There is a musicality in Claire Damon’s work. Each cake is a fine composition and the result of a research, both sensual and technical, where the taste expresses a secret melody like the murmur of a stream; in the living nature where she grew up and where she draws all her creativity and inspiration. Claire Damon is a sensitive, committed and free-mind Chef who keeps far from excessive media coverage, to come back to the essential, focusing on product and respecting the rhythm of the seasons. The result is a great poetic pastry perfectly suited to her, that is given as a greedy delight, and much more, like a blessing that celebrates life.
Nature and cakes
Claire Damon was born in Auvergne. “This detail is important because my love for nature and plants, my respect for products and everything flowing therefrom comes from there.” Her father an engineer and her mother employed in the public service, worked in Clermont-Ferrand. “So we did not farm the land!” But her great-grandparents had a polyculture business for several generations. “They grew strawberries in a very beautiful way; a particular variety that they sent to Paris, like certain mushrooms, picked by hand.” Claire spent all her holidays far from the city, in Orcival, in the middle of forests, streams, lakes and waterfalls. “And all these moments spent deep in to nature shaped my palate and my sensitivity.” Soon, in the house of great-grandparents, she began to cook, because they used to prepare great meals, with a lot of warmth and friendliness. “The table was huge and everything was disproportionate, whether it was the wood oven or the kitchen utensils!” Claire will remain marked by the smells of vegetable dishes in particular, with fresh herbs such as parsley or garlic and the good taste of chestnuts and walnut cakes.
“It was a small hamlet consisting of four houses, but with people coming all day.” She will learn there how to make a cake as an offering. “The shepherds used to come and drink the coffee, then the postman and the neighbor bringing ceps mushrooms, and another who came to carry plums and eggs.” She soon wanted to open her own shop, without having yet a market-driven approach, and at the age of 8, she made all kinds of fruit pies and pastries, in salt dough and with a layer of clay found in the forest. “I made them dry then I painted them, so I could play to the cake shop.” A vocation that will stay with her to this day!
Mastering the techniques of pastry
The young Claire started her cooking studies in Aveyron, with a Michelin-starred establishment. “Following this, I wanted to present the contest of Best Apprentices of France.” And, for the first time in her life, at the age of 19, she made her way to Paris to take the competition. “My mother wanted to give me a visit to all the Parisian pastry shops: Gérard Mullot, Fauchon, Lenôtre, Jean Millet and Pelletier.” And that day, she tasted a vanilla macaroon at Fauchon, where the young Pierre Hermé was at the time. “I found the ingredients extraordinarily tasty. And I cried out: this is where I want to work!” She will follow him at Ladurée for his apprenticeship, and will remain at his side for three years. “He’s a reserved man, full of conviction and vision, and he showed me new doors in pastry.” She will learn how to make a product the focus of the taste and construction of a cake, knowing everything about its origins, its history, to marry textures and build alliances.
After the boutiques, Claire will join the Luxury Hotels business for a few years, with Gilles Marchal at the Bristol and Christophe Michalak at the Plaza Athénée. She will refine her technique and broaden her horizons discovering desserts on the plate. She was fascinated by the quality of the products used in cooking, and she nourishes internally the desire to do as much in pastry. This is what will be done in 2007. After a year of transition at Hotel Costes, the talented Pastry Chef will open her first shop, with the baker David Granger, called “Des gâteaux et du pain”. She can finally express all her art in a personal and innovative line of delicious cakes, reinventing pastry.
A passion for good taste
Claire’s work always start from an emotion; a sensation, “something which feeds me internally” and that stir you enough to make you create with rigor and greed, sophisticated cakes. “That’s why I think the macaroons should be left in the hands of experts, and chocolate in those of chocolate makers!” Her approach to the job is to work what she wants, not what makes the most money. Then, she likes to create for others, with the satisfaction of seeing the joy on her customers’ face. Her delights most inspiring qualities are their freshness and an extremely strong flavor with a good balance, neither too fat nor too sweet. She sublimates fruits and plants; the ones that marked her childhood spent in the medium mountains, “where the colors are so vivid and contrasted. Wild blueberries were picked at the same time hay was cut in the meadows, and that smell remained deeply imprinted in my memory!” She will create a blueberry pie “Initiales CD”, with the special smell of cut hay, using coumarine, present in sweet scent and sweet clover, and wild blueberries picked in her area. Her secret is to avoid over sophistication, to get the right balance of tastes and textures, which is sometimes extremely complicated sometimes.
Then constantly focus on the essentials: taste, by looking for the most authentic products that respect nature and seasons. “This is where we can feel the difference and perceive the things that really matter.” It’s then a pure gustative moment, with a taste that is simple and immediately recognizable, which will make it also memorable. And no matter if the cakes are sometimes in a range almost monochrome. “At first I was appalled; but when I thought about it, I understood that these colors are the result of what nature offers us and it is exactly what we need!” Thus, in January, there are all kinds of citrus fruits: “Absolu Citron” yellow-colored, “Saint-Honoré à la mangue” with orange-yellow tone, and “Kashmir” with saffron and bright orange colors, and all of them to regenerate the body at the end of winter. In October, it is the textures of chestnut paste and the hazelnuts with its roasted notes, what exactly we want to eat to warm up.
Towards more authenticity
“Des Gâteaux et du pain” has opened a second boutique at rue du Bac in Paris, and it continues to demonstrate excellence. Far from the media, Claire prefers to invest in quality, seeking partnerships with local producers, to work on the best ingredients. “It’s an extension of nature that I want to continue in my cakes! And I have this freedom today that allows me to stand strong for my beliefs.” All the fruits are organic and come from specific regions, “because a lemon of France does not have the same taste as a lemon of Sicily”. Wild blueberries are picked by hand in Auvergne, as well as some of the plants and flowers used in the recipes. Strawberries are planned to be delivered from a producer in Sologne, “and for butter, it is done this morning; and we are going to work with rustic mountain cows, which give much less milk than the Prim’Holstein species, but of very good quality”. Finally, almonds come from local cooperatives, with the few French almond farms left. In these conditions, international development is not yet relevant for the Chef, despite the high demands. She continues to innovate in creation, and her next challenge is to provide new cakes, neither pies, nor desserts, whose bottom can be consumed. “The tests are conclusive and we will market this soon!”
Beyond her job, it’s a philosophy of life in front of our eyes that Claire Damon brings into our modern world. It’s about having freedom of choice to consume healthy products, as with the fruity High-Pastry she offers daily. Because we become what we eat and through food, it is nature that expresses itself and becomes our breath. Then comes alchemy of taste, harmony with the living and authenticity of being. For this passionate artisan, cakes become perfect settings that holds both pleasure and health.
Interview held by Carine Mouradian on February 22, 2018, in Paris
Link to the website of Des Gâteaux et du Pain
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