Armenian nutmeg cake

The sweet that even “salty” friends will love

Armenian nutmeg cake

It turns out that Pixar doesn’t have the monopoly on epicurean rats living in Paris. Long before rodent Rémy was tasting stew in the 2007 movie Ratatouille, an entire vermin population had to contend with an unwanted move when Paris’ wholesale market left its central location at Les Halles. The Road to Rungis, a young adult novel by Christian Léourier, recounts the story of Gaspard and his son Achille, two uprooted rats who follow their food source from Les Halles to Rungis market, just south of Paris, in 1969.

When I met author Christian Léourier at his home in the suburbs, I felt a long way from the author’s birthplace in eastern Paris’ Ménilmontant. But he described to me the foreign conditions of life in the 20th district in the 1950s. Even though Ménilmontant went from being its own village to becoming part of Paris in the 1860s, almost a hundred years later the area was still an agglomeration of neighborhoods, each with its own slang, and organized according to trade.


Small shoe manufacturers, tool makers, and other workshops filled the area, the vestiges of which I can find even in my own street. The anarchic construction style of Ménilmontant was a holdover from the hilly terrain and gypsum quarrying of the previous centuries. And even though most of the area’s main quarries were closed, and the most dangerous quarry accidents ended in the late 1770s, there were still occasional sinkhole collapses up until the 1950s.

For example, Christian remembers a horse butcher on the corner of the rue des Pyrénées and the rue de Ménilmontant whose entire shop became a sinkhole overnight. The hole was as wide as the shop itself, and so deep no one could see the bottom - the gypsum under the shop had dissolved in water. I’ve heard other people talk about the collapses in eastern Paris, and one thing I find curious is how these sinkholes always happened in butcher shops, restaurants, and other food-related venues.

For a long time, the quarries, emptied of the precious gypsum used to make plaster (ever heard of plaster of Paris ?), served the eastern Parisian population as dépotoirs, or basically, gratuitous dumping grounds. I’ve read of entire animal carcasses being thrown into those bottomless holes. So I guess it makes sense to imagine that food purveyors might have taken the easy route by just digging a hole in their basement and throwing their trash into the depths of Paris, almost like a natural garbage chute. I wonder if I might not have done the same thing !

Armenian nutmeg cake

Rodently jobs

But Christian Léourier wasn’t inspired to write about rats in central Paris because of the sinkholes in his native area, but by another very real event in the city : the move of the central food market, Les Halles, to the suburbs. Around 1962, city officials finalized the decision to move the wholesale market out of Paris, but there was a problem : the population of nearly 300,000 rats living in Les Halles’ basements would be divested of their rodently night jobs, and city officials feared the worst.

I can speak with some experience when I say that a building demolition in Paris is nothing to sneeze at. When I lived in Paris’ 11th district, I suffered through the infernal blasting and invasive dust of a demolition. The aftermath of suddenly scattered rodents was fearsome. Those homeless rats have to go somewhere when their dwelling is destroyed, right ? Likewise, take away a rat population’s usual quota of market leftovers, and they’ll soon be burrowing high and low looking for food in the surrounding areas, and spreading like....well, the plague.

The Road to Rungis

And general anarchy - if not the plague - was exactly what city officials dreaded in 1969. According to Christian’s book, The Road to Rungis, the rats would have invested surrounding buildings "with hunger in their stomachs and anger in their hearts." Yikes ! What inspired Christian to write his book was an article in the local newspaper recounting the odd overnight disappearance of the entire rat population.

The move to Rungis proceeded full speed ahead in 1969, and strangely enough, as reported by journalists, the rat hordes disappeared without a trace. Officials are still perplexed as to where all those rats ended up. Christian Léourier’s novel presents one theory : those hungry rodents also hit the highway, or the low-way, as it were, and emigrated to Rungis along with the market.

Before the move, Christian’s aunt sold flowers at Les Halles market. But the rest of his family tended to stay put in the village of Ménilmontant : even Christian’s mother only went “into” Paris a few times a year for shopping.

The great snack exchange

Ménilmontant was most emphatically a working class village, and immigration during the 1920s maintained the industrious atmosphere up into the 1960s. Christian told me that he and his family lived in the same building as a Jewish tailor (fancy that !), and also had a neighbor from the West Indies, who received the occasional postal package from his homeland, containing then-exotic ingredients like avocadoes and pineapples.

Half of Ménilmontant’s population was made up of transplants at that time : Armenian, Jewish, Polish, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Algerian immigrants lived in the neighborhoods before the later influx of Africans and Chinese. Christian’s favorite part of living with all these different populations was what happened during recess on most school days : the great snack exchange.

Not one boy seemed to want the 4 o’clock gâteau his own mother had provided, so they played a game similar to musical chairs in order to swap snacks. Christian told me the best cakes came from the Armenian kids, and all the boys tried to cheat at the game in order to get their little hands on those cakes.

More salty than sweet

Christian didn’t give me a recipe for those Armenian snacks - he enjoyed them after his hard-won game of musical cakes, but he didn’t actually make them. I like to imagine he might have sampled one of these delicious nutmeg cakes.

Now, I admit to not having a huge sweet-tooth - I am what the French call plutôt salée (more salty than sweet) meaning that I prefer savory foods. But I’ve tested this cake recipe on many a “salty” friend, and they all loved it. The crust is crunchy, the inside of the cake soft, and they make for a delicious, nutmeggy contrast.

I serve this cake during the nation’s official 4 o’clock snack hour, along with some steaming coffee. By the way, did you know that Paris’ very first café, Le Procope, was opened by an Armenian ? And you can still have coffee there. So let me know how these cakes turn out, and if you’re interested in learning more about eastern Paris’ fascinating history, please join one of my Walking tours !

Armenian nutmeg cake

ingredients :
- 1½ cups (320g) raw sugar
- 1¾ cups (185g) flour, sifted, or 2 cups (245g) French flour, sifted
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick, 120g) cold butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 scant cup (250ml) whole milk
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 teaspoon (or more !) grated nutmeg
- ½ cup (50g) pecans or walnuts, coarsely chopped

how to make it :
1. Using a food processor, pulse several times to mix the raw sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt.
2. Add the butter, and process using the pulse button until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs or coarse sand (if there are a few pea-sized chunks, that’s okay).
3. Grease a rectangular brownie pan.
4. Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C).
5. Remove half of the crumb mixture from the food processor and spread it into the bottom of the pan, pressing it down as you go.
6. Dissolve the baking soda in the milk, then add it to the rest of the crumb mixture left in the food processor.
7. Add the egg and the nutmeg, and process until you have a smooth mixture.
8. Finally, add the pecans or walnuts, process once just to mix, and pour this mixture into the greased pan.
9. Bake the cake in the oven for 1 hour.
10. Remove the cake from the oven, and let it cool directly in the pan.
11. Cut into 2-inch squares and serve for dessert, or better yet, as a coffee and tea-time snack.

Gâteau arménien à la noix de muscade

ingrédients :

- 320g cassonade
- 245g farine, tamisée
- 2 cuillères à café levure chimique
- 1 cuillère à café sel fin
- 120g beurre froid, découpé en petits morceaux
- 1 cuillère à café bicarbonate de soude
- 250ml lait entier
- 1 oeuf battu
- 1 cuillère à café noix de muscade râpé
- 50g noix de pécan hachés

comment faire :

1. Mettre la cassonade, la farine, la levure chimique, and le sel dans un robo-coupe. Mixer plusieurs fois en utilisant le bouton « Pulse » pour bien mélanger.
2. Rajouter le beurre, et mixer encore de la même manière, jusqu’à ce que le mélange ressemble à de la chapelure.
3. Beurrer un plat rectangulaire.
4. Mettre le four à préchauffer à 180°.
5. Prendre la moitié du mélange du robo-coupe, et étaler-le dans le plat. Appuyer bien pour former une sorte de croûte.
6. Dissoudre la bicarbonate dans le lait, puis rajouter ce mélange à ce qui reste dans le robo-coupe.
7. Rajouter l’oeuf et la noix de muscade dans le robo-coupe, et mixer à nouveau jusqu’à l’obtention d’un mélange bien lisse.
8. Enfin, rajouter les noix de pécan, mixer juste une fois, et verser ce mélange par-dessus l’autre dans le plat.
9. Cuire au four pendant 1 heure.
10. Enlever le gâteau du four, et laisser refroidir directement dans le plat.
11. Couper des petits carrés et servir à l’heure du café (ou thé). Bon app’ !

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Tags : Armenian recipe , nutmeg , Ménilmontant , Christian Léourier


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