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By Kerri McConnel
Authentic French croissants and bread in Brisbane
Mounds of buttery croissants have the shop filled with a soft, toasty aroma. The smell of freshly baked bread also permeates the air, creating a heady scent. I’m transported back to France, to my favourite regional bakeries. I’m not in France, but I’m in the next best thing. I’ve just walked through the doors of Gold Layers, an artisanal boulangerie hidden away underneath the historic Story Bridge in Brisbane, Australia.
It’s early Sunday morning. Whilst the city still sleeps, artisan Boulanger Christian Jacques has been baking up a storm since around 1 am. Christian’s partner Virginie, is behind the counter, speaking in English but all I hear is her beautiful French tone. French words start running around my head “Je voudrais trois croissants, s’il vous plaît”, I hear myself saying to myself. then ” et une baguette, c’est tout”. Should I be brave and say it a little louder, hoping Virginie will understand me? I can’t help it, being in this store brings out everything I love about France.
I know that I am going to find it hard to walk out of here without buying up a storm. The decision is not going to be an easy one though. With a magnificent selection of both sweet and savoury croissants, quiches and bread I almost feel as though I’m going to have to buy one of each. Perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing?
I’m here early as I know very soon, there will be a queue, that won’t abate until the shop has sold out of every last pastry. At 6.30am, Virginie, who efficiently operates the front of house, tells me “I have about 30 minutes to get all of this out onto display otherwise I won’t get another chance.”
A French boulangerie – Kangaroo Point’s hidden secret
On the surface, it’s hard to imagine. In a small store, set back from the street, it’s easy to miss. In fact, I only stumbled across it after I got an insider tip. This part of Kangaroo Point, or KP as the locals call it, is really a destination suburb. Located on a peninsula that juts out into the Brisbane River, it’s not a suburb you simply pass through.
It is a quiet enclave of mostly high-density apartment dwellers who love the proximity to the river and the CBD. It has the persona of a small village, which is exactly why Christian chose this suburb and this area as the home for his business. Coming from France, where every morning he would go into his local village, he wanted to create the “spirit and exclusivity of a village”. He wanted to provide them with a unique food experience that couldn’t be found anywhere else. He wanted to be the destination.
By 8 am, the shop is very busy. One minute the queue has cleared and the next, there’s another ten people inside. There’s a mix of customers. There are people who have arrived for the first time and become star-struck at the variety of options before them. Then there are the regulars, who march in knowing exactly what they want. For many, it’s become a ritual. It seems Christian Jacques is well on the way to achieving his dream.
Who is Christian Jacques?
Christian Jacques, the owner and Boulanger of Gold Layers, has kindly agreed to sit with me and talk about his business. From the moment he starts speaking, his passion for baking is tangible. I’m feeling guilty for taking up his valuable free time. It’s Monday and Mondays are his only day off.
With a work ethic that goes above and beyond, this French-born, French-trained baker works from 1 am on a weekend. When the shop closes at 1 pm, he affords himself some time for lunch and to get to the gym. By 3 pm, he is back in the store, working through until 7 pm. During the week, he gives himself a little break, arriving at the store around 3 am.
I’m fascinated by what he has to say, about his training, his baking methodology, his business. I’d be happy to listen to him all day.
Christian grew up in Nîmes, in the south of France, in an era where artisanal boulangeries were still the norm. Bakers used traditional recipes, some of which had been in their family for generations. Sometimes, they dated back centuries. He loved having a local bakery and fell in love with the concept of creativity and its place in the art of baking. There was no such thing as the mass production of croissants or bread back then.
Like any cycle, the world embraced technology and the efficiency and cost reductions that mass production offered. In turn, it reduced many of the products to a generic look, feel and taste, moving away from the unique aspects of artisanal baking. Today, the worm is turning once more, with consumers embracing genuine, artisanal production and seeking out quality products. This is where Christian aims to improve the knowledge of his customers by showing them that what he produces can’t be found anywhere else.
Learning from others
After spending time in the hospitality industry, Christian went on to study at the University of Rouen. Here he earned a degree in baking, where he mastered the basics that would underpin his love for baking and provide the building blocks for his innovation. One of the key learnings from his training was that “you can have all of the creativity in the world, but without knowing the basics, it won’t work”
When I asked Christian what he loved the most about being a baker, his answer was simple, “I love the complexity”. “Every day, every batch is different”, he said, “the ingredients are important but so are other factors like the weather, the season and the temperature”. The taste, the texture and the appearance all lead him on a journey to explore the differences. Armed with this information, he uses it to try new processes and to create different products.
Having spent his earlier years watching and learning from others, Christian began to experiment and develop his own processes. “It’s like alchemy”, explains Virginie, “he learns, watches and tests”. Today, Christian uses all of this knowledge plus insight from new technology and the baking industry, to create his own signature and his own defining brand. Using only French butter, he ferments his dough for two days, allowing for the development of a more complex and unique flavour. Even that isn’t without a challenge. Christian notes, “ferment too little or too long and you kill the dough”. It is worth it though, as it is what gives these croissants an edge over others.
Making croissants and bread
Even though Gold Layers is an artisanal boulangerie, bakery machinery still performs a very important role. Specifically, the machinery allows Christian to make efficient use of his time, something he has very little of. All products are made on-site.
A mixer kicks the process off, mixing huge batches of dough that would take forever by hand. A prover means that a batch of croissants can be rising using constant temperatures whilst other tasks are being performed. Both pieces of equipment are imported from France. An Australian-made laminator makes the important task of rolling the dough significantly quicker.
Of course, none of these wonderful pastries and bread products would be possible without commercial ovens either.
At Gold Layers Boulangerie all cutting, rolling and filling of croissants is done by hand. Whether Christian is making 10 croissants or 100, the process remains the same.
Sweet or savoury? Hot or cold? Bread or pastry? It’s a tough choice for customers, but there are some definite favourites. The almond croissant with its soft centre and lightly toasted, crunchy almond flakes on top is the most popular item here.
It’s also hard to beat the traditional croissant, a common purchase, or the Pain aux Raisins.
My tastebuds come alive for Christian’s special savoury inclusion. With a light honey glaze atop the crispy layers of buttery pastry, the combination of goat’s cheese and bacon, lightly warmed, is pure heaven. I made the mistake of only buying one on my first visit and had to share it with Stirling. I won’t make the same mistake twice.
Making croissants is a labour of love. It has to be. Each croissant here takes a baking journey of three days, from the making of the dough right through to the final product. Having made my own croissants, from scratch, following a cooking class in Paris, I’m in awe of what Christian achieves with just himself and the support of one baker.
On average, 1500 croissants a week are made, along with 500 loaves of French bread. During the week, the traditional products are the mainstay. By the weekend, the speciality items like my goat’s cheese croissant and the olive and rosemary bread take centre stage.
Whilst you will also find specialities such as the epic looking striped Nutella croissant and the pistachio and chocolate, there’s also the ham and cheese variety to even out the sweetness. There’s plenty of chocolate inspiration here too with the classic Pain au Chocolat and chocolate and coconut croissants.
For a touch of silky-smooth decadence try the custard filled croissant.
Also popular is the range of quiches, made with perfect French pastry. They can also be made in larger sizes (pre-order only). Amandine tarts, with a soft filling based on almond meal, are made with a variety of seasonal fruit.
Custard and fruit-filled danishes offer another different option to the croissants.
Bread is kept simple with small and large batards, both white and grain and baguettes. With a soft but chewy crust and an inside that is light and actually tastes like bread, the baguettes are truly amazing. Weekend specialities like the olive and rosemary pop up too.
Never content to keep the status quo when it comes to his products, Christian’s mind is always a blend of new ideas and thoughts. A smell, a flavour, a new dish he might eat somewhere, all provide inspiration. These thoughts are taken to his kitchen where testing and experimentation is a frequent practice.
The profiterole shaped KA (Kouign-Amann)is a perfect example. Originally from the Breton (Brittany) region of France, this buttery, sugary item is not something you’ll find easily in Australia.
Next steps for the business
As a small business, they face the usual challenges of trying to manage costs, and keep their product affordable for their customer, whilst always maintaining quality. “Christian is a perfectionist”, muses Virginie, and I can see this in the way in which he talks about the production process. “I can tell if a croissant is perfect by holding it in my hand”, he says.
They are also starting to dip their toes into catering and wholesale, although the size of their team and their limited time means this will ultimately be a longer-term strategy. Those locations that they do supply to is done with careful consideration, ensuring that their brand and quality of their product is not diminished through outsourcing.
The best French bakery in Brisbane?
The trends in the market, the preferences of his customers and his never-ending quest for perfection and innovation will continue to inform and influence Christian’s creativity. Will it be a Kouign-Amann filled with custard? Will he create an entirely new line that we haven’t seen the likes of before? Having been in business for only two years, Gold Layers has carved out its name as one of the best French bakeries in Brisbane. Personally, I think it could be the best. It has become a destination for me when I want authentic French croissants, pastries and bread. Hopefully, the locals in Kangaroo Point, proud that this gem is in their neighbourhood won’t mind.
Gold Layers Boulanger is located at 8 Baildon St, Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, Australia
(opposite Story Bridge Hotel)
Gold Layers is open every day except Monday from 6 am until 1 pm
I’m partnering with HostMilano as the Australian Ambassador for their global trade fair dedicated to the catering and hospitality industry. It takes place in Milan, Italy, every two years. I’ll be sharing food trends and innovations from the Australian catering and hospitality market during the year and up until their event in October 2019.
Kerri now travels regularly with her husband, Stirling, where eating great food, drinking quality beer and wine, and cooking international foods are integral to their adventures.