Behind the Scenes column: Pastry haute cuisine on the Haut Plateau
August 5, 2013
Editor's note: This is the first installment in a two-part series. Check back next week to read part two.
In June, I embarked on a three-week trip to Switzerland and Italy. Since food and wine dominated most waking moments of our trip – and our nighttime dreams — I came home with a cornucopia of stories to share. Over the last two weeks, I told you about my adventures in Valliera, a resurrected hamlet in the mountains of western Piemonte. Now it's time to go back to the start, and share some of the culinary and oenological high points of this magical trip.
Our first stop was Crans-Montana, Switzerland, on the Haut Plateau above the Rhone River valley. Two towns – Crans and Montana — comprise the popular south-facing ski station. It was my home for over two decades and still tugs on my heartstrings. Truly, I am blessed to call the Rockies home, but I still feel a strong connection with Valais, particularly when it comes to friends and my daily routines involving food.
One of those daily routines was a trip to Boulangerie Taillens on Avenue de la Gare in Montana, usually to buy bread, often to buy pastries and chocolates. These artisans delight in their "pleasure of making pleasure" driven by a "passion for taste." Each time I return to Valais, my trip begins with a visit to Taillens.
Oscar and Berthe Taillens created the boulangerie (bakery) bearing their family name in 1943. Through the following decades, the family business evolved into an emporium of bread, pastry, chocolate, ice cream and delicious beverages, hot and cold. In 1987, eleven years after their expansion to Crans, Berthe and sons Reto and Guido opened the family's first tea room, the result of a major renovation of the boulangerie. Today, award winning Taillens is a treasured landmark on the Haut Plateau.
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I fell in love with Taillens' delicious treats 1986. Truth be known, the Montana shop is my favorite. Perhaps it's because it's where I most often find Reto Taillens who proclaims a jolly "bonjour" to his patrons. Who cannot have a good day when a passionate artisan gives such sincere expression of gratitude for your patronage? It's one safe harbor where time stands still while the world outside changes, not always for the better.
Stepping through the sliding doors of the Montana shop is no less a sensory overload for me now than it was decades ago. All of their homemade products engage the five senses. It's immediately evident that attention to detail and an abundant range of choices for clients dominate the family's philosophy.
On the right are three-tiered glass cases filled with an array of pastries and savories. The displays containing a colorful array of cakes, pies and tarts are closest to the door, acting as a magnet to draw in unsuspecting pastry buffs. On the left, refrigerated cases of the award winning confectionery's homemade cocoa creations call out for attention. Once you're in, you're hooked. There is no escaping the sights and smells that greet you.
The choice of painstakingly handcrafted pastries is mind blowing. In early June, the sweet, juicy Valais strawberries that grow in the flat, fertile valley below elevate their usually delicious strawberry tart to a new level. Later in summer, famous Valais apricots from the central valley's south side that resemble small nectarines make for delicious tartes aux abricots (apricot tarts). Tarts made with rhubarb, raspberries, blueberries and berries of the forest are also available. I haven't counted, but I'm sure there's a different fruit tart for each day of the week.
The choice of cakes and other tarts is no less enticing. Cakes with candied fruit and rum raisins, chocolate-hazelnut cakes filled with ganache and icing, simple, but delectable "Le Citron Liquid" — a tart of lemons and butter cream piped into in a crumbly crust — and "Bride's Cakes" are but some of the vast array of cakes available.
You don't want to buy an entire cake or tart? Not to worry. Smaller portions are available. Petit fours, small tarts and cakes are great to enjoy in the tea room with your coffee or tea. When you order, you'll be asked, "Pour manger ici?" Just answer, "Oui." You will want to eat it here. The smiling clerk will place your choice on a plate, hand it to you with a fork and cheerfully wish you "Bon appetit."
Further down the shop's right side are glass cases filled with quiches, sandwiches, croissants, flakey sausage rolls and other sweet pastries such as "La Pomme Rape" (streusel covered grated apples and hazelnuts). My dad used to go with my husband Dani to Taillens to buy bread and sausage rolls. Somehow, they always arrived home with one or two less rolls than what they bought. Obviously, the flaky, buttery pastry encasing fresh sausage was just too much to resist.
No days without bread
Prominent on the Taillens website is the quote, "A day without bread is a day with nothing." The same quality standards applied to the pastries and savories that emerge from Taillens' kitchen are applied to the breads that are the foundation of the boulangerie's existence.
In French, bread is "pain." Taillens gives a meaning to each letter to describe their dedication to the alchemy of grain, yeast, water and salt that creates the artisanal breads they sell each day. P is for passion, A for artisan, I for innovation and N for the natural ingredients they use. Simple enough formula for success.
The broad range of breads found on display at Taillens include, crispy baguettes, famous "Pain Seigle Valaisan AOC" (walnut rye bread), specialty breads for all occasions, and the wildly popular Pain Paillasse (pronounced "PIE-yaz"). It's this last one I want to spend a moment describing to you.
In Praise of Paillasse
Taillens proclaims Paillasse is the "Grand Cru of the Bakery." It's certainly a well-deserved moniker for this bread that is so delicious it should be illegal! Made under license from its creator, Geneva master baker Aime Pouly, Paillasse requires three days for fabrication. All good things come to those who wait. This is one good thing well worth the wait.
Day one, the yeast is prepared. Day two, the dough is kneaded. By day three, the dough is shaped into signature long, twisted shapes and baked. The secret of Paillasse's character is in the special flour Pouly developed specifically for his patented and trademarked bread. The result is nutrient rich bread with a crispy crust around a tasty interior of irregular porosity.
Now 20 years old, Paillasse has become so popular that there are more than 1,200 points of sale in Switzerland and is found elsewhere in Europe. From its humble, simple flavor, Paillasse is now available in a myriad of tastes including sesame, multi-grain and olive.
Oscar and Berthe would be proud to see their creation doing so well in the hands of Taillens' second and third generations. Reto's son, Nicolas, is the creative genius behind Taillens' panoply of "fait a la maison" (homemade) cocoa creations. What began as a simple boulangerie is now a "Boulangerie-Patisserie-Confiserie-Salon-de-The (bakery, pastry, confectionary and tea room). Come back next week and we'll explore Nicolas' chocolates and enjoy pastries and coffee in the tea room.