The patisserie was the best in town, she told me several times, as I followed her quick gait down twisting, bustling, narrow streets. It was an picture-book Sunday morning and shoppers and tourists crowded the cobblestone walkways and elegant squares. Elena was trim and straight-backed, always a pace or two in front of me because I was slow-footed and dazed from jet lag. Viewed from behind, only her silver hair tied up in a chignon gave away her seventy years of age.
“Here it is. I can only hope there’s a table left outside. The outside is better.”
We’ve turned onto a side street shadowed by looming, stately buildings erected two centuries ago. It was cool and quiet, with all outside tables unoccupied. When Elena saw this, a relieved smile lit her face which was normally creased with an unreadable severity. “Quickly, let’s go in and see what looks good today,” she said, voice filled with hushed urgency.
The patisserie was called Milk and Honey. A sweet bell chimed when we stepped through the glass-paneled door. The patisserie interior was lively compared to the hushed street outside. Perfumed women stood in line at the counter and sat elbow-to-elbow at small cafe tables with obedient children and tiny coiffured dogs. Female staff wore crisp white uniforms with lace caps. The display cases were dazzling with architectural cakes, ornate tortes, tiers of ornate little pastries.
Elena sighed, shaking her head. A gloom has darkened her eyes. “All these people.” Her lips tightened in a line of disapproval. Did I imagine this, or did people turn and look at us? Did the gloom-eyed matron behind the display case give us a cold stare? Did the room get a little more quiet?
“Take a table outside,” she instructed me. “I’ll order something for us. They’re known for their strawberry custard torte. And we must try the strudel.”
I slipped back outside with some relief, away from the guarded glances and crowded shop. I sat at a table that seemed to offer the best people watching, what little there was on this quiet street. A boutique across the street displayed women’s fashion in its windows. The young, stylish shopkeeper stared at me through her doorway for a long minute, then retreated inside and closed the door.
Elena joined me ten minutes later. “No, that table over there, that one’s better,” she insisted. I complied, and we moved to the one she preferred, though I didn’t see much difference. It didn’t matter to me anyway.
“The service here has always been terrible. They treat customers like they’re stupid peasants here.” The bitterness in her voice is startling. “But one must come here, it’s the only place.”
“It seems to be very popular,” I remarked.
“Oh, of course. It’s very popular. Nothing else compares. I was a pastry chef here myself once, you know. Many years ago.”
“Really?” This bit of history about Elena delighted me. Angst-driven, high-energy Elena, younger but in a smock and cap, creating beautiful pastries. I knew she was an excellent cook and enjoyed a cultured life here in the city, but much of her remained a mystery. I knew her through mutual friends, she was my tour guide here for the day.
“How long did you work here?” I asked.
“Oh, years and years. I don’t even know how many.” The waitress arrived, and Elena’s eyes took on a faraway look. “Yes, I don’t even know anymore which year I started…”
The waitress was young and round-faced. She looked terrified as she set down our cups and saucers, the pewter teapot and all the accoutrements, the flawless pastries on their elegant porcelain plates. I tried to smile at her in encouragement but her hands shook and she avoided eye contact with either of us. Perhaps she was new.
Elena started her head shaking again, but a patronizing smile was frozen on her face. “See what I mean? The staff. Terrible.”
I watched Elena’s face as she watched the waitress. Elena’s features were symmetrical and severe, with high cheekbones and flashing crystal-blue eyes. She was most likely gorgeous in her youth, and even more regal. The girl finished serving us and hurried away.
“It’s amazing no one sits out here,” I said. “It’s so crowded inside, and the weather’s nice today.”
“Isn’t it?” Elena cocked her head and looked at me with a smile, then laughed. I had no idea what the laughter was about but it made my heart shrink. She poured tea and urged me to try the pastries.
I took a bite. “Delicious.”
“Aren’t they? They still have that right, at least.”
“Are they the same quality as when you worked here?”
“Almost exactly the same, I’d say. The consistency is impressive, really. That’s the key to success.”
I thought I heard something wistful in her voice. “Were you sorry when you left?” I asked innocently.
The dark look that flashed through her piercing eyes froze me. “Of course I was sorry. I came from a poor family. A cake or a torte was something we could only dream of eating when I was a child. I spent years slaving for these people until I became their top chef. I did it with sheer persistence and skill because I was naive and uneducated. They hired me to clean the kitchen and mend uniforms when I was nineteen. I worked my way slowly through every level of their kitchen. It took me more than twenty years. Eventually people came for miles for my cakes. We were in all the tour books. So when I rose to the top it was like a dream for me. But I had no choice, I had to leave. There was an accident. Just an accident, but they blamed me. I was trying a new recipe, you see. A special celebratory one. My version of a beehive cake.”
I waited for her to continue as we sipped our tea. The matron behind the counter gave us a hard look through the window then turned away. I noticed the street had gone very quiet. Pedestrians could be seen in the distance on the main street that intersected this one. But not another living thing was on our street. Yet still, the sense of being watched.
Elena continued, her eyes staring at something only she could see. “It was Klara’s birthday, the shop owner. That plain, mean old woman watching us through the window now, yes, she was young and beautiful once, too. A large garden party was thrown in honor of her 40th birthday. We were the same age, she and I. They asked me to create something memorable. I spent weeks planning this surprise. Days and nights I thought about it and planned, filled with excitement. The lightest, most wonderful tiered cake with ethereal layers of pastry filled with lemon custard and glazed with honey. I selected the most perfect wildflowers to accent the top. It was marvelous.”
“It sounds spectacular,” I said.
“There were around fifty guests in a villa in the countryside for her birthday celebration. I presented the cake and everyone was impressed. As I started to serve it, we heard a strange humming sound. It got louder and louder. Bees, a huge angry swarm of them. The guests screamed and ran inside the house, some tried to wave them away. But it all happened so quickly. Some of the guests were stung badly, and the cake was absolutely covered with bees. And Klara’s little girl was viciously attacked. She didn’t survive. She went into a coma and died in a few days. I wasn’t able to work anywhere else after that.”
I fell silent. I gazed with sympathy at Elena but she didn’t look at me. We both said nothing for a while as we sipped tea. A few more customers arrived, entering the shop with cheerful chatter.
The matron glared at us again through the window. Elena stared back at her. Their eyes locked for a fierce moment.
“Her husband is still in love with me,” Elena murmured, as if to herself. “She thought I planned the whole thing. But I didn’t. I didn’t.”
The matron disappeared again.
I cleared my throat. “This is truly wonderful pastry,” I said. “I wish I could take some back with me.”
“Did I tell you the story behind the name? Milk and Honey.”
I shook my head, no.
“This city used to be surrounded by beautiful farmland and orchards. They grew everything in the old days. Apricots, cherries, almonds, grapes. But there’s nothing left of that. The farmers couldn’t keep their orchards going. It costs too much to live here. I grew up playing in those orchards. In the spring and summer they were indescribable.”
Elena looked at me with a smile. “All the sweet wildness is gone. But, we have these pastries.”
I nodded again. I hesitated, then just had to ask. “Isn’t it hard for you to come back here?”
She laughed, giving me an incredulous stare. “Of course! How do you think I feel when they treat me the way they do? But I have to keep coming. I come here every day. I’m not letting them forget me so easily.”
We finished our tea while clouds gathered slowly overhead.