Pastries and cakes are not necessary for our survival but they’re a comfort food. We usually share desserts with the people we love and to celebrate life events like birthdays and weddings, etc. Pastries are associated with happy thoughts. Who doesn’t have fond memories of their mother or grandma’s pies (or rice pudding in my case)?
Claire Damon is using the power of sweets to elicit positive emotions in people. She’s drawing her inspiration from her own recollection of her childhood in Aveyron.
A militant baker: Pleasure and sustainability
She believes that ‘what we eat and what we buy are political acts’. She gives the example of her galette des rois. Starting in 2019 she will make it with almonds harvested in France only. These almonds are 3 times more expensive than California almonds but they’re not flown from halfway across the globe… She says she’d rather have her clients indulge in a galette three times a year instead of four but she will make sure these three times are exceptional. If you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, the same goes for making exceptional pastries with sub-par ingredients.
She wants to encourage buying responsibly. Over-consuming lessens the impact of things. Galette is meant to be a special cake (see my previous post here). Back in the days it was enjoyed on January 6, now it’s sold during the whole month of January but doesn’t it defeat its purpose? She’s also carefully selecting the materials of all her packaging to make sure it’s sustainable from the way it’s produced to the way it gets disposed of.
She has about 40 suppliers she knows personally and who can get the best organic local products for her (pears and apples, walnuts from Grenoble, Guerande sea salt…). She regrets that flour nowadays contains 10 to 150 times the amount of gluten it contained decades ago. The gluten helps make pretty baguettes but that’s why people started to develop allergies, our body isn’t meant to ingest that much gluten on a daily basis. To counter that she’s found a local supplier who will make the flour she wants. The biggest challenge she faces is with dairy. To increase the production of milk, most of the farmers switched to breeds that produce a lot of milk and used methods to further increase volumes. As a result the milk and butter are of a lower quality and contain a higher amount of the proteins that most commonly cause allergies.
Her goal isn’t to build an empire, she’d rather stay small (2 shops at the moment) and make sure she stays true to her values and her roots.
Elegance and emotions
She likes working with fruits more than chocolate but she carries a couple of chocolate cakes and pastries to satisfy her customers’ demands. She admits it’s not her best creation though (from what I’ve tasted, I can agree to that). Fruits are just a better source of inspiration for her, their colors, smells and the memories attached to them. For her fruits symbolize sharing and it’s just what she wants to do with us: share pastries and emotions (hers and ours).
She finds inspiration in the product itself and she creates desserts to showcase specific fruits (lemon tart, pear tart…) or she creates pastries inspired by an emotion, music, memories, meeting someone special…
As I mentioned before, she only works with fruits that are in season and her pastries are free from artificial food coloring. She only uses fruit purees as natural food coloring (which adds to her costs even more) and is adamant that icing be just an elegant finishing touch, it shouldn’t overpower the taste or the look of the cake itself, which is the complete opposite to what most pastry shops in North America do. To me this approach sums up French pastry arts; taste and emotions over shallow appearances.
I like Claire Damon because of all of the above and because she’s humble and truly passionate about her art. You won’t see her in TV shows or giving lessons about baking. She’s just happy to be in the kitchen, baking cakes with her team and creating new pastries. Or even at the front serving customers like when I visited this year. I think you need that level of dedication to succeed in the way she’s chosen to conduct her business.