‘Just Teddy’ makes petit fours from two Parises
There’s Paris and then there’s the other Paris, that great and complex city in the Levant, on the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon. Baker Teddy Zaki says he’s always felt something of both, or maybe a little bit between, the patisserie influences of the two cities.
I try to think of typical French flavours, like the hint of lemon in madeleines, of real vanilla in financiers, canelles and frangipane cream, of almond flavoured pastry. I remember umami-sweet strawberry fillings or sour-sweet raspberry, tea or conserve of pétales de rose.
Then I try to think of Lebanese flavours without looking in the book, like kataifi drenched in pistachio, attar rosewater or lemon syrups. There’s the orange blossom flavour of baklava. What about saffron cream mixed with pistachio, sometimes as bastani or ice cream? Sometimes there’s a flicker of cardamom in my taste memory. There’s vanilla of course and more rose, yes, rose. Rose scent and its damask petal flavour are twined together. It is nothing like that candified, sickly-sweet ‘rosewater’ of supermarket sweets.
There’s a part in his big, beautiful book where Teddy Zaki says, “I am a Lebanese baker who owns a Fine Boulangerie and Pâtisserie. People seldom understand the connection between the two.”
I’ve known his patisserie since his days at the Just Teddy table within The Sheds market at 1 Fox. The sensual beauty of it has always been the very combination of those looks, scents and flavours from the two Parises, though I didn’t think of it like that in those days. I just admired and raved about the way that Just Teddy combined French patisserie with middle eastern tastes in an extraordinarily delicious manner.
“Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, was known as the Paris of the Middle East. Throughout its history people have married across the two cultures. So being Lebanese with French ancestry, it made sense for me to go down the Fine Boulangerie and Pâtisserie route,” Teddy explains in his book, Petals from Paris.
At the book launch, at Just Teddy in Hyde Park, the tables are exquisite, laid with roses, pastel china, champagne and tea glasses. It’s an adjective that floats up in my mind a lot and is one my table mate, Hannelie Diedericks and I trade. The champagne is exquisite too but I love it poured this way into coupe glasses rather than flutes. In my childhood, I remember people making toasts at weddings and things with these wide glasses and most of the champagne would tip over your shoes. My father said it was no bad thing because it was hardly ever decent champagne anyway. This is. I haven’t said that the book looks exquisite too. Most exquisite. The patisserie and the bites of boulangerie, well, they are exquisite too. There is no need to think of another word.
There’s another part in his book where Zaki mentions he was once told that every petal of a flower is a prayer. A lot of petals are used at Just Teddy, particularly rose petals, petals in the Just Teddy attar of roses, even in the strawberry jam or conserve. They drift over cakes and onto the counters. The best rosewater has to come from Lebanon, Teddy has long realised. At Just Teddy are many, many petals for many beautiful thoughts and actions, which may be prayers. These many prayer petals come from our flower market in the south, from selected sources who grow “real roses” and don’t ever spray them.
A grand succession of platters of savouries, like Just Teddy’s own dark chocolate-studded ciabatta rolls, stuffed with rare roast beef and horseradish, and sweeter wonders like his concorde confections all nestle in a flurry of velvety petals at the book launch.
Teddy’s attar of roses that he makes appears and reappears as an ingredient in his fine work, a fine work in itself.
Tears prickle the corners of my eyes when Teddy finally leads a procession of people carrying laden trays, fronted by two towering croquembouches, gauzy swathes of the syrup threads gathered around the pastries, glittering gold and magnificent. Hannelie and I glance at each other. Just exquisite.
I have shown a picture in my Petals from Paris book to food-traveller friend, David Brunton, who, like me, is egg mad. The picture is of za’atar spiced breakfast eggs so we have met up here in Hyde Park for those too, which feature on the Just Teddy menu in the Liban egg dish. I forget that, unlike me, Brunton also likes to quote Jay Rayner about halloumi being “the underachiever of the cheese world”, this despite his having spent time in the Levant.
I see he has plenty to distract him from the halloumi on his plate and he immediately recommends some Eastern beans on the outer edge and the housemade hummus. He has man’ouche bread and the glorious centrepiece, the za’atar eggs. Soon he holds up a section of bitten-from coated and fried halloumi. He says, “Clearly Rayner is not eating the right halloumi.” I breathe out and get on with my Beirut Scramble. This, incidentally, turns out to be another wow, my eggs gently scrambled, with crumbled lamb on a hummus flatbread, under a lavish sprinkle of toasted pine nuts. What we agree on is that the attention to all the elements on especially Brunton’s plate is like the process of producing fine patisserie. There’s always a lot of fine detail.
I also order, to take with me, a couple of ma’amoul, the famous date pastries with patterns on their mounded tops. They arrive in a small beribboned box. The next day Brunton will call to ask if I’ve eaten both and could he have “his” one.
I have coffee with Teddy. His son Jeff joins us later, who I know better from frequenting Just Teddy here in its Hyde Park days. Teddy tells me that whatever pastry you buy in Beirut, there is always some sense of occasion attached to its being beautifully wrapped or boxed with ribbons.
We also talk about the wooden spoons that shape the ma’amoul. Teddy says that, not having been able to get them here or even order them from Lebanon, when he visited there “they were all over, cheap as chips”. He has a collection now, even of tiny ones, which no-one may wash with any soap, cleaning them instead with toothpicks and rebuttering them.
That takes us to pastry, to the semolina sort, the French almond sort and we even talk about marzipan, how Teddy used to strip pieces of it from cakes for sly consumption when he was younger. He says it’s interesting that, with renewed popularity of French petits fours, he still wraps the cake pieces in marzipan, as traditionally done once, before icing them. He would.
Teddy’s dad was the Zaki that stowed away as a teenager on a boat, to come to South Africa. He brought all his expectations of food traditions with him nevertheless and, after he married a South African Lebanese woman, she was reintroduced to them.
The woman who lived next door to the Zakis then, turned out to have been one of the passengers on the stowaway’s boat. She would remind Teddy’s father that he had to be specially nice to her because she’d taken to the boy on board ship, fed him and “kept him alive”.
Teddy hung around and helped in the big Zaki kitchen, the room where everyone gathered and ate while cooking and baking was going on. Gradually he realised he was becoming really passionate about baking, about the finesse of patisserie. It overwhelmed him and he got every book there was about it. His children have done their chef and hospitality studies but Teddy immersed himself, practising, practising.
I ask him what he does with his free time these days. He says he cooks. He laughs at what he’s just said. He says it just makes him happy and I can see it does.
We chat about the public and how customers often want him to add chocolate to pastries that do not have it. It’s that thing that often annoys me, when people try to dictate to a chef what they want to eat, when they have come to that place because of what the chef does. It can be depressing to many chefs. Teddy says he likes people to be happy too so he often provides what they ask for. When people don’t appreciate something like his beautiful but time consuming entremets, he just adds them to his popular “high teas, where people eat EVERYTHING”. They soon discover how excellent something you’ve never tried can be.
Talking to a customer about making his gorgeous glossy apple entremets, he hadn’t got to the end before she interrupted him and said, “Lovely – then I’m sure you can make me an apple crumble.” He didn’t? He did.
When I leave, I see Teddy has quietly had parcelled up a gift of four petits fours for me, in a box with one of his lavish satin ribbons. What he didn’t say when we spoke about them, is that his are really two petit fours in each one, or on each one, let’s say. The little cake squares are sandwiched by flavoured cream before they even get their marzipan and icing coatings. So they are a little taller than most, in their confectionery papers. And they are exquisitely, I have to say again, iced. One is lemon with tiny-tiny glace lemon bits on the icing. The pistachio one has iced nut grindings. The cherry petit four has a cherry blossom motif and actual cherries in the cream, like a combination of flavours from both Parises. Need I say that the rose one features a real rosebud with petals and “the best I’ve ever had” taste of Just Teddy’s Fine Patisserie. DM/TGIFood
Just Teddy, Hyde Park Corner Shopping Centre. 010 203 9038
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.
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