A slice of France in Summertown: Gatineau
"Myself, I love the caramel éclair and I love the mille-feuille, I love chocolate..."
By Jack Rayner
One of the latest in a rich and diverse history of Oxford bakers, Hervé Gatineau took over his premises at 209 Banbury Road from Pascal Garandeau in 2007 and has quickly made a name for himself as the finest French baker this side of Toulouse. Hervé originally came to the UK to learn English, but met his wife Mary whilst working for Maison Blanc.
“Many customers do come and say ‘I went on holiday to France but I couldn’t find a baguette or croissant like you do’,” Hervé tells me with a smile on a crisp Wednesday morning at Gatineau. “Every day someone says something like that.”
It’s not just Hervé himself who is singing the patisserie’s praises – from the moment Gatineau open their doors at 7am, grinning crowds of hungry commuters come piling in for their fix of fresh pastry, cakes and bread.
“We have lots of regular clients, particularly in the morning. A lot of people order their bread in advance as well. Sometimes on a Sunday we’re sold out by 12 o’clock,” Hervé’s assistant manager Debora tells me. Debora comes from a family of bakers in Brazil, but fell for the charm of the traditional French style – on tasting the millefeuille, I’m hardly surprised. I ask Hervé if this is an exact replica of a boulangerie you might find in France.
“Yes, perhaps even better than some. In France they do sometimes let themselves down because there is so many of them, so some of them get lazy. Before working here I used to bake more countryside-style – more bakery, less pastry. I didn’t actually learn that much from Maison Blanc – it was mostly the same things every day, so I’d go on courses as often as I could to various places in France.”
There’s certainly no risk of an overcrowded market in Oxford, but Hervé isn’t solely relying on his conventional expertise.
“Often we take British cakes, but ‘revisit’ them, you know? For example, we do an apple tart but we change it and make it a bit more rustic, like you do at home. Myself, I love the caramel éclair and I love the mille-feuille, I love chocolate...
“Often I need to listen to the customers, because, for example, my coffee eclairs are great but actually don’t sell too well. Some things work in France but the tastes are different over here. The fruit tarts sell well all year – in France we stop using strawberries at the end of September because they’re out of season, but the customers here say ‘no, don’t stop them!’”