The Paris-Srinagar has a caramel filling, encased in light choux pastry, topped with dark chocolate cream, finished off with a delicate chocolate stem.
“It is my journey between Paris and Srinagar, my take on the eclair,” said Saqib Mir, the fresh-faced 35-year-old owner of Le Délice. He is not happy with that day’s Srinagar-Paris, though – the peaks of cream were not sharp enough, it had not landed on the pastry at the right temperature. “Pastry is like chemistry,” he explained, you had to be precise.
The chamber behind his shop has mysterious machinery and steel counters where uniformed bakers are hard at work. It is not called a kitchen but a laboratory, where recipes are tried out. “We got the perfect results for the layers,” said Mir, talking about a recent experiment with mille feuille, that notoriously difficult French confection. But they were yet to go public with it.
What they do offer is the almond delice, a small tea cake with a chocolate filling. Not to mention a very competent “opera”, a kind of coffee and chocolate pastry. The lemon meringue tart is just the right amount of cream laced with that acid tang. The Saint Honoré is extravagant. Besides, croissants and baguettes are usually heaped in baskets, cookies are piled in jars and, occasionally, multicoloured macarons will make an appearance. During apricot season in June, there are apricot tarts. When there are plums, there is plum flan.
If pastry is chemistry at Le Délice, it is also part whimsy. “When I go to sleep I think something, I try to imagine how different tastes would go together and I start to dream about a cake,” said Mir.
Love of baking
Le Délice is, quite naturally, on the boulevard. Except this is Boulevard Road, curving around the Dal Lake in Srinagar. Across the road, there are shikaras and houseboats. The Zabarwan Hills rise up behind the shop. It’s hard to believe here that Srinagar is a place touched by conflict.
Mir, who grew up in the troubled Kashmir of the 1990s, said they did not feel the conflict raging around them in those years either. He lived largely in the charmed circle between Boulevard Road and Burn Hall School in Gupkar, the posh quarters of Srinagar populated by chief ministers and other assorted dignitaries.
“Our life was going to school, coming back home,” he said. “My grandfather would pick us up from school and I would ask him to stop and buy us a cream roll.” Jan Bakery, which still stands at Dal Gate, would have been on the way. Mir also remembers a Golden Bakery, which has since disappeared.
Apart from pastries, Kashmir had its own rich collection of breads, the spiced, fluffy roath, the dry, crumbly kulcha, the golden girda, the lavasa, often dunked in pink noon chai, or salted tea. “I was interested in bakery because it is part of culture in Kashmir, so you are already a bakery lover,” said Mir.
He left home after school and travelled around, initially dealing in handicrafts. On a holiday in South India, Saqib met his wife, Melanie, who is French. He moved to France in the early 2000s, mainly to be with her, he said sheepishly. There, he got a diploma in patisserie and after nearly 14 years, they returned.
“My wife and I always wanted to come back to India,” said Mir. “We were always attracted to Kashmir.” Melanie wanted to run a cafe and he wanted to bake, a happy combination.
Pastry and protest
This time though, their lives would be swept up by the turmoil in Kashmir. They had just set up their cafe when the floods of 2014 hit, washing away the furniture and machinery. Ghostly remains of the furniture still lie in the garden and the rooms at the back of the shop.
Mir and Melanie scaled down their plans and decided to open a small bakery, which required less investment. The chocolate and ingredients not available in Srinagar are parcelled all the way from France. Mir said he now employs 13 people, who work both in the shop and in the lab. “I have not taken a lot of professional bakers,” he said. “For instance, my assistant, Irshad, used to be a labourer before this. To teach them a skill, that was also an idea.”
When the bakery opened in 2015, it did roaring business, both from local customers and tourists. Then protests broke out after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed on July 8, 2016, and the shop was shut for months. “We had to go back to France and start our old life again,” said Mir, who has two young sons. But Kashmir drew them back. For a while, they had considered shifting the business to Delhi, where the children could go to school uninterrupted. But after Srinagar, no place seemed right.
Le Délice opened again on Boulevard Road and business has been picking up this year. Though there are few tourists, a stream of local customers nose their way into the shop. Some have favourites. Others may start with a donut, then ask for that almond tart just out of curiosity, then tell Irshad to throw in a croissant while he was at it, and then that chocolate chip tart, why not.