette as I opened it lengthways. Was that what my Kent friend had been after – a creak, like the splitting of dry timber, such as you never get with a baguette made in England? It's in my head now, anyway. Soon to be forgotten, but biding its time. One day, I will see a fireman or a thief putting an axe to a wooden door, and I will think of having been in France once, don't ask when, for the translation of one of my novels, don't ask which, and I will struggle to know why I am remembering that. Life gurus tell us we should live more in the present. I have to tell them there is no such place.

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