Saturday, March 3, 2018

A Writer's Life

After jetsetting around Rome, Paris, Brittany, Capri and Sorrento in June last year, it was time to return to Sydney, and face the fact that the only reason I can afford international travel at all is because I am a corporate Techie, and not because I sell millions of books. Let's not kid ourselves, now.

I swallowed that pill and returned to my day job, back to what became a challenging six months project with Fairfax Media. As a Business Analyst/Iteration Manager (a hybrid word meaning, someone-who-doesn't-have-a-life), I embarked on the re-development and re-launch of two major sites, representing Australia's well-known news brands: The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Rather than overwhelm you with descriptions of my Agile world with its sprints, its JIRA tickets, its endless meetings and the often maddening but always exciting digital media pace, I will simply say that despite the unrelenting whirlwind of my day job, I managed to actually make progress with another world, the gastronomic world of my fourth novel - set lavishly in the chateaux of Vienna and France, in the patisseries and alleys of Paris from the Left to the Right bank.

Chantilly: A Tale of Carême is my fourth book. It is a delightful, sentimental and passionate journey,  into the life of France's first celebrity chef, who began as a pâtissier but worked his way up as a master of French Haute Cuisine. More than a rags-to-riches fairy tale, which it is, it delves on overcoming one's personal demons, and on Antonin Carême's existence against a backdrop of political intrigue. It brings to life fascinating figures of the period, including the eccentric Grimod de la Reynière who was the first food critic, and a well-known Jewish banker who, while wanting acceptance from a Parisian social scene that had rejected him, managed to turn Carême into a celebrity.

Talleyrand: I love this guy

The book is also about an unlikely friendship. It explores Carême's surprising relationship with another great French man, the enigmatic Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Napoleon's foreign minister. Navigating in two different worlds, preoccupied with vastly different objectives, these two men will cross paths and each will learn from the other. Talleyrand has continued to perplex all historians who study him, and it is no surprise that research into his personality and psychology has taken most of my time. I am loving it.

And of course, it wouldn't be a book about a chef without it offering a glimpse into the culinary delights of the time, or highlighting the gastronomic inventions that swept early nineteenth century Europe. So I am having a ball, not only researching by reading Carême's own published works, but also pleasing my senses by indulging in cake whenever I can.

 I made this mango and strawberry Victorian Sponge and ate it all.

Any writer who pens a book like Julien's Terror has to battle their own demons. So even while flirting with pâtisseries and dancing the waltz in Vienna, I was lured, deliciously into another world - the darker world of MALEFICA. It seemed I could not step into the light without the darkness reaching out to engulf me.

So I went. Into the cold.

Valais landscape

Winter in Cologne. The majestic peaks of the Valais.

And I went further, into the lunar dark...

Into the mystical Nuragic caves of  Sardinia.

Ah yes, I am there. It's back to the 15th century.

Split between so many worlds I often feel that I might lose my mind. It's all there, at the same time, vying for space in my imagination. I look present but I am faraway, gripped by moving images, listening to the voices.

MALEFICA is my fifth novel. It is the fantastic sequel to The Mascherari: A Novel of Venice and it is part of a historical mystery trilogy that sees Antonio da Parma and the witch Elena as chief protagonists. My mind screams with excitement. There is still much research to be done but the concept has been alive in my imagination for over a year and the treatment is slowly taking shape.

You might think I stopped at two books. That the world of digital media strangled so many of my creative thoughts that I'd have no room for another story. Nope, that isn't so. I have also begun research on the third book in the trilogy. It will be called THE MASTER OF COLOGNE and will be set in France and Germany.

What has become clearer to me is that I need to be closer to Europe for my research. And so, because you only live once, I am planning to fly out of Australia and spend a sabbatical year (at least) in France where I would do nothing else but paint, write and travel to the places that have inspired my books. How does 2020 sound? In the meantime, it is another excuse to work hard and keep pumping out those JIRA tickets! Because books will simply not pay the bills. That's not what they are for.

So there it is, a glimpse into a writer's life. A psychotic universe of here and there, of doing something despite the fact it does not pay. Because you have to, right?

You just have to.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The French Revolution: Brittany and the Vendée

Drownings of Nantes in 1793, Joseph Aubert (1882)

“We must exterminate all men who have taken arms against the Republic 
and strike down their fathers, their wives, their sisters and their children. 
The Vendée must become a national cemetery.” 
      – General Turreau

The French Revolution is generally accepted as covering the period 1789 to 1799, ending with Napoleon’s coup d’état and the dissolution of the Directory. Prior to the formation of the Directory government France was ruled by the National Convention headed by Robespierre. This period, aptly known as the Terror, lasted from September 1793 to July 1794. 

For Western France, in the region of the Vendée, the Terror was accompanied by bloody and religious civil war including a period of mass killings that some French historians have recently come to denounce as a genocide and which led to the decimation of a third of the inhabitants in the Vendée. 

In the Western town of Nantes the representative of the National Convention, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, was responsible for atrocities and massacres that defy imagination. 

In my latest novel, I was interested in portraying a female perspective for this turbulent period.

Origins of the Conflict

It is a misconception that aside from aristocrats and nobles all French people were in favor of the beheading of their king and queen. 

The inhabitants of Brittany and of the newly named region of Vendée (comprising parts of Brittany, Poitou and Anjou regions) were never in favor of the guillotining of their king, Louis XVI, on 21 January 1793. They were staunch royalists and deeply Catholic. The execution of King Louis was not well received. 

To compound the people’s outrage, the new Republic had not only nationalized church property, but it also outlawed all priests who refused to forsake their oath on the Holy Bible.  According to these new laws, priests now had to swear upon the Constitution. Those who resisted were labelled ‘refractory’ and banished from preaching. There were persecutions involving both priests and nuns. In worst cases such priests were hunted to death or murdered en masse, as happened in Nantes in December 1793 when hundreds of refractory priests were tied up, locked into a barge and drowned in the Loire River. 

Already unsettled, the Vendée peasants rose in arms against the Republic when in February 1793, the National Convention made a call for the conscription of 300000 unmarried men, from the age of 18 to 40 years. 

The people of the Vendée had already witnessed great injustices toward their beloved priests, whom they hid, but this new conscription law was the tipping point because it would have left thousands of peasants unable to fend for their families. Meanwhile they would be forced to enlist in support of a Republic they had come to see as tyrannical.

Determined to oppose the Republic, these men, often illiterate and attached to their land, elected nobles and landlords—local men whom they held in high esteem—to lead and train them in battle. The Great Vendéan Army was born. 

Initially this Great Army won many victories against the soldiers of the Republic, but from December 1793, its luck began to turn. From January to July 1794, Paris sent a giant army to sweep across the Vendée. Its orders were clear: annihilation with no quarters. 

The Infernal Columns

Children, women, the aged, even the sick and farm livestock were not spared from massacres. The Republican army practiced scorched-earth and sought to obey decrees from Paris aimed at starving or exterminating the population. 

The army possessed twenty columns led by several Republican generals. Some, like those commanded by General Grignon, were more cruel than others. These columns became known as the ‘infernal columns’ for the very hell they spawned. 

The living defend their dead. War of the Vendée. 
Georges Clairin, 19th century

The words pronounced by General François Joseph Westermann are powerful illustrations of the atrocities that followed: 

“There is no more Vendée. I have trampled the children to death with our horses, I have massacred the women, and they are no longer able to give birth to any brigands. I am not guilty of taking a single prisoner, I have exterminated them all… The roads are covered with corpses. There are so many of them at several places they form pyramids. The firing squads work incessantly… Brigands arrive who pretend that they will surrender as prisoners… but we are not taking any. One would be forced to feed them with the bread of liberty, but compassion is not a revolutionary virtue.” 

Writing the French Revolution 

In Julien’s Terror, my desire was to convey what might have been the experience of a young girl in these violent times. The journey begins when she is a spoilt child, daughter a well-to-do merchant, living on the prestigious Île Feydeau in the heart of Nantes. It follows her life after the Terror, when she is a spirited but destitute orphan. What she sees and lives in-between, and the aftermath of her horrendous psychological journey provide both drama and mystery, but more importantly, it casts a light on the hardships faced by many French women in this period.

My female character is barely nine when she loses her parents to Carrier’s butchery. She is reunited with relatives in war-torn Vendée, staying with them first in Montaigu, La Guyonnière and then later in Les Epesses—all communes that were swept by the infernal columns.

The Underground and the Hidden Places of the Vendée

What is less well-known about the conflict in Western France is how much the peasants’ knowledge of their natural surroundings supplied them with advantages for surviving the Republican army. Like the Viet Cong of Vietnam, the people of Brittany and Vendée crawled in secret undergrounds. They also waged a guerrilla war long before the word ‘guerilla’ officially surfaced, when Napoleonic French troops encountered fierce resistance in Spain.

As François Pagès describes in Secret History of the French revolution—the soldiers of the Catholic royalist army ceaselessly disappeared and then re-appeared to fight. The underground, the woods, the stones and the marshes in the West would conceal and then suddenly release hordes of former valets, brigands, priests, ex-nobles, and peasants. They were everywhere and yet they remained unseen. 

In his final novel, Quatre-Vingt Treize, Victor Hugo wrote of his father’s experience in the war against Breton royalists. He too mentions the forests that sheltered thousands of peasants in Brittany:

“The peasant had two points on which he leaned: the field which nourished him, the wood which concealed him.”

“There were wells, round and narrow, masked by coverings of stones and branches, the interior at first vertical, then horizontal, spreading out underground like funnels, and ending in dark chambers. [ ] The caves of Egypt held dead men, the caves of Brittany were filled with the living.”

“The subsoil of every forest was a sort of mad repose, pierced and traversed in all directions by a secret highway of minds, cells, and galleries. Each one of these blind cells could shelter five or six men.”

In Les Epesses, my female character follows her great-uncle, a giant Breton man who walks everywhere with his large wooden staff, and seems to know all the secrets of the underground. He hides his family in an underground cavern where they remain for months. 

As the infernal columns advance in the Vendée countryside, my character witnesses horrors beyond her years. Later she will hide in the secret Gralas forest, south of Nantes, and meet one of the most courageous men to lead the Vendée rebellion – General François Athanase de Charette de la Contrie (Charette). In Gralas, she will also discover the strong, independent women who fought to death alongside Charette, and one of these women will change her life forever.

"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Death" 
- the original motto of the French Republic

Further Reading:

1. Histoire secrète de la Révolution française depuis la convocation des notables jusqu' a la 

prise de l'ile de Malthe..., François Pagès, 1798.
2. Quatrevingt-treize, Victor Hugo, 1874.
3. Souterrains de Vendée, Laurent et Jérôme Triolet, Editions Ouest-France, 2013.
4. Colonnes Infernales - Wikipedia 
5. A French Genocide: The Vendée, Reynald Secher, University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Julien's Terror as a Psychological Thriller - Between Rationalism and Superstition

Julien's Terror features various facets of the psychological thriller listed by Mecholsky1 including, apparent paranormal danger, a form of prolonged psychological torture, psychological trauma / memory losses and past traumas that revisit in the form of a new danger.

Julien, my main character, experiences a dread towards his wife, Marguerite which has as its origin: family trauma; the internalisation of a misogynistic mentality that would have been common in the 19th century; the internalisation of his own father's jealous paranoia towards Julien's mother; and finally the suppression of his own inner fears which rebound forcibly, manifesting into a terror. This is revealed during his final visit to fortune teller Marie Anne Lenormand, where Julien makes a powerful revelation about a crucial passage in his life.

The only person in the novel who appears fearless in the novel is Marguerite, adding to the aura of mystery and potency around her.

A young Marguerite Lafolye
Painting by Gustave Jean Jacquet (1846-1909)

For all his knowledge, engineering aptitude and cerebral prowess, Julien cannot decipher his own wife. Marguerite appears as an unknown entity. Mid-way into the novel, he considers her a liar, perhaps even a traitor. 

According to Mecholsky, this fear is key to the psychological thriller. He claims that this dread, that dangerous secrets lie beneath once-safe sectors of life is in fact an anxiety about the modern age and its implication. Despite living in an Age of Reason which had presumably enabled the French Revolution, despite having been rigorously schooled by the Ponts et Chausses, the Cartesian Julien is confronted with the limits of his knowledge. He knows nothing about Marguerite. Before him, is an unknowable being, one who reflects the unknowable mind in each and every one of us.

Aptly set in the French Revolution, Julien's Terror illustrates this modern dynamic that Mecholsky describes as having given birth to the psychological thriller - a modern anxiety (about the nature of the mind and the Self) existing through the Enlightenment struggle to subjugate myth and superstition by way of science and rationality. Marguerite is a Catholic royalist. Worse, she is of Breton descent. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Bretons were considered not only filthy by the French, but also savage and backwards. Meanwhile, their 'blind' adherence to religion was seen as evidence of their superstitious minds. Julien's domination and abuse of Marguerite is a metaphor for this symbolic subjugation of the rational over superstition and myth. 

As modern anxiety would have it, Julien does not fare better through his actions - his anxiety only accrues and the enigma of Marguerite appears all the more horrifying.  It is only when Julien takes Marie Anne Lenormand's advice and considers the supernatural as a potential explanation for what is happening - at the cost of his cherished logic, only when he concedes that there may be forces he knows nothing about, and then pragmatically undertakes to confront these occult forces, can he achieve a solution.

Marie Anne Lenormand reading

In its resolution, however, Julien's Terror presents two opposing explanations for the reader that can be listed here briefly to avoid spoilers. The first explanation is grounded in rationalism, informed by a conversation with the physician Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer proposes a valid psychological theory, albeit one that had not been fully developed at the time, and which was only starting to be known in limited scientific circles, due to the rising cases observed and reported. 

The second explanation is supernatural. It confirms Marguerite's innate belief that she can see and converse with the dead. It suggests that there is something real about the myths in Breton folklore - they are not mere superstition. This explanation also implies that Marguerite, by way of a certain unique and harrowing childhood experience, now finds herself between two worlds - she lies in-between - and as such, she can channel the dead.

Les Lavendieres de la Nuit - Breton Folklore painting by 
Jean Edouard Yan Dargent (1824-1899)

At the conclusion of the novel, Julien rationalises what he has seen, to himself. He is never truly convinced about one explanation over the other, but he now understands that there is something strong and worthy of esteem in Marguerite. He is also made aware of his own past failings - though that is not to say that he has overcome them (an important point, if one is to understand his last vision in the Temple prison). He comes to cherish, admire and love Marguerite all the more. An ending like this was necessary to reconcile the couple after much conflict and to achieve a satisfying character arc for Julien. 

Despite Julien's own reckoning, I don't want underplay the tone of uncertainty that the final chapter creates - this fine line between the rational and the paranormal interpretations is the hallmark of the psychological thriller. We are not meant to know for certain. Some anxiety remains. 

The horror that Julien's Terror illustrates is both a facet of the period during which it is set (the French Revolution/ the Terror / the Vendée wars) and the repercussions this period had on the French population. 

Mecholsky indicates that the French revolution was a logical cultural goal of the Enlightenment, yet it resulted in horrific terror and murder, casting a pall over rationalism. Julien embodies this contradiction perfectly. He is both the most logically-minded character and the character that undergoes the most destructive and potentially sociopathic psychosis. Incidentally this is the reason the novel is named Julien's Terror.

Just as it opposes rationalism to superstition, Julien's Terror also highlights the ever present conflict between those French who embraced the Republic and were loyal to its tenets, and those French who pined for the Ancien Regime and espoused the royalist cause. This opposition is embodied by Julien and his wife Marguerite.

Julien is an upcoming bourgeois who has thrived in the new Republican order and accepted the Napoleonic age. He considers Napoleon his benefactor and the benefactor of France. Marguerite is a staunch royalist with a great disdain for the 'Corsican upstart' who has come to rule post-revolutionary France.

When I conceived a marriage between two unlike souls, I was partly cautious about its probability. I decided, among other character motivations, to employ a 'marriage of convenience' disclaimer - Julien marries the first woman offered to him to avoid serving in Napoleon's army so that he can instead become the engineer he had always dreamed of becoming. With this mindset, he spends no time evaluating her personality, background or values. By way of this disclaimer, I hoped no one would question such an unmatched pair. Still, I wondered how likely an alliance of this nature could have been. Could a republican at soul marry a royalist? 

I had no idea that this unlikely combination was in fact common. So common, that it existed in none other than author Victor Hugo's family2. The similarity struck me and I simply have to share it here.

Like Marguerite, Victor Hugo's mother was from Nantes. Like Marguerite, Sophie Hugo née Trébuchet, was from a royalist Breton family. And like Marguerite, Sophie did not share her husband's Napoleonic sentiments. Madame Hugo went so far as to shelter those who plotted against Napoleon's life. Meanwhile, Hugo's father, Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo distinguished himself as a soldier in Napoleon's army, rising to a high position, notably at the battle of Marengo in 1800, acquiring the Legion of Honour in 1804. He also fought against guerillas in Spain from 1808 to 1810 a period during which the young Victor Hugo became acquainted with the Spanish language and learned to love the country.
Sadly, and unlike Marguerite and Julien, the Hugo couple's differences could not be resolved.

A final word about Julien's Terror. Mecholsky explains that novels like the psychological thriller and its early Gothic form have helped us disguise sources of anxiety, throughout the history of western culture since the 18th century. Quoting Fiedler, Mecholsky alludes to one of the tensions that such novels help us deal with: "a fear that in destroying the old ego-ideals of Church and State, the West has opened a way for the inruption of darkness..." I think this is perfect.  You see, as a psychological thriller, Julien's Terror happens to be set during and soon after the French revolution, that is to say a period where the power of the Monarchy and Church were toppled, leading perhaps to much anxiety and guilt...   Here then, Julien's Terror provides a coping mechanism for a fear that has presumably surged during the very period in which the novel is set.


1. Kristopher Mecholsky, The Psychological Thriller, Accessed on 12 June, 2017.

2. Albert.W. Halsall, Victor Hugo and the Romantic Drama, University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Celebrating Bastille Day

Romantic literature's portrayal of the French Revolution as a bloody affair enraptures the imagination. Certainly blood flowed wherever Madame La Guillotine made her appearance, and she seemed to move around enough to indicate that the sight of her was unpleasant and evidently not good for local business. But was there blood everywhere? No. That is a romantic fancy. Or is it?

Perhaps if you ventured in Western France, in the Vendée of 1794, then you might see otherwise.

Were there massacres? Oh, yes. Again, not in Paris. But if you travelled to Lyon or else in Nantes, well - let's just say the word, terror, is rather an understatement. How does the word 'genocide' sound? Some would argue against the likes of historian Reynald Secher who advocates for this stance. Many, including the French philosopher Luc Ferry, support him. But that there exists controversy about this word, 'genocide', and whether or not it should be applied for what happened in the Vendée between January and July 1794, is enough to stir attention.

But enough of the romance. It is Bastille Day after all - time to reflect on those raw figures from the French Revolution.

So then, how many people were executed in Paris during the Revolution?
There were 2918 executions, including sadly the mathematician Lavoisier because...he had once been involved in tax collection. Well, that's the official story. The truth is that he made an enemy of Marat and Marat destroyed him.

How many were massacred during that fated event of September 1792?
3400, including the tragic mauling of la Princesse de Lamballe

How many people were guillotined in total, throughout France, during the Revolution?

But let's not stop here. You'll wish for romance, I promise.

How many were murdered by firing squad, shot or drowned?
18500, including 2000 children and 764 women in Nantes.

How many counter-revolutionaries died?
180000 - actually this could be anything between 200000 and 300000 according to research by the likes of Reynald Secher.
These were not soldiers. They were civilians, including women and children and the aged - mostly peasants from above or below the Loire River. Those originating from the north of the Loire were called Chouans. Those to the South were usually Vendeeins.

How many died of famine, cold, misery?

Now when the Terror ended in late July 1794, a new terror of a different nature began. Those 'Jacobins' who had embodied the most radical tenets of the Republic and were strictly intransigent found themselves the victims of violent reprisals.
How many Jacobins died during this so called "White Terror"?

Note that 70% of the executions listed above took place between October 1793 and May 1794 - coinciding with the unleashing of the infernal columns into the Vendée during the Terror. Refer to the genocidal term earlier. It suddenly acquires more color.

One thing is for certain. Even beyond the official Terror months of Sept 1793 to July 1794, there was fear. At the minimum, fear would have been a natural consequence of changes and it turns out that the French Revolution did change many things. One did not need to be an aristocrat to have one's life turned upside down -  schools and monasteries were closed, churches were pillaged and/or destroyed, church property was seized by the state, noble property was seized by the state, street names were changed dramatically, the names of towns were changed, the religious order was secularized, the calendar was transformed so that even the weekdays were no more, the forms of address changed - saying "Monsieur" was frowned upon, one had to use the term "Citizen" to express equality - the manner of dressing, or of expressing oneself changed, the metric system was introduced, government structure and reporting changed, judicial laws changed.

In the patriotic hunt to weed out counter-revolutionaries and traitors, pettiness was rife. And if you were hungry or envious of someone who had enough to eat, then you might accuse them of hoarding food. In the same way, if you were Marat and felt ugly or disadvantaged in some way, you might turn all your party against someone who had once humiliated your beliefs and was part of the Academy of Science...oh, I don't know, someone like Lavoisier for example. In modern day parlance, those who are good at TED talks and have an axe to grind can really do some damage.
The knowledge of human pettiness, the fear of being accused of treason - all this was also part of the Terror.

In Nantes, when the Loire river became infested with the corpses of the thousands drowned, one had to stop eating the fish. Madame La Guillotine pales in comparison to the reality of the French Revolution.

More on this fear for which the best example lies in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This fear even permeated the new government - National Convention members became protective of their stance to the detriment of one another. Robespierre's increasing paranoia embodies the very spirit of the Terror. Even in his powerful position, he was wary. His acute fear rippled through the psyche of France.

The number of people incarcerated into asylums grew. People were terrified of losing their heads. Literally.

Even the butcher of Nantes, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, in his desire to serve the National Convention (while enriching his pockets) suffered this terror as much as he embodied it. When promising to purge Nantes of counter-revolutionaries he managed to gorge the prisons of the city until it was evident that they could take no more without the risk of a massive typhoid epidemic. What to do with all those prisoners and the threat of disease? What to do? Why, shoot them by the hundreds of course. No, wait. Drown them. Yes. Drown them by the hundreds. The children too. That will do it. Panic. Sheer terror. Fix this problem and report to the Committee of Public Safety that, yes, Nantes has been purged. I, Carrier, have done my duty.

And then there was the economy, just to make things worse.
Due to severe grain shortages in the years before the revolution, bread was already expensive at the time when the Bastille was taken. Guess what? It became even more expensive afterwards. If you thought chopping the king's head and calling everyone equal would mean more bread, unfortunately that wasn't the case. There were some real problems out there and no activism was going to fix things.
The index of Inflation from 1790 to 1795 was as follows:
1790 - 100
July 1795 - 180
Nov 1795 - 340

In early 1790, the government had issued a new paper currency called "assignat". In the next year, they pumped more assignats into circulation so that by late 1791, the currency's purchasing power had dropped by 14%. The fall of the assignat continued  well into 1795, so that by November 1795, purchasing power had decreased by 99%. Fun times. How does one plan when everything is chaos?

Then Napoleon happened. But that is another story.

In Rennes, there is a bronze statue of a man tearing a piece of paper. It receives a lot of attention. It was erected there to commemorate a brave figure. His name is Jean Leperdit. He was mayor of Rennes for several months during the Terror. The statue is amazing. It symbolizes defiance, courage and humanity. See, during the Terror, when Jean-Baptiste Carrier was on a killing rampage sending out letters and lists all over Western France asking for the execution of counter-revolutionaries, this Jean Leperdit reportedly stood up against Carrier and tore up a list of 23 names, refusing to execute these people. It is difficult to know if the story is true but it embodies for me the courage of all those moderating agents during the French revolution - people who were not swept up by terror or fear and managed to preserve their humanity in the face of chaos. These are the people I celebrate when I celebrate Bastille Day.

It could have been worse.

So then, Happy Bastille Day!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Artists on the Couch: Gabriella Pirisi - Pâtissière and Founder of MadCharlotte

Much like Marie-Antoinette, the gorgeous Gabriella Pirisi has made her home in Versailles. To the French, both women are foreigners; Marie-Antoinette was Austrian while Miss Pirisi was raised in Sydney.  Both ooze style - the first danced and gamed at masked balls in dainty silk slippers, the second is a gourmande, a feline creature that comes into her own in a pair of black Louboutins and Giorgio Armani red-lipstick. But where the French queen would have indulged in pretty pastel-colored cakes,  Miss Pirisi's vibrant passion for pâtisseries soared in 2015 with the launch of her very own online pâtisserie brand, MadCharlotte.

Today I am over the moon to welcome Miss Pirisi on the couch, all the way from France. She was busy last week preparing chocolate goodies and other VIP treats for the French electoral candidates, and was kind enough to answer my questions. 

Composing this portrait was not easy because while I was permitted to post any MadCharlotte photos, the choice was dizzying. Where to start, what to pick, when faced with these astounding mouth-watering creations? These works of art speak volume for Miss Pirisi's harmonious flair and skill for this fine and most esteemed gastronomic art. I settled with a pink theme, in honor of Mother's Day. But don't stop there. Do take a peek at the MadCharlotte website and instagram profile and inhale this whiff of  rose cream, chocolate ganache, citrus tart, Madagascar vanilla, coconut marshmallows. Abandon yourself to this generous paradise of gourmandises.

With memorable creations like Persian éclairs with pistachio cream, MadMinis, MadCakes, gateaux with names like "Égoïste" (Selfish) and "Avenue Montaigne" - the MadCharlotte brand is stamping a name for itself and it is only getting started. Miss Pirisi's innovations are a delight, like these almond and pear friands topped with Poire William whipped cream.

Trained through the prestigious Ferrandi French School of Culinary Arts in Paris, Miss Pirisi completed  an Intensive Professional Pastry Program in French Pastry aimed at future chefs and entrepreneurs. She followed this with the Diplôme CAP Pâtissier Adulte - a diploma in French pastry for adults, taught entirely in French which culminated in a grueling 3-day examination. Not content with having to learn French, Miss Pirisi was accredited after receiving top marks in her 7-hour practical exam. 

It is a cake lover's dream to speak with this charming pâtissière. Her words, punctuated by Ooh la la's and other French expressions, are a colorful stream of emotions and "saveurs"; they speak of her vision. Her enthusiasm for her brand is contagious but there is a discipline there - a determined, methodical approach perfected by hours of training and practice. It is like speaking with a feverish genius about to take flight, transported by an urge to create and then create some more. I love it. It is not only this which invites my awe. I am blown away by Miss Pirisi's courage to invent and to be different in the face of challenging odds - in a world, especially in France, where men still dominate the pâtisserie scene, Miss Pirisi brings fishnets to pâtisserie and it's like a dream come true.

Her brand is all about celebrating the French lifestyle of today - the French savoir-faire with a universal touch. According to Miss Pirisi, MadCharlotte is a name, a brand, business and concept that celebrates The WOMAN. It is a brand that believes in supporting women we know, "because we're just amazing." A refreshing and enlivening creed, one that I wholeheartedly embrace.

So here she is, straight from Versailles. The wonderful Miss Pirisi.

MadCharlotte's Gabriella Pirisi on the Couch

Ok, first question is an ice breaker. Tell us about a movie or story that you love and that features a memorable food or eating scene. Then explain what strikes you about it. 

Eat, Prey, Love, the scene with Julia Roberts when she slurps up her spaghetti, her eyes dotting around to see if anyone is watching her…slightly embarrassed. Yet in this moment she’s letting go, freeing herself from her own personal constraints. How a simple pleasure like that can be just life changing. Who hasn’t had one of these experiences when visiting a place, be it in Italy, or France, "Oh I could do this every day!", "I could live like this."

It’s strikes me because I see myself in her. That is and was me, in France with pastry.
Like Julia Roberts I ate through the old city, I bought pastries and sat on park benches all alone. My first gustative pleasure of French pastries had me smiling and giggling in public places and I knew this simple pleasure was opening up the door to a new and exciting future (because I wanted to share with the world my new found very pleasurable experience!)

What cake would you use to describe yourself, and what kind of pâtisserie do you usually fall for when someone else is doing the baking ?

Saint-Honoré! It has all my favourite dessert elements in one cake. This is very much who I am in life. I want a bit of everything, I can never choose just one thing.

MadCharlotte Baroque Saint-Honoré
Better than Marie-Antoinette could ever dream...

Saint-Honoré, begins with a crispy flaky buttery mille-feuille base, then mounted are choux (profiteroles) which are filled with a pastry cream (any flavour) then to decorate and to fill the dessert is a chantilly (a very aerated whipped cream). Ouh la la... C’est à tomber par terre.

However, if someone is doing the baking for me….. Oh, a Moelleux or Mi-cuit… A chocolate cake only half-cooked so that its gooey chocolate centre flows like lava. And then add to that a simple vanilla ice-cream and chantilly whipped cream. Ouh la la…. I’m happy, I can die tomorrow. I need nothing more.

Your brand, MadCharlotte, is a vibrant, lush celebration of femininity and all its appetites. In an industry dominated by men, you elevate cake consumption to the status of luxurious girliness. Please share a little about the brand’s history, your vision and what inspired the name. 

MadCharlotte is a brand I created in 2015 and is a personality. She arrived like that to me. Flicking through the pages of a pastry book, the pages of recipes for Madeleine and Charlotte flew by my eyes. It came together as, MadCharlotte. It was like she was always there and waiting very patiently to be discovered, "Finally, you’re here".

She is an extension of my personality, but somehow now feels detached from me, she explores without fear of judgment nor failure, wanting only to create, to do the best work, to do good and put more love into the world, and it’s my responsibility to provide her with the tools to do so. Her force is enormous.  I can only compare this metamorphosis to Stefani Germanotta becoming Lady Gaga and Ralph Lifschitz  becoming Ralph Lauren. The vision for MadCharlotte is really- the world is hers. Now, it’s about keeping up with her!

What are some of the challenges you have faced as an entrepreneur, especially coming from Australia and establishing your brand in Paris?

 I don’t know how things work in France, so it’s constant research about everything. Things I’ve learnt in a space of year: Where to register a brand?  Where to register a business?
What regulations do I need to follow to operate in the food industry? Where do I take my hygiene and safety course? From who do I buy this particular machine? or ingredients?

It’s also not a French mentality to be entrepreneurial. My brand is unique and for the moment most French people don’t really get it. For example, in France it’s expected that I have a boutique to sell pastry. I know for a fact that many Australian women are doing very well running a home kitchen business, they present on their website as a sort of boutique. Here, in France, it’s a foreign concept.

High quality baking and decorating, let alone running a business, is tremendous hard work. What keeps you going?

What keeps me going? It’s the not not doing it. The need to keep creating, evolving, doing it again, doing it better, doing it differently.

I have a lot energy and I mean that spiritually, I think. Because even when I don’t have physical energy there is another force that says, "keep going". I’ve always had this urge to do something creative. If I don’t have a creative project, or I’m unsure where to put this creative energy, it builds up. It becomes a block in my life, and frustration builds. So it’s important that I keep doing, doesn’t matter what. The doing becomes the practice, which turns into creations. The creations become a sort of finding myself which is really a journey of exploration. The exploration is like curiosity, you say, "what else can I do", "can I do it another way".

Financial constraints make it very difficult, because the energy source is overflowing and the lack of finances is like the breaks on the soul. I think anyone who’s started or is yearning for a creative outlet can understand this.

"I started from zero."
"I hadn't even made a pavlova before this course." 
- MadCharlotte

You trained at the elite FERRANDI school of culinary arts in Paris. What was that like and were there some key moments that you remember ?

What was it like? It was very difficult for me. I had a huge shock during the first week. I saw my comrades had a much superior level. I started from zero. Imagine, the course was supposed to be for beginners. But I discovered much later that many students had already undertaken pastry training courses or worked in boutiques, but it’s funny, people are silent about things like that. I found it very difficult to keep up with my class and the Chef. I hadn’t even made a pavlova before this course.

There weren’t really specific key moments. I remember however my Chef. I think of him often. He’s tall, slim, wearing his very high pastry hat that we call, La Toque, his French accent strong, very cute for all the foreign girls, making us always giggle. But that’s not why I think of him as charming as he is!

When I work, I imagine what he would say when something is not done well or is not perfect. I pull myself up, and correct. The key to a highly reputed chef, is in his gestes, his gestures. This is what sets him apart from other chefs and cooks, it is what makes his pastry art haute couture. His elegance and his exigence to his work. The way he stands, they way he moves his hands and arms with his body either following or supporting him. These movements as tiny in detail as they are, are critical in creating that final perfect dessert creation.

Chef Didier was exigent. He was a perfectionist. Watching him work was wonderful. We all felt it. We all knew if we can work like him, we will be much more than good.

"The latest trends are éclairs."  
- MadCharlotte

Do palates differ in Australia and France? What are some of the current market trends you have observed in pâtisserie consumption in France?

Oh god yes! I’m seeing the popularity of certain Australian cake/desserts creators enjoying a flourishing success because of their food styling, and while their work is beautiful, when I look into the recipe I’m in shock! The French know their ingredients very well, it’s a "gustative" country. With the French, you can’t get away with serving a layered sponge cake with layer upon layer of butter cream frosting. Ce n’est pas possible!

The latest trends are éclairs, they’ve always been popular in France but now they’ve become more like a fashion item because of specialty boutiques selling only eclairs.

Pâtisserie in general is about "revisiting" old classics where young trendy chef pâtissiers are about expressing their signature style. It’s common to put one pastry chef up against another to vote who makes the best tarte au citron (lemon tart) for example. Cuisine and pastry is very much an Olympic sport here, and so to always challenge new ways of doing classics as well as creating new desserts.

Especially now with social media, 
they have more exposure so it puts the pressure on, 
and you must adapt very quickly, 
innovate very quickly." - MadCharlotte on pastry chefs

As a creator, what are your current pâtisserie obsessions or envies – any ideas you are currently experimenting with and that you want to share ? What new pastry trend do you see surfacing?

There isn’t enough time and money to do all that I want to do! Chocolate, that’s my new obsession. The applications of chocolate pieces to cakes. Right now I’m experimenting with a signature look. It will take time, because I’m playing with colouring chocolate and shapes adapted to the shapes of my cakes.

Dark chocolate and ginger-infused dark 
mousse-ganache sits over a crunchy biscuit. 
These love hearts are covered with 
gold-dusted dark chocolate.

New pastry trend, resurfacing ? All… all pastry trends, like I mentioned earlier, pâtissiers compete like it’s an Olympic sport. A new way of doing a citron tart, a new way of doing an éclair, a new way of doing a Paris-Brest, new colours in glaçage, new chocolate pieces… it’s about these pâtissiers trying to make a name for themselves by their own signature creations. Especially now with social media, they have more exposure so it puts the pressure on, and you must adapt very quickly, innovate very quickly.

Top left: Égoïste layer cake. 
Top right: Napoleon (chocolate mousse with a subtle 
swirl of banana and an insert of pure ripe banana. 
This on a layer of goey zesty caramel over a chocolate sablé.), 
Bottom: Charlotte MadCakes

MadCharlotte not only offers gorgeous pastries and chocolates, it also oozes style. Are you interested in fashion at all and how would you describe your personal style?

MadCharlotte is all about fashion! At least the brand is inspired by fashion and perfume. While the boyz in pastry compete against who has the biggest or better éclair, I like to think MadCharlotte prefers to hang cool with her fashion pals (likes of Chantal Thomass, Christian Louboutin, Chanel, Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, Jimmy Choo).

My style is elegant. Classic elegance. I’m the little black dress gal, black patent heels with a signature red somewhere.. in my hair, pinned to my dress or under the sole of my shoes. Yet, my style can be very quickly jeans and flannel shirt, country gal. Very adaptable to my terrain and surroundings. But, if I were to walk into a room and say "here I am", then yep, something black with a signature red something. Oh, and something lacey… anywhere on my body.

And last, hopeful question… Will MadCharlotte expand to Australia one day? 
Anything is possible. But let’s first get the boutique happening in Paris (or Versailles), because after all, where else better to eat French pastries, but in Paris.

There you have it, even Marie-Antoinette could not have had better. 
Thank you so much Gabriella Pirisi from MadCharlotte, it has been an immense pleasure to have you visit the Teranga couch. We wish you all the best and hope to visit Versailles very soon!