Today my grand crême is accompanied by a slice of Paris Brest, that wondrous and deceptively simple French patisserie made with only three principle ingredients: choux pastry, praline cream filling and a topping of toasted almonds. Dusting of fine sugar optional. I have scoffed many a piece and I've also sampled some of its variants, created over time through the inevitable tampering with all things good. But they miss the point. I've recently discovered that the origins of the cake lie in the creation of a latter-day energy food to commemorate the first Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) cycle run.
It was 1891. Pre-dating the Tour de France by twelve years and at 1200 km usurping the first 560 km Bordeaux-Paris run earlier the same year, this was an event that galvanised a nation. And the patissière who made a ring of pastry to symbolise a bicycle wheel wanted to be part of it. He crammed it with high calorie energy-giving hazelnuts, sugar and butter and indeed it later became popular with riders as the rich and eminently portable snack he intended.
Dreamed up and organised by Pierre Giffard, editor of the Le Petit Journal, a popular French daily, the first PBP was both a race and a non-competitive event for fit amateurs. Entry was limited to Frenchmen (the seven women who signed up were later refused) and riders were expected to be self-sufficient in food and other supplies, carrying them or buying them along the way. 207 started out and 99 finished, the winner Charles Terront in less than 72 hours.
His arrival in Paris was greeted by an estimated crowd of 10,000, who closed behind him even before he crossed the finishing line. Fireworks and banquets (eighteen of them in all) followed shortly after. The event was a circulation coup for Giffard, but it also heralded the beginning of the 1890s bicycle boom.
Some of the bikes entered were antiquated and cumbersome, including one penny-fathing and a number of eccentric blacksmith-made relics, but the intent of the race was to enable the growing band of mass-manufacturers in France and Britian to test their latest products. Many of them, including Terront's Humber, looked remarkably similar to the bikes we know today, with diamond-shaped frames, chain-driven rear-wheel drive, equal-size spoked wheels and slightly-dropped handlebars to ease wind resistence. Only braking systems lagged behind need, thus sustaining fixed-wheel pedalling long after the freewheel hub had been invented.
And yet observing this, it is difficult to imagine the sheer number of innovations and refinements that had taken place over the preceding decade, with a speed of change that would challenge many of today's technology companies. The velocipede or 'boneshaker' of the 1860s, with its horsecart technology (wrought-iron frame and wooden wheels shod with cast-iron rings) had morphed into the penny-farthing of the 70s. With its elevation, sit-up-and-beg posture and inherent danger due to its instability, this was favoured almost exclusively by well-to-do young men who wanted nothing more than to show off in public.
But then in the 80s came chain-drive and tubular frames. These and the development of spoked wheels, ball-bearings and rear-wheel drive, all invented in 1869, led to the production in 1885 of the 'Rover', the world's first modern or 'safety' bicycle. Dunlop's pneumatic tyres followed in 1888. From an estimated several thousand at the beginning of the 1890s, the number of bicycles in France grew to 3.6 million by the outbreak of the First World War. We know this because the French government introduced a tax on them and the figures were recorded, although there were probably another half a million hiding in barns and stables.
For many of the riders, despite their singular focus, the event was to become an introduction to a different France from the rarified one they were familiar with, largely metropolitan and middle-class. Fougères, on the borders of Normandy and Brittany, was – and is – a frontier town, endowed in 1166 with massive fortifications and one-time capital of the Breton Marches separating Brittany from the rest of France. It was also a stage on the Paris-Brest route, holding out both a warning and a welcome to the land and its people beyond, with their radically different dialects and sometimes even language.
The civilising embrace of the Paris-Brest railway had been felt along the north coast of the peninsular for twenty five years. A secondary route from Rennes followed the south coast. But the race went down the middle. And as they rode day and night through a time of no electric light or telephone outside of the cities, passing by the dark profile of the Montagnes Noires through remote towns like Carhaix and Huelgoat and then through the desolate Montagnes Arrées to Landerneau, the riders would have been confronted by a populace of shadowy figures, illuminated at night by coarse acetylene flares, at times uncouth, unruly and unkempt, carrying the demeanour of poverty and isolation.
For the villagers and townspeople along the way, lining the roads or setting up tables laden with milk, fruit and cakes at the checkpoints, these new bikes would have impressed with their raw silent power, of a kind only experienced otherwise by skiing or sailing. They were accustomed to the clang and clamour of metal-working, the crunching and creaking of carts and carriages, but a modern bicycle announced its arrival only with the whizz and click of bearings and chains, the whoosh of rubber on the road and the sound of the rider's own exertions.
In a moment of classic understatement, Baedeker's 1899 Travel Guide to Northern France declared in its introduction: 'Cycling is a popular amusement in France, and the cyclist's wants are everywhere fairly well provided for.' (1) Baedeker missed the point too.
By the turn of the century, ten years into the second bicycle boom, cycling had become more than an amusement. It was a tool of economic enhancement, allowing increased freedom of choice over the search for work, especially in remote rural areas. Men could take jobs at a greater distance from their home towns or villages, thus lubricating the freer flow of labour. But it also had a broader cultural impact, frequently under-estimated.
The historic dash for paved roads outside of Paris can be credited in large part to the evolution of the bicycle as a means of transportation. And one commentator (2) has even gone so far as to suggest that the dramatic increase in the average height of the French population can be attributed to a decrease in the practice of coupling with blood relations as men cycled out of their villages over into the next valley to carry out their courting.
But perhaps the biggest impact was on the psycho-geography of France itself. Since the mid-19th Century the railways had functioned as a unifying force, but this was to some extent a minority activity. With the coming of the mass-produced bicycle, the 40m inhabitants of this country of 135m acres, the largest in Western Europe, finally acquired a sense of itself, of its furthest reaches and its multitude of little pays, each with its own customs mores and dialects.
With several evolutionary changes, the most significant being the decision to end its function as a professionals' race and focus on the ordinary rider, the PBP went on to retain its position as the foremost testing-ground for both riders and cycles in the event calender, with 'finishers' rather than 'winners', and it continues to this day.
At the age of 34, Charles Terront ended a spectacular fifteen-year career as a racing cyclist on a high, by winning the first PBP to become a national celebrity.
And the cake? I've seen a circle of chocolate-covered cream-filled choux buns which I'd describe as a necklace of profiteroles. I've seen the modern 'light' versions filled with strawberries and whipping cream. And I've even heard of one made with Nutella.
But thankfully the original endures, above all in the patisseries of Paris and Brest, but also in upmarket hotels and in discerning pastry shops, coffee-houses and tea-rooms the world over. I fear the prospect of anything more than a leisurely stroll after downing one renders me a little queasy. And as for sustenance whilst cycling night-and-day, I shall leave that to the professionals and fit amateurs. But from now on, I will always raise a cake to the riders of 1891 whose strength and powers of endurance took them from Paris to Brest and back with hardly so much as a sleep on the way.
Photo Credit: mari
(1) 'Northern France, A Handbook for Travellers.' Karl Baedeker, Leipzig 1899.
(2) 'The Discovery of France.' Graham Robb, Picador 2007.