‘Croissants are moving on’: the vegan chefs reinventing French pâtisserie

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The Guardian

Rodolphe Landemaine stood in his pâtisserie inspecting the rows of traditional lemon meringue tarts and cream pavlovas. “In France, cakes have to be visual,” he said. “I had to produce something that didn’t just taste amazing but looked elegant.”

The display – from apple tarts to almond-chocolate croissants – resembled any other sumptuous Paris bakery, with one difference: it was all vegan.

France is experiencing a surprise boom in vegan artisan pâtisserie. The meat-heavy nation, whose centuries-old pastry tradition was built on eggs, butter and cream, has been shaken by a new generation of pastry chefs reinventing classics without animal products.

But the crucial twist to this high-end French vegan pâtisserie is that it is not marketed simply at vegans. By aiming to recreate classics that taste better than the original dairy-based versions, and setting up traditional boutiques that meld almost imperceptibly into city streets, the vegan pioneers are winning over an unsuspecting general public, making profits and looking to expand internationally. They see it as subtly changing the world through strawberry tarts.

Vegan cakes behind the counter at Land and Monkeys. Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Guardian

France is not an easy market to crack. According to an Ifop poll in 2020, fewer than 1% of the population is vegan, and the word “vegan” itself had become laden with negative political associations amid rows over activism against butcher shops. France is the European country with the highest beef and veal consumption per inhabitant. But, crucially, 24% of French people identify as flexitarian and are cutting down on meat.

Landemaine, 45, describes himself as a “pure product of French gastronomy”, a classically trained pastry chef from Normandy who worked in Paris’s top pâtisserie houses then opened his own group of classic bakeries. “When I then became a vegan myself, people thought I was joining a sect, really in France they looked at me and said: the boss is weird, he’s gone crazy,” he said.

Landemaine decided that more people in France would go vegan if there was “more on offer that was absolutely delicious, easy to eat and spoke to the history of the French food tradition”. His idea was: “Don’t bin the classics, keep them, but simply bring French pâtisserie into the 21st century.”

He launched his vegan pâtisserie and bakery, Land and Monkeys (named for a return to the earth and our ancestors) just before the Covid pandemic, fearing it might fold after three months. But he now has six shops in Paris, and another opening in the business district La Défense in September.

Vegan custard pie, or flan, on the counter at VG Patisserie. Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Guardian

Although a committed vegan, Landemaine banned the word vegan from the shop, instead using “végétale”, or plant-based, in small print. Many of the regular customers initially don’t know it’s vegan. “People decide it’s good, and only after that can you approach the issues of ethics and environment as the cherry on the cake,” he said. “If it doesn’t taste good, people won’t be open to those ideas”.

The biggest technical challenge was replacing eggs: he launched a separate startup to develop alternative vegetable proteins from potatoes and peas.

“The last country in the world that will go vegan is France, so if this works here, it will take off everywhere,” Landemaine said.

In the east of Paris, Bérénice Leconte, 32, is considered the pioneer of French vegan pâtisserie. She opened the country’s first vegan pastry shop, VG Patisserie, five years ago. But since the easing of Covid restrictions, she has seen a huge rise in demand for her vegan croissants, vanilla flan, pâtisserie and wedding cakes. “What has massively changed is the orders I get now to supply croissants to restaurants and exclusive hotels,” she said. “You can see a mentality shift among major chefs in France. Five years ago no one wanted to talk about vegan pâtisserie; now they’re all interested in trying it. Before, if you asked for a vegan breakfast in a French hotel, it was bread, jam, a fruit salad. That’s not enough any more, because croissants are moving on.”

Vegan croissants at VG. Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Guardian

The trend extends beyond Paris, with vegan pâtisseries such as Oh Faon! in Marseille and Zoï in Lyon. Juliette Draux, who runs L’Instant in the provincial city of Tours, won France’s first vegan pâtisserie prize last autumn, and is known for creations such as apricot and lavender tarts, and chocolate entremets layered with mousse. “There’s a growing demand for vegan pâtisserie because people know it tastes very good,” Draux said. “The image is changing. It used to be that if you said you were vegan, people thought you were going out to graffiti a butcher’s shop.”

Matteo Neri, the director of food industry research at Xerfi analysts in Paris, said the artisan vegan pâtisserie emerging in French cities contrasted with the relatively small French consumption of vegan supermarket products, such as plant milks, fake meats and vegan cheese. His recent report showed sales of vegan products in French supermarkets were less than half of the UK’s, and “progressing relatively slowly” due to “food conservatism” in France.

Patrick Rambourg, a historian of French gastronomy, said: “The success of these plant-based pâtisseries lies in proposing the classics, but done in a different way. For French people, pâtisserie means pleasure. The young plant-based pastry chefs have understood how to anchor into the French landscape by operating like a traditional neighbourhood pâtisserie, offering beautiful cakes for everyone. The taste corresponds to our traditions.”

At Land and Monkeys, Valentine, 20, a maths student, was eating a cinnamon roll. She wasn’t vegan and hadn’t noticed at first that the boutique was. “You can’t tell the difference,” she said. “In fact, I think it’s better than standard pâtisserie. I’ll be back.”

Vegan cakes at Land and Monkeys. Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Guardian

A short guide to vegan pâtisserie in France

Croissants French vegan bakers say their biggest challenge is reproducing the appearance and melt-in-the-mouth effect of a traditional butter croissant, while avoiding a margarine aftertaste. Considered the hardest vegan pastry to succeed at.

Millefeuille Thin layers of crispy, flaky pastry layered with cream. The key to vegan versions of this classic is achieving contrasting textures. The cream is often almond or soya-based, sometimes with cornflour.

Tarte au citron The traditional French lemon tart can stand alone or be made with a meringue top, sometimes based on aquafaba, or bean water. Vegan pâtisserie chefs focus on the quality and zing of the lemon cream filling, with a high fruit-content.

Vanilla flan One of France’s most popular “everyday” pastries, the challenge is replacing the eggs. Some use a pinch of turmeric to create the yellow colour.

July 15, 2022 at 08:07PM Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

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