On the last day of our summer holiday (2021), we were invited to the house of one of Matt’s teacher colleagues for lunch. The lady and her husband lived in Menton, the last town along the French Riviera before you arrive at the Italian border.
A few days before, Matt announced he’d told Pauline and Geoff we’d make dessert.
I flipped out. We’d planned to have one last adventure before the return to early alarms and routines and to cycle to their house from Nice. What on earth could we bring that would fit into a pannier and survive a 30+km trip in 30°C heat? Why couldn’t he have said we’d sort out the alcohol, or pick up a dessert on our way instead?
We argued for several minutes. Matt was thinking I might like to make the gooey chocolate squares my mum had made for our nephews and nieces when we’d been in England. Proper French tarts, creamy flans, and exquisite cakes flashed to mind. They were vague memories of the photos Matt had shown me of Pauline’s end-of-term get-together before the holiday. We couldn’t bring children’s party brownies!
“I’ll do it,” Matt said, after we’d debated and rejected a list of other desserts. “I’ll make a pavlova.”
I was taken aback. In the seven years I’d known Matt, I’d never seen him make a pavlova.
I suddenly felt guilty. We usually share all chores, from cooking and cleaning to food shopping and taking the rubbish out. But when Matt became the main breadwinner to allow me to try my hand at writing, I’d begun to feel like I should do more at home (even though I get up when he does and work until he returns, sometimes into the evenings – you see, I’m still trying to defend myself) because he’s bearing a lot more of the financial responsibility for our lives in the south of France. The least I could do, as a loving wife, was make a flipping dessert.
“It’s OK, I’ll think of something,” I said quietly, worried about how a delicate meringue-based pudding would survive the heat and bumpy roads.
“No honestly, I’ll do it,” Matt said. “My sister went through a pavlova craze, made them all the time. Let’s stop talking about it.”
During a practice bake, the hand mixer repeatedly broke and the mixture failed to stiffen as Matt thought it should. I went online.
Gosh, pavlovas were sensitive things! There were countless ways to spoil them: overbeating the mixture; not beating it long enough; preparing it in a humid room; having the smallest droplet of moisture on any of your utensils; overlooking the tiniest fleck of yolk in your egg whites; not baking them for long enough; overbaking them; not cooling or storing them the right way. The consequences were just as varied. The egg whites may never stiffen and droop with sogginess; the base might spread uncontrollably or crack; a brown syrup could seep from the edges; or the centre could completely collapse in on itself like a star that’s fused all the hydrogen at its core and has no energy left to support itself.
I offered any useful advice I found but otherwise kept a low profile. Matt persevered and, to his credit, a couple of hours later, a beautiful white base sat triumphantly in the oven cooling down. Cracks, he assured me, would be covered by the cream and fruit if the same happened to the real one.
What could I say? He’d won. Cycling with a pavlova base, boxes of fruit, and a can of squirty cream was on.