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Dessert-Le ministre

translated from the original text in French Dec,2013

Le ministre used to be a soup made of fruits, which was usually served cold, well before sometime during the eighteenth century, the sweets were definitively separated from the salty, acid or bitter ones, and condescendingly relegated to the end ('issue') of meals, at the moment of clearing (desser/vir) the table, after the last 'relevés' (removal ). As remains of these heroic times, the franc-comtoise sweet 'guigne' cherry soup, and the Magyar morello cherry soup have preserved the medieval tradition; these cherry ministres are served either as an appetizer or a dessert, sometimes salted, sometimes lukewarm, or even laced with wine, according to the occasion. Yet worried gastronomes fear that this anodyne archaism may encourage other aberrant inversions: once admitted that le ministre may be served first, what could stop, by a mere mechanical reaction, the meal ending with a tripe Financière sauce or grated carrots with idiotic pickles... For indeed nothing is as fragile as the establishment of good taste: the synonymy of dessert, end of meal and fruit took centuries to establish the content of the conclusion of meals, which was dependent till then, not on the course's main ingredient, but on the conjoined constraints of the kitchen, the serving hall and the office. This close game was to cause many reforms in the distribution of dishes, from which our dessert culture was to emerge, the gem of a glorious era, when the Russian style of service had not a gleam of hope of ever evicting the French style of service, which it was yet to achieve under the reign of Nicolas Pavlovitch. Considered in the culinary context of pre-revolutionary France, the progressive adhesion of le ministre to the cause of an autonomous pastry was an all but visionary challenge, whose radical nature is unconceivable nowadays, since it implied its extraction from other soups which were served first, and its rallying the 'oublies',  sort of waffle, accompanied by wine and spices, whose rank was to be the 'boute-hors' (ousters) and to have the last word.

In spite of le ministre's venerable age as well as of the historical role it played in the definition of the elementary principles of modern gastronomy, since the second half of the twentieth century this dessert is most frequently called, in French kitchens or at least in Parisian kitchens, a 'nage of fruit'. Being less obscure than le ministre, the nage exerts a certain attraction through its easy-to-overcome oddness, a mellow seduction that is perfectly adapted to the kind of clientèle without much culture favouring fashionable restaurants, who have deemed it less banal than a 'soup' of fruit. The precision of the relationship between these three categories should help in their definition in the context of a rigorous hierarchy of the genre and its species. Amongst the 'soups', le ministre applies only to the fruit soups, which can be thick but never roborative, and are consumed at dessert. As for the 'nage', it designates, among les ministres, those less exclusively liquid or thick, the only ones with morsels of fruit, either immerged or floating, even sometimes going to the extreme of resembling a syrup gorged with wild berries.

Nevertheless if there is a real problem posed by le ministre it is not that of its position in relation to the soup or the nage. In the closed circle of desserts bearing the names of professions, or in pastry confectioner's jargon, 'professional sweets', le ministre is rather more intriguing than any of the others. Why is that? Because just any other sweet, even the very last of fruitcakes could have gone by the title this soup of fruit arrogated itself. The absence of a motivation for this denomination, its flagrant lack of legitimacy, seems to reveal an unbearable form of arbitrariness to free thinkers. For that very reason the minister does not escape the contests of sarcastic ingeniousness with which le financier, le diplomate, and le juge are all familiar, not to forget la religieuse (the sister) and le mendiant (the beggar). Some of these hermeneutics specialists even go as far as to affirm that the nage of fruit is termed ministre because the beholder of that portfolio is so imbued with his own importance that his uttermost pleasure is, in the secret of his cabinet, to assist to the procession of his many protégés, come to flatter him and 'serve His Excellence his soup'... Other specialists, for their part, found their arguments on the scrutiny of the formulations of ministerial official language—that is to say false promises, hype and the usual soup (tarte à la crème)—whose identification with an insipid soup or better even, with a marshmallow soup, when the demagogy is so blatant it is nauseating, is attested in the popular classes' more familiar language, who seem decidedly to be obtuse.

However amusing these theories may be, they are not validated, for the real explanation is in fact incredibly simple. In Italian, soup is called minestra , which the Proven?al minestrone should evoke to the French who still ignore the erstwhile culinary meaning of their ministre. Further enlightenment about this unexpected contiguity between the notions of 'soup' and 'ministre' implies a detour, one which takes us back to the common origins of the three vocables which revealed it, the Latin minister  which means 'servant'. This same root is found in the words 'administrer' and 'administration', the 'administrative' power being used, evidently, at the sole service of the people, to the exclusion of any other repressive or self-interested ends. The terms: servant, to serve, and to unserve (desservir) are also part of French table vocabulary and are all used when serving the soup, which is served, thus, administered, like a potage, such as le ministre is served for dessert. Furthermore etymology would suggest that the servitude of the liquid sweet takes its roots in the Latin opposition between minister  and magister . The first one is derived from minus , which gave the word moins (less in French, but also minus in English), but also minuscule (tiny) or minable (despicable), while the other comes from magis , that is to say 'more', but also master and masterly: the master knows more than his pupils, but the minister counts less than his administered. This common sense truth has crossed centuries, since after engraving in the marble that there is no power except by delegation of the people, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of August 26th 1789, supreme benchmark of ministerial action, reaffirms the primacy of the propagation of thought over the bouts of susceptibility of administrative agents. Its article XI  indeed stipulates that: "The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious rights of man. Every citizen may accordingly, speak, write and print with freedom". And conversely, article XV  adds: "Society has a right to require of every public agent an account of his administration."

At a time in which the minister plays at being a hidden god, like the host in the tabernacle of a deserted church, there is no doubt that the mere thought of his antique predestination to the humbleness of service would persuade the unbelieving crowd to consider him differently. Yet quite willing to avoid the divulgation of a polysemy whose consequences could reveal themselves to be uncontrollable, the caste of high-ranking priests-pastry confectioners has opposed its veto to any desecration, for the ministries are essential sanctuaries for French culinary experimentation, which it would be blasphemous to sully. The Presidence and Matignon, and many administrations employ chefs of great talent, at the personal service of ministers in charge, and of their families. This is also true of the formal ministries, such as the Quai d'Orsay, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or of the mammoth-like Ministry of National Education. Briefly freed from the harrowing rhythms and the military organisation of the starred restaurants, which they will eventually go back to unless they open their own pastry-shops, these state-employed pastry confectioners well know that the administration will not hesitate to acquire the high-quality products and sophisticated technology necessary to the full expression of their talents; these costs will then light-heartedly be attributed to the taxpayers, who know nothing of their rulers' banquets, whose cynical generosity profits only their clans or clientèle. Yet this self-censure which hampers le ministre's democratisation is less the result of a sordid matter of interest than it is a case of pathological interiorised primitive social complex. For it is out of the question that the plebeian masses consume ministres, as for patrician attacks, this would verge on profanation. In these circles in which vanity is exacerbated by the derisory enjoyment of the least morsel of power, the feudal mentality of the little 'barons' and the corollary servility of their arrogant flunkeys have instituted taboos of an astounding violence in the face of a na?ve conception of the democratic functioning of our European republics. There is no doubt that the sacrilegious ingestion by a servant of his totemic dish would provoke a national tragedy, the simple fact that it could happen would cause the serving pastry confectioner, who would be guilty at a second degree of this fetishist incest, to become deeply and durably autistic, the ultimate psychic rampart to the anthropophagic fantasy that would have struck him down like lightning. Having become secularised, the 'petites mains' (the little hands) remain the prisoners of the taboo of the unnameable: their menus do not propose any ministres, but instead 'pagailles de fruits rouges' (red berries jumble) or 'nages de fruits au citron vert', (fruit nage with lime) so that none of their transfixed colleagues dare transgress the taboo either. Yet there are traces of a malaise in some of the awkward approximations one finds, such as 'minestrone d'agrumes, liqueur de citron' (minestrone of citrus fruit, lemon liqueur), which was seen on a menu in a well-known restaurant near the ministerial offices.

These manifestations of the unconscious are a perverted symptom of the repressed sacrificial dimension of the minister, as shown by the choice of ingredients, which give it its crimson colour. From the 'Great Morillion' cherry soup, which was celebrated by Grimod de la Reynière in the last years of Louis XVI's reign, up to the modern 'carpatic' versions of le ministre, most of the certified recipes of European gastronomic history call for a combination of classic red fruits such as strawberries, raspberries, redcurrants and cherries, with a marked preference in the last instance, for the soft-fleshed acid varieties, such as the guigne sweet cherry or the Morello-cherry. Their fruity savour is often made more pungent by a strong maceration in spiced red wine, a combination of cinnamon, black pepper and cloves, with zests of citrus fruit in counterpoint to a slight thickening with redcurrant gelée. Ministres of this type wear a robe of deep incarnate, which is much more intimidating than the desperately wan grenadine coat of the common 'guignolet' * cherry liqueur ministre. In order to avoid that impediment, pastry confectioners like to resort to an assortment of blueberries, myrtle, blackberry or blackcurrant. Thereby not only attenuating the ministre's monochrome goriness, but also thereby enriching its texture; to the agreeable contrasts of textures is added the gustative pleasure of the unpredictable savours of the acid notes. And to top the red and blue, a bit of white is welcome in order to raise high the patriotic banner of this dessert that's banished from the governmental strongholds; the utter paradox is that it was 'fin de siècle' fashion which gave this innocent French country soup, albeit unwittingly, a last touch of political connotation. Ministres are now served in pretentious small glass-casings called 'verrines', which are always colourless, and are adorned with a gew-gaw made of a marshmallow cube stuck on a plain little stick. Delicately swaying at about an inch above the scarlet undulation, this tottering head evokes the manes of the petty tyrants of the Ancien Régime, who were joyously decapitated on the thresholds of their ministries by a crowd jubilant at the thought of airing out these bogs of consanguinity, and taking their heads out on a pike so that they could at last get a look at the country.

Alas! It is a well-known fact that the association of the marshmallow and le ministre is purely fortuitous and absolutely without any war-like romanticism: the small white dice are but an accessory which finicky pastry artisans make an excessive use of when decorating their most flashy creations, especially the desserts sold in glass-casings although they're not liquid. The idea is to make it look sophisticated, and even more to the point, to justify a higher cost so that the client gets used to paying more even if there is no real justification in the price of the products used, but this does not explain it all, for this presentation does make visible by the transparency of all the elements composing the dessert, which is built according to a mechanical piling up of successive layers in a cylindrical formation. The aesthetics if pleasing to the eye, remain sterile: the savvy asymmetries, whose perilous invention constitutes one of the charms of plate desserts, are banished from the start, without appeal. The geometric diktats of an imposed figure do not even allow for the use of the irregular shapes of the fruit, whether enhanced through a presentation of their natural shape or through their way of being chopped. Carême would turn over in his grave, he who saw the art of pastry as a branch of the architectural arts, like sculpture. This process shows an extreme weakness in the construction of the dessert, whose structural decadence has inevitable repercussions on the proposed gustative pleasure. The larger fruit are banned, except if they're crushed, chopped up, or mashed to a pulp which excludes the degrees of maceration obtained or the different nuances of textures of the flesh, for instance in a same morsel prepared for candying—in that case, when working with meat, why not just give up the art of roasting, the taste of game, the choice of the cut, and just concentrate on how to season hamburgers. Moreover the layers of creams or compotes in the glass-casings are too thick and too numerous to be tasted simultaneously; thus a mere juxtaposition of preparations and not the elaboration of a refined assortment of tastes promised by the PR men of this short-winded revolution. And last but not least the biscuit is reduced to the too modest function of acting as a staunch partition between two preparations so that they don't interfere with one another. Yet only a certain type of monotonous, rather bland biscuit can fulfil this task, and that is how crunchiness and mellowness disappear as well. That is when the marshmallow dice make their entry. It was a case of enhancing a dessert intimately combining the delicate savours of a litchi compotée, a mango marmalade with a 'fleur de sel' caramel cream of mascarpone. The different preparations, the very similar textures were all delicious, perfectly executed—which is rare—but their bureaucratic compilation was meaningless. The suavity of a coconut marshmallow, as chopped up in half a dozen little dices with a crunchy surface, could seem to be a judicious choice to decorate the superior layer of glass-casing: the coconut with its exotic touch could marry with the mango and the litchi; re-enforced by the contrast of their internal mellowness, the crunchy surfaces of the marshmallow would have compensated for the too uniformly smooth lower layers; and as for the small cubic volumes, their festive disarray would have lightened up the rather bland and bare top of the cylinder. It looks great on the paper, but nothing happens when it's tasted.

An absurd fashion at the beginning, transposed any which way with mismatched analogies, that is the sad origin of the whitish rattle held so thoughtlessly by le ministre: the stick is there to place a distance between its embroached marshmallow and the red flow whose contact would not be in its interest. To pretend that the sweetish bitterness of the little cube prepares the palate for the tasting of the acidic perfumed soup would be to delude oneself, for le ministre's head is no more use than it is of historical significance. That is why this inept appetizer (amuse-gueule) is left aside, rather than reticently swallowed. As the accessory bundles its counterfeit legend along, from its burning pinnacle the marshmallow declines the litany of misunderstandings of which it is only the vain excrescence. In the same way as Holbein's enigmatic anamorphosis, the white shadow hovering over le ministre relays, in art history, the role of the premonitory fly, which was purposefully painted on each still life, in order to affirm laconically—"you are nothing".

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