Marie Tagliaferro at ‘helmut newcake’ may be the only pastry chef to offer gluten-free patisserie delicacies in pastry-loving France.
Some customers burst into tears when they first bite into one of her cakes. It’s not just that they’re good… they’re gluten-free.
Marie Tagliaferro is one of the very few — if not the only pastry chef in pastry-loving France — to offer customers such delicacies in a country where gluten intolerance has long been considered a problem of the very young.
When customers call at her small Paris shop, they always ask “is it really gluten-free?” says her husband Francois, the bakery’s owner-manager.
“And we say, yes, I promise, it’s gluten-free… And they are very emotional, they start to eat the cakes and we have some people who are moved to tears because they haven’t had a religieuse (a glazed puff pastry) or a lemon meringue tart for 15 years,” he adds.
It might not quite be the stuff of Marcel Proust’s madeleine recollections, but for people deprived for years of a chocolate eclair, the Tagliaferro shop has proved a godsend.
Cakes and pastries were always Marie’s life. But a few years ago doctors told her she had a severe intolerance to gluten — a protein found in cereals such as wheat — which can cause chronic diarrhoea and vomiting.
She thought she would never again be able to enjoy her own pastry creations. But now she’s has opened ‘helmut newcake’, a patisserie dedicated to gluten-free versions of the best French pastries.
“I did some tests… at the start I just used exactly the same recipes I learnt in traditional patisserie, and then I adapted them according to the results,” she explains.
“For example, with choux pastry you want the air to escape but I couldn’t use the same approach with gluten-free dough because it goes all over the place. So, if we don’t know, we just try it and see if it works!” she says.
A medical intolerance to gluten, known as coeliac disease, affects up to one person in 100.
A national icon
And while in many countries it’s a standard dietary variation, in France, where gluten-based foodstuffs are almost a national icon, the disease is still under-diagnosed and little known.
For Brigitte Jolivet, president of French Association of Gluten Intolerence, little is done for French sufferers.
“In textbooks from 20 or 30 years ago, doctors were taught that coeliac disease was a disease of children which disappeared in adolescence, so it wasn’t something adults had,” she says.
“So doctors who trained 20 or 30 years ago — for them the discussion’s over. And it’s true that the baguette is one of the symbols of France, so cutting out bread isn’t easy here, it’s difficult,” she adds.
Even for those without coeliac disease, a gluten-free diet is popular on health grounds — meaning anyone can enjoy the pastries here, and if Marie’s done her job properly, you won’t even know the difference.
So far, the reaction has been far more enthusiastic than they expected. If things go well, Marie and her husband plan to soon start tackling the next symbol of French cuisine — home-made gluten-free baguettes.