I remember the days when I would stick out my tongue in disgust at the sight of halved Yakult bottles of salt served up with watermelon slices at hawker centres. I could not understand why anyone would sprinkle salt onto fresh slivers of perfectly sweet, thirst-quenching watermelon until….
my first taste of mum’s black glutinous rice sweet soup (known as Bubur Pulut Hitam in Malay or orh bee ber in Hokkien). It wasn’t so much of the black glutinous rice that I was drawn to. It was the wonderful savoury nuance of the coconut milk that sprung a delightful surprise on me. I was puzzled as to how coconut milk could taste so divine and reasoned that no one in their right mind would add salt to achieve a savoury hint, until mummy dearest told me that it was indeed important to add a teeny bit of salt to coconut milk to bring out its flavour. That was the trick I adapted to create my cornflake caramel drops.
Behold the power of salt.
Keep this in mind while I turn your attention from watermelons and black glutinous rice to caramel au beurre salé, which is sexy French for salted butter caramel. Very different desserts, I know, but we will get there, you’ll see.
Caramel lovers, you know you love its gooey and smooth texture, its sweet and sometimes buttery flavour (if butter is added during its creation) and the general sense of well-being that you get afterwards. I’ve kind of stuck to and sworn by the taste of caramel but thanks to a genius, Henri Le Roux, I will no longer tolerate mere mortals such as caramel, not without precious grains of salt anyway.
Henri Le Roux is a most highly revered confiseur, and he started making caramels in the coastal town of Quiberon in southern Brittany in 1977. There, he created caramel au beurre salé and revolutionised the way chefs were making caramels and the way consumers were tasting them. In 1980, Le Roux won the award for creating the best candy in France (Le Meilleur Bonbon de France) at the Salon International de la Confiserie in Paris. If you know of and love salted butter caramel, it’s all thanks to Monsieur Le Roux.
The addition of salt and the best butter in the world (found in Brittany) to caramel simply lifts its flavour, and pretty much anyone who tastes it to the high heavens. I am most humbled to have had the opportunity to sample these divine candies.
I stumbled onto pages and pages of high praises for Henri Le Roux’s caramel au beurre salé during my Parisian food research and a certain quaint candy shop, A l’Etoile d’Or owned by Denise Acabo was mentioned every so often. I decided that I must make the pilgrimage to procure some of these sweets, even if it meant dragging my exhausted family with me.
We were strolling in Montmartre following a visit to Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, and having been reassured by our hotel concierge that it only takes ten minutes to walk to the candy shop from Montmartre, we consulted our trusty map and strolled downhill. The leisurely pace became a rather strenuous and drawn-out walk when my parents grew tired treading on uneven grounds under the hot sun. We had to walk along Boulevard de Clichy, which had more sex shops and weird sexual gadgets (including a chair with a rotating wheel of fake tongues positioned right about where you would sit….) than you could possibly imagine, which proved to be rather uncomfortable as women solicited men in broad daylight. The uneasiness soon turned into nervous anticipation as we made our way into rue Fontaine, for the little street was lined with rundown shops that would make a much talked-about candy shop look out of place. I feared that I had led my weary family for a futile walk into a hell-hole, until my husband pointed out in part frustration and part triumph, that A l’Etoile d’Or was right ahead of us.
I entered the shop, buzzed with excitement as my family stared at me with furrowed brows. They had no idea what the fuss was about. I barely noticed that the shop was stuffed full of chocolates and candy, left, right and center, before a middle-aged woman in pigtails greeted us. I recognised her as Denise Acabo from pictures on the internet and I managed a badly pronounced ‘Parlez vous anglais?’. She clearly had no inkling of English as she pushed a young girl, also in pigtails, to me while muttering ‘……anglais…..’. I told the girl that I wanted to buy salted butter caramel, and she translated to Denise. That triggered an uninterrupted rattling of rapid French and very enthusiastic and animated gesturing to the jars of caramels. Clearly, I had no idea what she was saying, and relied on the girl’s minimal knowledge of English and French words written on the jars for the information I needed. Denise handed me a silver tray to hold the candies, and I filled the tray up with slight hesitation as these caramels were exceedingly expensive at €7.50 per 100 grams. The food monster in me took over in a second and I figured that if I scrimped on this, I would regret for life because this is one of the few places in the world where I could lay my hands on Henri Le Roux’s caramels.
I picked up mostly nature (plain) caramels, a few of the mango-flavoured and dark chocolate ones, and two gift packs for friends. The bill came up to a hefty €31 for about 25-30 pieces. I quickly left the shop without looking at the other goodies, for fear of igniting a gluttony-driven spree. Guilt of spending so much on such a small amount of candies disappeared soon as I unwrapped one and popped it into my mouth. The caramel was not the least bit cloying and they had the perfect touch of saltiness. It was pleasurably soft and chewy; every bite oozed with buttery goodness without being too rich and I swore I nearly cried tears of salt, butter and caramel. I could hear nothing but silence as my family savoured the caramels. They were too good. As they say, silence is golden.
The mango-flavoured ones didn’t quite sit with me, but the dark chocolate-flavoured ones were amazing. Take a deep whiff when you unravel the wrapper of the chocolate caramel before you sink your teeth in, you won’t regret it. If you have just enough money to spend on one flavour, I would highly recommend the nature ones, they are reputed to be the best caramel au beurre salé in the world and you just have to try them.
If you’re heading to Paris, you can get the caramels at:
A l’Etoile d’Or Denise Acabo
30, rue Fontaine, 75009, Paris (nearest Metro: Blanche)
If you’re lucky enough to be heading to Quiberon, these candies and other goodies are sold at the main shop:
18 rue de Port-Maria, 56170 Quiberon