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Preparing Christmas in August

by Sarah Elzas

Article published on the 2008-08-15 Latest update 2008-08-15 14:06 TU

Petits fours from the Grande Epicerie(Photo: S Elzas)

Petits fours from the Grande Epicerie
(Photo: S Elzas)

Walk into any pastry shop in Paris these days (if you can find one open, that is), and you will see fresh summer fruit tarts on display. But behind the scenes, the chefs are already thinking ahead to the busy Christmas season. Pastry shops are always one step ahead, managing stocks and preparing for the crunch, so that customers always have their products right on time.

The kitchens of the Grande Epicerie de Paris, the gourmet food shop
attached to the upscale Bon Marché department store, are down in the
basement, away from the August sunshine.

Visitors need to put on plastic booties over their shoes, wear a hairnet and a plastic coat to keep dirt and germs from the outside world out of the kitchen, like going into a hospital operating room.

In the pastry lab, half a dozen people in white coats and chequered
pants work at stainless steel counters, stirring creams, folding
croissants or glazing cakes.

Cakes just out of the oven(Photo: S Elzas)

Cakes just out of the oven
(Photo: S Elzas)

Sarah Tyler manages the petit gateaux - small cakes - section. She and her team make the petits-fours, the bite-sized pastries served at weddings
and brunches. Today they are working on test batches of creams that
will be considered as part of the fall "collection".

 "We have little chocolate boxes that will be filled with different fillings," she explains. "We have a tart. We have a cake that we'll probably be doing tomorrow."

Tyler moves quickly between the counter and her stocks. Then she shows off what is one of the most important tools a pastry chef has: her freezer.

There are several room-sized freezers in the pastry lab. Inside, trays
of finished tarts and cakes are stacked on wheeled carts, ready to be
sold upstairs in the boutique. Along the freezer walls are towers of
labelled white Styrofoam boxes.

Pointing to a stack, Tyler explains their contents: "Those are
cheesecakes. We did them last week. And those will take me hopefully
until November."

She explains that every pastry chef uses freezers. "Nothing, except if
it's a fresh fruit tart, is fresh," she says.

Sarah Tyler prepares ingredients(Photo: S Elzas)

Sarah Tyler prepares ingredients
(Photo: S Elzas)

"I've been in little stores, in big stories, and everybody works with
freezers. It's simply not possible, with the amount of products we have
and the staff we have, to make everything fresh every single day."

Summertime is a slow season for pastries, so Tyler and the
neighbouring cake section are starting to prepare for the Christmas
season, which is the busiest time of the year. They have to prepare
hundreds of bûches, the traditional Yule log cakes, as well as
galettes, puff-pastry king-cakes that are eaten at the beginning of

A galette, or king-cake

A galette, or king-cake

"We'll start those in October and November, for January," explains
Tyler about the king cakes. "Even making them in November we still
have to make some all through January. We'll make about 10,000. During the holidays, we're probably using 200 kilos of butter for the puff

The lab has started making the components for the Yule log cakes,
which will be frozen and stocked. "Then starting in December,
production will stop and it will shift into decoration," explains
Tyler. "We decorate them almost as fast as we sell them."

A bûche, or Christmas log(Photo: S Elzas)

A bûche, or Christmas log
(Photo: S Elzas)

Freezing these cakes is not like putting something into your home
freezer. It involves a flash freezer. "Anything that is going to be
frozen needs to be put into a flash freezer, which will bring any
product down to a very cold temperature," explains Tyler. In her lab
that is -30° C. "Then it can be put in our regular freezer, which is negative 20° C."

Tyler and her team finish up the day's tests. They and the head chef
will choose their favourites, and by October they will be in

Later, outside in the warm August sun, it's hard to imagine these
busy chefs underground, working away at making Christmas, like so many
of Santa's helpers. It's all in a summer's work.


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