Eating local specialties is one of the many pleasures of travel. They offer insight into the culture, history, and flavours specific to a place and a people. The taste of a delicacy straight from the source is often unparalleled. It’s the flavours and textures that are never replicated quite so seamlessly elsewhere: the yolk custard of pastéis de nata in Lisbon, the caramel crunch of stroopwafels in Amsterdam, and the melt-in-mouth experience of macarons in Paris. In Bordeaux, the must-try local specialty is canelés and I’m here to tell you all about them.
When roaming the streets of Bordeaux, it’s hard to miss the prominence of canelés in the city’s culture. They are everywhere – in bakeries, on postcards, at the airport, at the train station, and in canelé boutiques! One of these boutiques is La Toque Cuivrée, an institution in Bordeaux. It’s one of the biggest producers of canelés in Bordeaux and there are multiple locations dotted around the city, all of which are seemingly busy with locals and visitors. Whenever I passed one of these boutiques (all of which are quick take away stops), a line of canelé fans stretched from the counter.
In French, the adjective cannelé means fluted or ribbed, which explains the ripple shape of this bordelais treat. The primary ingredients are milk, eggs, egg yolks, sugar, butter, rum, and vanilla. Sure, it sounds standard, but canelés don’t resemble your average cake. How to describe the taste of a canelé? The exterior is a slightly chewy caramelized layer while the interior is lighter in colour and takes on the texture of a squidgy baked custard. The soft and chewy centre is perfumed with rum and vanilla, flavours which amp up the overall canelé experience.
The origins of canelés are murky, though it’s suspected that they first came to light in the 18th century (or even earlier) by nuns in a convent in Bordeaux who gave them to the poor or sold them to support the convent. Wine producers in the region used egg whites to clarify their wines, leaving a surplus of egg yolks behind and those crafty nuns found a way to make use of them. In 1790, these nuns were removed from the convent, which halted the production of canelés. Spoiler alert: the recipe was recuperated, improved, and popularized in the 1900s and canelés have since been an iconic food in Bordeaux.
La Toque Cuivrée is one of two primary canelé boutiques in Bordeaux, the other being Baillardran. While both are well known, La Toque Cuivrée seemed to be slightly more busy, perhaps due to the cheaper prices or perhaps due to a preference for their flavour. While I was in an épicerie in Bordeaux, I asked the local shop owner which of the two she preferred and she vouched for La Toque Cuivrée. I unfortunately didn’t get around to trying Baillardran to make a comparison, though I’m sure it’s also very worth visiting.
To enlighten you with some etymology, toque means “chef’s hat” and cuivrée means copper-coloured. In other words, the boutique name translates to “the copper chef’s hat” as a nod to the appearance of the bordelais pastry. At La Toque Cuivrée, you can buy canelés in three different sizes: gros (€0.70 each), lunch (€0.50 each) and bouchée (€0.40 each). My first time waiting in line at La Toque Cuivrée, I simply bought a single lunch sized canelé to see if I’d like it. Of course I did, so I then bought a box of 8 lunch sized canelés to bring down to Lili in Biarritz so that she could enjoy them too. And I’m not done yet… before flying back out of Bordeaux, I bought 4 bouchée canelés to bring with me back to Edinburgh. So yes, I ate my fair share of them in a short amount of time in Bordeaux!
Ultimately, the aim of this post is to introduce you to canelés (if you didn’t know about them already) and to encourage you to try them if you’re ever in Bordeaux. There’s the philosophical question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. Well, let’s take that idea and manipulate it just a little, “If you went to Bordeaux and didn’t try canelés, did you experience Bordeaux?”. I think by now you’ll know my answer to that question. Bon appétit, mes chers gourmands!