The secret of French flair
French pastry chef Laurent Bourcier offers tips to local bakeries on creating the perfect pastries.
Published: November 14, 2012 (Issue # 1735)
ALEXANDER BELENKY / SPT
Laurent Bourcier, pastry chef at the Wolkonsky bakery and cafe chain.
It is no secret that Russian chefs have a tendency to adapt foreign dishes to the local market, from spice-free Thai soups to dill-laden pizzas. This month, a French chef visiting the city explained what the term “Russian éclair” means to a French pastry chef. It is an éclair without glazing, and, according to the award-winning French chef Laurent Bourcier, pastry chef at the Wolkonsky bakery and café chain, it appears to exist only in Russia.
The reason for this remains obscure, and it may be rooted in the Soviet-era shortage of culinary ingredients and the habit of making the process of food preparation a quick and convenient experience. The fact is, however, that a real éclair — the way that the French make it — should adhere to certain standards.
Bourcier came to the city this month for a blind tasting of éclairs and croissants that was aimed at raising awareness of the authentic taste of these two of France’s signature items of confectionary.
“When I first came to Russia some eight years ago, I was amazed to find éclairs here in the first place; it seemed such an unlikely item for Russia,” Bourcier said. “My next surprise was that in quite a lot of places it came without glazing, which was replaced in some cases by cream or chocolate dusting. This was quite funny, actually, because the very name éclair means something like lightning, or shine, and the shine refers to the quality of glazing!”
A chef working on an éclair has three key elements to get just right: The glazing, the pastry and the filling.
“The glazing needs to be smooth and solid, without being sticky and overly moist; otherwise it will destroy the pastry,” Bourcier said.
The perfect cream for an éclair is homogenous; the most common mistake that pastry chefs make is that it turns granulated, the chef added.
The blind tasting at the Wolkonsky café on Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt on Nov. 8 illustrated the importance of the balance of ingredients. In some of the samples, the glazing penetrated all the pastry, turning the cake into a sticky mass, in others the chef had overdone the pastry while failing to put enough filling in, but two éclairs appeared to hit the top marks. The samples were bought on the morning of the tasting at seven local bakeries, including Garcon, Bize, Schastie, Bushe and Wolkonsky itself.
The second part of the tasting involved trying the local pastry shops’ efforts to create authentic croissants, with equally ambiguous results.
“There is one item where even the pastry itself is not right,” Bourcier complained. “One of the biggest concerns in Russia is that chefs are forced to economize on ingredients, and it shows in the quality of the product greatly.”
Flaws detected in the croissants included raw pastry, using margarine instead of butter and a lack of volume.
ALEXANDER BELENKY / SPT
Bourcier cuts up locally made croissants for a blind tasting session in St. Petersburg last week.
“The ideal croissant should be buttery and leave soft traces on your fingers; it has to have volume and a deep dark amber color,” said Bourcier.
“One key element of the success of a bakery is that you use hands wherever possible,” Bourcier said. “At Wolkonsky we do most of the work by hand, and I insist on that policy. Pastries made by a machine often do not have enough filling, for example, but more importantly they do not have soul. What is worse, some places that advertize themselves as French bakeries import frozen ingredients or semi-prepared food from France, and then claim that they are selling you genuine French pastries. That is a shame.”
With the prize-winning French chef in command of the pastry section and overseeing quality, as well as providing authentic French pastry recipes, Wolkonsky stops short of emphasizing its French connection.
“There are no French flags or any interior details that could be qualified as obviously French, and this is deliberate as we would like our Russian clients to feel at home,” the chef said. “One funny thing about Wolkonsky is that [when] the French search for it on the Internet, they type ‘Russian bakery Wolkonsky,’ and when the Russians do it, they type ‘French bakery,’” Bourcier added.
When Bourcier needs a quick refuel or a bite to eat, his first choice at Wolkonsky would be a salmon sandwich, he said. For sheer pleasure, he would choose a coffee éclair.
“In France, chocolate and coffee éclairs are some of the most popular desserts; in Russia, by comparison, most people prefer éclairs with vanilla glazing,” he said.
Although various kinds of croissants — including savory ones with a Brie, ham or salmon filling — are multiplying at high speed and are sold around the clock, for Bourcier the ideal time of day to enjoy a croissant is the morning. Breakfast on Saturday or Sunday is ideal, he says.
“When I want to make a nice little surprise for my wife, I leave home on Sunday, early enough, when she is still asleep, and wake her up with the smell of freshly made coffee and croissants,” Bourcier said. “She is usually delighted!”
The world’s second-most authentic croissants, after France, can be found in Japan, Bourcier said. “In Japan, they have a huge respect for French culture and cuisine, and pay extremely close attention to technology,” he said. “In most cities in Japan, there are French bakeries, and the quality is top-notch. The Japanese get to the bottom of things, whatever they do, and it helps them to serve authentic cuisine in their dining establishments.”
Slowly but surely, Russia is also waking up to this culture.
“Everything takes time,” said Bourcier.
“There are now more and more French bakeries popping up in Russian cities, and I am convinced that in about 20 years’ time, most bakeries in Moscow will be able to serve you a croissant of the same standard that you would find in France. You just need a little bit of patience.”