Sacré bleu! A football legend’s cousin is revolutionising breadmaking in Brum, writes Richard McComb.
His cousin played football like a God but Frenchman Gilles Zidane settles for making bread – and patisserie – like an angel.
Gilles, whose family lineage includes one Zinedine Zidane, arguably his generation’s most gifted exponent of the back-heel, has brought a touch of the Cote d’Azur to Birmingham city centre with the opening of the Bread Collection.
His shop of delights is in the Great Western Arcade, opposite Snow Hill station, and is a place of undiluted sensory pleasure. The bread is second to none in Birmingham – of this I have no doubt after a comprehensive tasting – and the patisserie is the perfect pick-up for curing the seasonal back-to-work blues.
Monsieur Zidane, it has to be said, makes exceedingly good cakes.
The Bread Collection is Gilles’ second outlet in the greater Birmingham area. The first, in Knowle, has been going since the 1990s and draws a loyal clientele in the leafy shires.
Gilles, who declines to speak at length about his famous cousin, long coveted a shop in central Birmingham. “How can the second biggest city in England not have a decent bread shop?” he proclaims with a Gallic shrug of disbelief. When the price was right, he seized on the opportunity to take a unit at the Great Western Arcade.
It is a bijoux shop – oh, all right, it’s a bit on the small side – but that’s only because of the exorbitant cost of city leases. Gilles admits he had wanted to take a bigger unit, in which to operate a cafe along the lines of his Knowle premises, but the costs were prohibitive. So for now, the Birmingham outpost of the Bread Collection is about big enough to swing a baguette in, but it looks as pretty as a picture, spilling over with French flair.
It must be one of the most delightful small shops in the city. There is a grand chandelier, fresh lilies in the window (“We don’t do plastic”) and a distressed antique dresser that looks like it has been plucked from a fin de siècle Provençale villa. You don’t get that in Greggs.
The window display is heaving with freshly-baked loaves of all shapes and sizes. There are, of course, baguettes – a classic and rustic – both made with French flour, the latter the product of a three-hour fermentation. There’s roasted onion bread, sundried tomato, walnut and focaccia. If that wasn’t enough, there are the speciality breads that are prepared for specific days – sourdough (with raisin, rosemary and sea salt); a standard sourdough, that like many of Gilles’s breads contains no yeast and requires a very slow fermentation to achieve optimum taste and texture; fig and Egyptian fennel seed; spelt; lemon and rye; rye and sunflower; fruit and nut bread; and multi-seed. The list is as long as it is mouth-watering.
All of the breads – and indeed the cakes and tarts – are made at Knowle by Gilles’s team of four artisan bakers and three confectioners. The team includes classically trained French bakers but the department is run by an Englishman, Martin Winstanley. Because the breads require the use of slow rising dough, the bakers have to arrive for work at 9pm and work through the small hours. Gilles says this is necessary because he keeps the use of yeast to a minimum in those recipes for which it is required.
“Yeast is not good for digestion and there is a better taste with sour dough. But that means it is a very slow process,” he says.
The flours are predominantly French but English varieties are used for the traditional English loaves (farmhouse, bloomer, tin and brick) that the Bread Collection also sells to appease Anglophiles.
The work that goes into the bread means there is a price premium. A baguette is £1.20, focaccia and sour dough are £1.95, sour dough and rye pumpernickel is £2.75. Some breads cost more.
However, the prices are no different to those the average French shopper is prepared to pay for quality bread in their village boulangerie. Good food isn’t cheap: you pay for what you get.
Gilles agrees: “I am not cheap but I do quality and people don’t mind paying for that. This is not mass production. Our bread doesn’t stand around in freezers or boxes. We don’t do that.”
Having tasted some of the breads at the shop, I tell Gilles that I don’t think the prices are high, considering the skills, time and quality of ingredients required to achieve this level of excellence. “I charge a far price,” adds Gilles.
The 45-year father – he has a 16-year-old son Nohman – lives with long-time partner Carolyn Furby, who runs the Malt Shovel pub in Barston, near Knowle. He hails from Frejus in the south of France, just along the Ferrari-jammed coast road from St Tropez. The Mediterranean influences abound in the Birmingham shop. Having just returned from a holiday in Rousillon, my spirits are lifted by the sight of fougasse, an all-in-one French bread lunch, the delectable loaf crammed with savoury goodies. Gilles does two fougasse – with roasted vegetables and goats cheese, and vegetables and ham and cheese. For £3.50, it’s a great lunch for two, best accompanied by a glass or two of chilled rosé.
“It’s good, huh?” says Gilles. It is. Very good.
Gilles describes the array of cakes as being “80 per cent French confection.” He says: “We still do a Bakewell slice, a brownie and a flapjack. There is still a demand for that. We do a mixture of French and English. There is a big Mediterranean influence.”
There are also mini pizzas, called pizzicolas; quiches comprising goats cheese, black olive and peppers or and ham, Brie and potato; croque monsieur; and rustic ciabattas filled with rare roast beef, mozzarella and tomato, and ham. If only Birmingham had the weather, and a seafront, one could be on the Corniche.
On the morning I pop along, the immaculate display of sweet treats could prompt someone of an indecisive disposition to experience a mental meltdown. There are seductively elegant tarte aux fruits and tarte aux fraises, raspberry and pear frangipane tarts, chocolate fondants, classic mille-feuille and a strawberry version.
Then there les goodies Anglaise – gingerbread monsieurs, macaroons and fruit scones. Gilles’ French take on traditional bread and butter pudding goes like, well, hot cakes. “The bread and butter pudding is very popular,” says Gilles. “My God, they come back!”
The reaction from Birmingham shoppers, particularly white collars workers in Brum’s own Square Mile, has been superb. Gilles is still non-plussed that it has taken his intervention to inject some excitement into the city’s jaded bread and cakes scenes.
“Birmingham is the second biggest city in England and there was no good baguette or croissants. The reaction to our opening has been fantastic. A lot of people say to me, ‘This is what Birmingham needs – proper food!’”