BEIRUT: For years the pinnacle for pastries has been set by French patisseries – a standard followed closely by Lebanon’s well-regarded pastry producers. While traditional French desserts are still widely popular, new innovators have hit Beirut’s patisserie scene, beginning to offer products inspired by countries other than France and melding them with tastes native to Lebanon.
Most of Beirut’s top patisseries are of the French persuasion – from the smaller operations of Pate a Choux in Sodeco, Cannelle in Tabaris and Hamra’s new kid on the block Gustav, to the larger-scale producers La Cigale and Aziz.
But for Khaled Kara, one of the owners of Gustav, the time has come to break with tradition.
“The market had been stagnant for a long, long time, offering the same products for god knows how long. You can go into some pastry shops and they have been presenting the same cakes for the past 30 years. It is good to hold on to certain products that are more traditional, however, the world hasn’t stopped there,” Kara says, adding that Gustav was founded as an answer, to be adventurous and experiment with new flavors.
Some of the innovations Kara and his team have come up with include new flavor combinations – like morello cherry and pistachio – or drawing on French or oriental techniques and combining them into a single pastry.
“Being a French patisserie in Lebanon, we try to bring some elements that are local into the French pastry with a twist,” says Kara. As such, a very successful item for Gustav was their pomegranate tart: “It’s made from the local fruit, particular to the region ... but we brought it into a French tart and the discovery was amazing.”
Gustav has also benefitted from young patrons who are willing to try something new, like Gustav’s cake balls, which have a very dense and moist texture and are available in fun colors and interesting flavors such as red velvet with white chocolate, raspberry, mango and passion fruit, Belgian chocolate, chocolate with peanut butter, chocolate with caramel, carrot cake and blue velvet with blueberries.
“We find the more mature clients tend to be more classical in their approach of what a cake is, what it should taste like and look like. When we come to younger generations, they’re more adventurous trying and experimenting with new flavors, new textures,” says Kara.
Gustav also offers a recent favorite among the Lebanese, red velvet cake, and now makes a line of sweets catered to those adhering to special diets such as gluten-free, sugar-free and vegan cakes, which are hard to find.
At Aziz and La Cigale, the pastry offerings are wide-ranging with traditional French cakes and newer, American style or custom order options.
“People ask from time to time for something new but they always come back for the traditional French pastries,” says Rony Abi Aad, manager of Aziz.
While at La Cigale, manager Adel Harb remarks the Lebanese “especially want French pastries for their special events or to mark a special occasion.”
Cannelle, which has been operating for over 20 years, also caters to the French pastry traditionalists, but with an eye on particular Lebanese tastes.
“The Lebanese public does not like very creamy or heavy desserts,” says Colette Haddad, owner of Cannelle. As a result, Haddad has created desserts with light textures and flavors, but in the tradition of French cakes.
“We’ve come up with our own variations of lighter desserts. We make a special, traditional cake with strawberries. Now many patisseries have similar versions. It’s made of two layers of almost meringue-like flaky pastry – not too chewy or too crunchy – filled inside with light cream with little apricots and full of strawberries. It’s almost as though you’re eating fruit more than cake and it’s not overly creamy,” Haddad continues, adding another of Cannelle’s most popular cakes is a red fruit crumble.
In addition to tarts and cakes, Cannelle’s croissants are a also favorite among their customers – including a denser but still flaky almond version – and other classics like the eclair and flaky layered mille-feuille.
While not known for deviating from French classics, Haddad enjoys experimenting with their multicolored macaroons. “We change them and try new flavors all the time,” she says, listing the varieties: strawberry, passion fruit with milk chocolate, pistachio, almond cream, caramel, coffee, dark chocolate, lemon, vanilla and rose water.
French-trained pastry maker Anne-Marie Bassoul, who does private orders, supplies local eateries and has a popular booth at Souk el-Tayeb, agrees with Haddad’s assessment that light pastries are a popular among Lebanese who favor her lemon-meringue pie.
“I make the lemon meringue pie in a way so it is not very heavy. I try to make it less buttery and less sugary. People like that,” says Bassoul.
She also notes that light pastries are suited to the summer: “We live in a hot country so as soon as spring arrives people turn to the red fruits and lighter things, like ice cream and sherbert.”
Ice cream cakes and treats become hot sellers in hot weather, Haddad and Kara have also found, as well as the seasonal fruits.
“We try to use seasonal fruit as much as possible. We’re anxiously awaiting figs for our fig and walnut tart and we’re waiting on plums,” says Kara.
Regardless of pastry genre, all producers agree the key for a tasty outcome is using quality ingredients. Many must go to great lengths to acquire vanilla from Tahiti, cream and butter from France, and Swiss chocolate. Both Cannelle and Gustav even import eggs from France.
“We import frozen egg yolks and egg white because, unfortunately, we cannot make sure there is no bacteria in the eggs produced here in Lebanon,” Haddad explains.
As trite as the saying may be, the proof is in the pudding – good ingredients and creative kitchens will turn out great pastries, Kara says.
“No matter how well you decorate it, it can look wonderful on the outside but the minute you bite into it, it immediately reveals what is inside. The Lebanese people are not easily fooled. They know their food. Their culture is based around food. Don’t mess with their palates.”