Saturday, January 28, 2006

Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, bakers man...


I'm no baker of cakes, nor maker of pastry. I'm convinced that I don't have the hands for it. They are far too warm. With the rather bracing temperatures in town at the moment I'm the one guy who doesn't really need a pair of gloves. Whilst this means I can warm the girlfriends frozen fingers no matter where we are (being a girl her hands and feet are constantly in a state of cryogenic suspension) it means that I have no chance of making pastry. I watch people who can make pastry well and I've often noted long cool elegant fingers moving gracefully in graceful fluid arcs. I look like I'm digging a drainage ditch. That's not to say that everyone who makes cakes displays the same characteristics as their hands do. A fair few patissiers that I have had the pleasure of knowing, have been foul mouthed, bad tempered and prone to dark thoughts. It probably has something to so with just how exacting baking is. It's not like cooking really, it is purest science which through endless repetition takes on the mantel of high art.

Of course, the great thing is that you obviously just buy a cake, which I have to say is my preferred manner of baking and with London being a mere hop on the train from Paris these days I've noticed a general jump in the quality of cake all round. I have no idea if the two are connected but I like to imagine hoards of itinerant French bakers and patissiers hoping on the Eurostar and getting off at Waterloo already covered in flour. That is not to say that I'm not one for appreciating the great traditions of British baking and in particular British bakeries. There is a part of me that says stuff your fancy tarts, give me a slab of bread and butter pudding, or pile of Eccles cakes or Chelsea buns with a giant pot of tea. I still love going into bakeries and seeing lines of shiny pink and white iced fingers, gingerbread men with Smarties for buttons and handsome square tin loaves of bread, all ready for making doorstep sandwiches.

In terms of London then the godmother of baked goods is Sally Clarke. Since 1988 she has been knocking out some serious bread from her & Clarke bakery next door to her restaurant in Kensington Church Street, along with some stunning pastries. Konditor and Cook, which seem to be popping up all over the place, are probably the great innovators with a very clever and fun approach to patisserie. For a slightly more upright and traditional approach then good old Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street is always a welcome option.

My favourite bakery though, apart from my local, is The Lighthouse Bakery at 64 Northcote Road. These are some hardcore bakers of the humble British loaf, using organic stone ground flour from selected mills and very very long fermentation times. Now that's a slice of bread that needs nothing but some decent butter and a quiet place where no one can hear you moaning, and in my case swearing, with pleasure.

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