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My secret life



My Secret Life :: let them eat cake

I have lived in Brussels long enough to know that you don’t go to the chemist to ask for cough medicine. If you do, the woman behind the counter will ask you, sternly, “What sort of cough is it, precisely?”

She needs to know if it is deep or shallow, chesty or dry. You may have to describe the precise colour of the phlegm in front of the entire shop.

I had not realised that Belgian bakers were the same.

It was the twins’ birthday and my wife was out of town, so it was up to me to provide a birthday cake. I looked at the row of cookbooks in the kitchen and decided that, no, I am not a Domestic Goddess. I will buy a cake.

But not just any cake. I went to an elegant cake shop in the Rue du Bailli which boasts a splendid Art Nouveau interior. The cakes come from Debailleul, which is regarded as one of the best patisseries in Belgium. “I would like a chocolate cake, please,” I said.

The woman behind the counter asked, sternly. “What type of chocolate cake do you want, precisely?” She then offered a long list of options involving various combinations of chocolate and cream and mousse.

I made my choice.

“At what time will you be eating this cake?”

I had not really given much thought to the timing. The twins were 16 years old. They got up around noon and ate lunch at around four o’clock. It was hard to plan their cake consumption with any degree of accuracy.

I said four o’clock, roughly.

She sighed and disappeared into the back of the shop. Some minutes later, she returned with a cake. “You must keep this on the lowest shelf in the fridge and serve it at four o’clock,” she insisted as she lowered it into a box.

I took the precious cake back home and laid it carefully on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator.

The stress of buying a cake had given me a slight headache. I would have gone to the chemist, but then the woman behind the counter would inevitably have asked what sort of headache it was, precisely.