If you became vegan before 2017, chances are you had a conversation with yourself about what you’d never be able to eat ever again once you’d made the leap.
Was it fish and chips? Pastries? Doughnuts? Steak and chips? Perhaps you even had one last blow out non vegan meal before saying no to animal exploitation.
But then 2017 came and all the foods we had waved goodbye to all of a sudden had been veganised and once more available to us.
Vegan pies, chocolate spreads, fish cakes and more were now available and even vegan cheese finally became palatable.
Vegan restaurants weren’t simply vegan restaurants anymore but restaurants where all kinds of people would go to because, well, the food had finally become so good. Forget the ubiquitous bowl of rice and vegetable, we are talking tasty dishes: vegan meats and cheese, delicious desserts, carbonara with facon no piggies had to die for, but we would to have just one more forkful.
But in a mountain of vegan cupcakes, fried Orios, sweet pies and ice-cream, perhaps one thing had not quite been nailed yet: French vegan pâtisserie.
Enter Clarisse Flon, a young French pastry chef who, armed with talent, ambition, tenacity, entrepreneurial streak and first and foremost passion, has come to save our sweet tooth and changed all of that.
After dropping out of school at 17, Clarisse wanted to became a pâtisserie chef but couldn’t get an apprenticeship in France. This did not deter her and instead she bought the recipe books the French National Professional Certificate is based on and for a year she got busy baking.
Twelve months later (instead of the usual 24) Clarisse sat her pastry exams and passed.
Clarisse gained her experience working in the kitchens of many well known eateries including Cafe Royal and Aubaine in London and Hotel Cheval Blanc in St Barths. Sadly for her - but luckily for us - soon after she developed a chronic digestive illness which led her to look at food in a different way, become a vegan and little by little tostart veganising all those beautiful traditional French pâtisserie recipes she’d spent years learning and perfecting.
With the vegan movement growing so fast in the UK, Clarisse started her own business selling her delectable pastries at various markets in the capital and building up a list of private customers until she was approached by La Suite West Hotel in Bayswater and soon after London’s first French vegan pâtisserie was born.
Part of La Suite West Hotel, Café Forty-One is nestled in a pretty Bayswater street lined with beautiful whitewashed Victorian townhouses. It’s a lovely place with long tables with benches surrounded by trees outside the main entrance, whilst inside, the restaurant is minimalistic chic and quiet, perfect for a tête-à-tête.
Café Forty-One is not just a pâtisserie, it also serves breakfast and lunch, but today I’m here to sample their high tea and not having had any pastries for years, saying that I’m looking forward to it is an understatement.
I’m sat down at a table of my choice and soon a perfectly polite waiter brings me my choice of tea, English breakfast, and a glass of non-alcoholic elderflower and pomegranate fizz (the hotel and the cafe’ don’t serve alcohol).
Soon after, carefully arranged on a three-tier tray, the pretty pastries and scrumptious looking sandwiches make their entrance.
The lovely Polish waitress proceeds to tell me what I’m about to be feasting on: plain and raisin scones served with homemade fruit compote, chantilly cream and orange blossom vegan honey; a pineapple cake; a dainty pistachio and chocolate baba; lemon meringue tart; a macaroon filled with a rooibos tea cream; BLT sandwich with aubergine ‘bacon’ on sourdough; a brioche roll with cream cheese and vegan ‘smoked salmon’, made from carrot; chipotle cheese with caramelised onion chutney and rocket on rye bread and hummus and cucumber on farmhouse loaf.
I waste no time and tuck in and every single item impresses.
The pineapple cake is sticky, moist and fluffy and the caramelised brown sugar at the bottom adds a delightful crunchiness; the macaroon shell, made with aquafaba crumbles and then melts in my mouth to reveal the sweet earthiness of rooibos. I follow with the zingy meringue tart, a joy of lightness and freshness.
The pistachio and chocolate baba is pure indulgence in one bite and the scones are crumbly and perfect with my tea.
The sandwiches are packed with flavour too. I love the smokiness of the carrot ‘salmon’ and the punchiness of the chipotle and the BLT whilst the hummus and cucumber in farmhouse loaf is delicate rather than an overload of garlic and lemon.
This is a vegan high tea but in truthfulness the only thing that gives away the fact that it’s plant-based is that at the end of it I don’t feel full, rather delightfully satiated. As for flavour, this really can hold its own and has nothing to envy to the animal product-laden variety.
At £35 per person, this is a well-priced treat that must be sampled. I will be sure to come again, but first you’ll find me here for breakfast and lunch. The savoury mushroom and black bean porridge and the sweet potato dauphinois with crispy pulled aubergine have already my name on it.
For more information visit Café Forty-One
Five Minutes with Clarisse Flon: Tips and Tricks of French Vegan Pâtisserie
What’s the main challenge you are faced with recreating French pâtisserie without using animal products?
Everything is a challenge! French pâtisserie is very technical, probably one of the hardest. We have a lot of techniques, a lot of rules.
Learning it the first time around is very hard, so when I wanted to take out eggs, dairy, animal products, it turned out to be very difficult but I tried a lot of different stuff, and now I have a few basic (techniques).
I started doing this four, five years ago. At the beginning is was very hard, I made some terrible cakes! But you tweak things, you find a way, you do a lot of research. I look at recipes and (ask myself)…there is an egg in here, what is the purpose of the egg? Is it to keep the cake moist? Fluffy? To bind the ingredients?
Now that I’m more comfortable in my practice I think vegan products have a lot to offer. There’s a variety of different plant milks, they all have different textures, different tastes. They all bring something different. It’s the same with margarine. There are a lot of different ones. It takes a while to see which ones work in different preparations but then it’s great because you can really aim for the perfect texture and the perfect taste using different kinds of things.
What ingredients have you found the hardest to swap for a non animal one?
Eggs, definitely! You know, butter is mostly a taste, margarine is a perfect substitute, milk is the same, we have very good plant-based milk now, but egg… it is so hard to substitute because it has a very particular role and reaction in a recipe. Like in choux pastry for example.
What’s been the most challenging thing to veganise, that perhaps you have yet to master?
Choux pastry! We are not there yet. I’ve tried different starches, egg substitutes, but I don’t want to use egg replacers. I don’t like them, most of them don’t taste good, they taste a bit chemical. I’d rather work out a way without them. It’s still tricky.
Do you use instead of eggs? Flaxseed?
No I never use it. When I started, I was always, “OK there’s an egg in this recipe I need to replace it with something else'“, but then the more comfortable I got, I realised, I didn’t need to replace it, it’s not the right way of thinking. You don’t need to replace it. Make a different recipe, work your way around it. There are lots of pastries (we don’t use egg substitutes in - ed). We don’t use them in scones, we don’t use them in the financier.
For meringue we use aqua faba and for the crème pâtissière we use corn starch instead of eggs.
There are a few basics in French pâtisserie. Once you master them, you learn to build on that.
If somebody wanted to recreate a vegan French pâtisserie recipe at home, what would you suggest they’d start with?
I don’t really know. People ask me this question all the time. I always say, I have five years of training for a reason and professional kitchens are very different, we have very different ingredients. If I make mille-feuille for example, there are five (stages) of preparation - not everyone is willing to put up with that! But there are things you can do at home. You can make a nice fruit tart. Get the vegan crème pâtissière right and then you can do a lot of different things with that.