We travelled to Mutzig in Alsace to witness the fascinating seasonal tradition of preparing gingerbread. A famous Alsatian speciality, this infinitely subtle confection ushers us gently into winter, especially when it is prepared in the studio run by Christophe Felder, the former Chef Pâtissier at the famous Hôtel de Crillon in Paris.
Rather than simply revisit culinary classics, Christophe Felder prefers to reproduce them and refine them to the point of absolute perfection. His trademark style is to follow tradition to the letter to be the ultimate artisan. In his own words, "It's much more difficult to be an excellent artisan than to create something new every season just to get press coverage". He follows very much in the footsteps of his father, from whom he has inherited a taste for uncompromising simplicity.
So one morning in November, we arrived outside his studio in Mutzig, half an hour from Strasbourg, to look behind the scenes at the process used to prepare his famous gingerbread. The recipe is so demanding that he offers it only for two months of the year: “The preparatory stage is very lengthy. The real secret is taking the time to do things well”, explains the pâtissier. “And because this is something that people look forward to, the pleasure is maximised because we all know that it’s something that won’t be here forever".
"The spices are the most important thing..."
All around Camille Lesecq, Christophe Felder’s young associate, eight pâtissiers are fully focused and hard at work. Their day began at 6 this morning. The air is thick with the heady aroma of chocolate, brioche and sugar. Soon to be joined by the power of spices... It has to be said that the list of ingredients for this finely honed recipe fills an entire page. "The spices are the most important thing, so you always have to choose the best quality and be prepared to search far and wide to find them". Christophe Felder admits that he regularly travels to Japan just to find the best cinnamon.
A powerful symbol of Christmas
To the background rhythmic purr of ovens and whisks, people are buttering vintage enamelled cast iron moulds, because "the cooking is the key to the voluptuous texture…". Heated honey is gently poured into the flour, brown sugar and spice mix, while star anise infuses in milk that will be added later. Christophe Felder again: "Just as every ingredient must be selected with the sole aim of achieving excellence, so every stage demands total attention”. But the preparatory process doesn’t stop there, because appearance is just as important. As a powerful symbol of Christmas, this fragrant confection is traditionally fashioned into hearts or the classic gingerbread house… "Taste it... It bears absolutely no resemblance to the industrial products you’re familiar with".