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Published: 24 January 2008
La Belle Epoch: Gauls on a mission with French-style patisserie bliss
La Belle Epoch: Gauls on a mission with French-style patisserie bliss
Fishing for tasty pastries

We’re catching up the Continent on more delicate culinary matters

LONDON is in the grip of a gastronomic revolution and there are some who claim we are living in the planet’s number one foodie city.
There is, however, a gaping hole in our claim to be a ­culinary capital. Where are the tea rooms and pastry shops – accessible to all – that adorn gastronomic citadels like Paris and Vienna?
Compared to Paris, London may be a dessert desert but there are some oases in our part of this metropolis. They include well-known, long-established institutions, with big reputations and also secret places known only to locals. Some have a bakery on site; all ­provide cakes with firm, crumbly, pastry, filled and/or topped with real fruits and carefully ­prepared creams.
To this tasty combination is added a dollop of skill, a modicum of patience and oodles of savoir faire.

Founded in 1926 by a Walloon from Belgium, Patisserie Valerie (44 Old Compton Street, W1) is a Soho institution. It moved to its current address in 1946, having being bombed out of its original Soho abode during the war. Its tables are still packed and its cakes and coffees remain first class. Nevertheless, its status as a cutting-edge haven for Bohemian ­pastry lovers is in decline – its credibility dented by a private equity acquisition. Moguls are feverishly trying to turn the “Patisserie Valerie brand” into a national chain of multi-faceted, up-market eateries.

Legend says refugees from Paris founded Maison Bertaux (28 Greek Street, W1) in 1870. Loved by Soho locals and still in independent ownership, it continues to cock a snoop at the niceties of contemporary consumerism. Displaying no menu or prices, its tatty, but acclaimed (by some) décor, often leads casual customers to expect cheap prices. But Maison Bertaux charges the going market rate for their well-made cakes and pastries – £2.40 for a pot made with proper tea leaves and £3 for a simple almond cake, baked on site.

Easygoing and relaxed describes Amato (Old Compton Street, W1), another Soho café that attracts drooling ­adulation for its baking prowess. It occasionally offends those who believe that reverence for the customer is more important than first-class produce. The coffee is acclaimed and the tea, served in a china pot, a delight. The cream slice, with its flaky pastry and tasty cream filling, is a match for anything Paris can offer. Expect to pay well over a fiver for coffee and a cream cake.

Sited on the edge of London’s China Town, the spectacular window display at
The Golden Gate Desert House (110 Shaftsbury Avenue, W1) frequently stops passers-by in their tracks. Chinese­-owned, it ­tenders a comprehensive range of authentic ­Chinese deserts and fruit drinks. It also offers dozens of French-style gateaux – all created on site. Technically correct, they are crammed full of cream, chocolate and fruits in various combinations and coupled with light, firm, smooth sponge pastry, to which is added an ingredient rare to London – reasonable prices, from 90p for a small gateau, baked on site and £1 for a small but good cup of white coffee.

French artisan baker Eric Rousseau and his wife Hulya import their flour from French miller La Grande Moule de Paris, then bake bread and pastries in two separate kitchens at La Belle Epoch (37 Newington Green, N16). They are Gauls on a mission, bringing French-style patisserie bliss to an up-and-coming but still largely deprived area of London. They also make chocolates. Among ­several breads is a salmon-shaped loaf .
The coffee is also imported from Paris. The café au lait I drank on Sunday was one of the best I’ve tasted in London, enjoyably milky but with a good pronounced coffee taste.

So far, French-style cakes and tarts have dominated, but this is cosmopolitan, multi­cultural London and there is an exotic pastry alternative.
Baklava, an ancient, baked pastry, made with paper-thin, buttered and layered filo dough. The filo layers are filled with ground and finely chopped walnuts or pistachios and flavoured with various combinations of sugar, lemon juice, honey, spices and rosewater.
It is eaten throughout the Middle East and good quality versions are beginning appear in London. Phoenicia (186-188 Kentish Town Road, NW5) has a big selection, and, in common with all the other establishments mentioned, you can eat in or take away.


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