The newspapers are full of exercise fads and diets and “why-oh-why” laments about an alleged “epidemic” of obesity. Anyone would think that British people were serious about losing weight and getting fit and looking their best. But they’re actually much more serious about pastry.
People in this country – or at least in London – adore fancy bread, preferably made with enormous amounts of butter and sugar. They want the highest quality croissants and pains au chocolat, brioches and palmiers. Not for them the ordinary soggy croissants that colonised the high street in the late 1980s; today’s Britons want pastries that would more than pass muster in France and Belgium, to dunk into pukka, very expensive coffee.
Even Tesco supermarkets bake fresh croissants these days, as well as offering their customers the delights of Krispy Kremes, the ne plus ultra of doughnut brands.
Which is why France and Belgium have now sent their best to battle it out in the British high street, in the form of Paul, Apostrophe and Le Pain Quotidien.
Paul is a high-end patisserie founded near Lille in 1889. It opened its first branch in the UK – in Covent Garden – in 2000. Now there are 21. Apostrophe was started by French expats unable to find a decent cup of coffee in Shoreditch. PQ, as it’s known to devotees, was founded in Brussels in 1990 by the chef Alain Coumont. Its branches are favourite hunting grounds for men looking to date yummy mummies.
The concepts are slightly different. PQ serves open faced tartines and salads and each store has a large communal table like those in gentlemen’s clubs. Paul is more of a traditional café-bakery. Apostrophe’s branches are kid-friendly, offer Wi-Fi and eschew the rough-hewn French farmhouse look of its competitors for something more modern.
All day long these places are jammed with the self-employed, the under-employed and business people delighted to be able to hold meetings outside the office. Friends and courting couples who once would have met for a drink after work now meet for a coffee and muffin during the day.
In theory this sort of fierce competition ought to result in one or more chains losing and going out of business. But in Britain the market for expensive sandwiches and pastries apparently has no ceiling, just as there is no limit to the number of cappuccino providers that can be supported by the high street. EAT can open next door to as many Pret a Manger branches as it wants – and somehow both will flourish. And as people worry ever more about carbs and fats, they are ever more likely to seek comfort in the perfect chocolatine.
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