I spent a large portion of my career as a baker and patissier, hence I am able to make the following observation with conviction: Australian pastry chefs need to toughen up a bit.
Now before you go rushing to the defence of your local dough-boy, take a moment to consider the differences between the baking arts as experienced in your neighbourhood with the way they are conducted in the home of pastry – Europe.
As a general rule, Australian bakeries are piled high with pale-coloured or anaemic loaves, set alongside tarts and pastries that match. A soft golden hue is the order of the day for just about everything that emerges from the oven.
By contrast, your average Parisian bakery takes great pride in the deep timber-noted loaves and their delicately darkened pastry. From dark-amber, through dusty-russet, all the way to rich chocolate browns, French bakers are not afraid to allow their offering to get a little bit burnt.
‘Burnt you say?’ Yes burnt, at least by Australian standards.
But the European bakers did not earn their reputation for excellence in a cavalier manner – indeed they take great pride in the exactitude with which they approach baking. The fact is that French bread tastes better than our, and the science is there to support them.
Wheat flour is rich in a particular type of carbohydrate, known as a ‘reducing sugar’ which, when exposed to heat, begins to caramelise. This is called the Maillard reaction. Unlike other sugars that can also darken when cooked, reducing sugars also change their flavour. Hence the mildness of wheat can be converted to the luxury of bread.
If this seems a little scientific and confusing, consider the logical extension of principle that we undertake each morning. When you insert a slice of bread into a toaster it emerges browned and crisp. But more importantly the perfume and taste has also changed. This is the Maillard reaction at work. Now try to remember which has a more intense flavour. The toast, of course.
This is the process French bakers and pastry chefs undertake in their cuisine. By baking their loaves and pastries fractionally darker, the flavour improves many times over. A small extra input of oven time yields proportionally greater rewards in the mouth.
But most Australian pastry chefs are reluctant to bake their offerings to a more sensible colour, mostly because of customer preferences. For as long as you choose to purchase the paler, less-tasty baked goods, the bakeries of our nation will never make the shift.