In the Department of Fatty and Caloric Foods the French Seem Magically to Metabolize and Yet Neither Get Fat Nor Die Young, I would have to add sweetened condensed milk. I know, jaws are dropping, the mind boggles: the French? Canned cloying milkstuff?
When you think sweetened condensed milk you picture little cans of that Eagle Brand goo that’s invariably called for in “dessert bars” and “no-bake pies”—those classic American assembly line desserts that usually include whipped topping and butterscotch chips, as well. Or, since the mainstreaming of dulce de leche (which is just caramelized sweetened condensed milk) in Haagen Dazs ice cream and Cheesecake Factory cafés—it’s now their fifth most-popular cheesecake—you might even think of gooey Latin American treats. Or you might just think of fudge, which can be made quite simply by nuking a package of chocolate chips with a can of the condensed stuff, stirring, and then proceeding to have a very excellent time.
But my own first taste of sweetened condensed milk actually took place in France, allegedly the homeland of complicated, sophisticated fats, like real-butter flaky pastry and triple-cream cheeses. It turns out that not only do the French eat the milky goo, but they eat it straight. I discovered this one year at a rustic sleepaway camp on the Atlantic coast in Southern France. Four o’clock rang in snack time everyday, and since the French aren’t afraid of feeding their children a lot of sugar, this often meant chocolate sandwich cookies and chewy caramel candy. But one afternoon, the counselors handed out little paper packets in the shape of tetrahedrons, a sort of three-sided pyramid that fit in the palm of the hand. I took one and squeezed it—it felt like toothpaste inside—but I had no idea what it was. I looked around and watched the other kids: they stuck a little corner of the packet in their mouths, bit down, and tore. And then they inhaled.
What these delicate French children were inhaling in these adorable packages was pure sweetened condensed milk. It was packaged in these kiddie portions and marketed as a children’s snack. The brand of choice was Nestlé, the little packets were called Mini Berlingots (that’s what the tetrahedron shape is called in French), and they also came flavored, strawberry or chocolate. To make an analogy to crack cocaine would perhaps be overstating my enthusiasm for these little berlingots—but not by much. After my first draw, I was hooked, though I remained unclear for years as to what exactly the divine sweet cream was.
Soon after, I found out that the stuff was available in less mini packaging—in full-on toothpaste-sized tubes, that could be stashed in the bottom of one’s book bag for quick sucks throughout the day. I may sound like an addict here, but the hit-of-goo-on-the-run was not my idea at all. That’s literally how the condensed milk was promoted on the tube’s packaging then, and that’s exactly what it says on the back of the Nestlé package today:
Offrez-vous un instant de pure sensation gourmande pour recharger vos batteries en le dégustant tel quel, partout selon vos envies! Indulge in a moment of pure delight, boosting your energy by enjoying it just as it is, anywhere that suits your lifestyle!
Just to sum up and make sure the point is clear: the French here are suggesting you suck on a tube of intensely sweetened whole-fat dairy product for the sheer gustatory pleasure of it. And they don’t stop there. They also vaunt the nutritional benefits of sweetened condensed milk, citing it’s richness in calcium and protein. So that in addition to the fact that it just plain tastes delicious, the French breezily celebrate the stuff—a mere 660 calories and 18 grams of fat per recommended serving—as an energy food, much the way that Americans might talk about, say, a granola bar.
So what can you say to a nation of slim, long-living, life-loving people who advocate sucking on a tube of yummy milkfat? Amen.