My friend Faith is obsessed with these French teacakes called canalets. She has toyed with various recipes found online and recently invested in the individual copper tins needed to make the traditional treats, which are custard-flavored with fresh vanilla bean and rum, and oven-baked with a coat of natural beeswax, according to the menu at Saint Honoré in Portland, Ore. When I told Faith I’d be meeting with the owner of the boulangerie this winter while on business in the Pacific Northwest, she began gushing about the establishment’s canalets, which she discovered through her sister, who lives there.
While sitting on a barstool next to Dominque Geulin in his bakery at 2335 NW Thurman St. (near the upscale shopping area that is 23rd Avenue), I mentioned my friend’s affinity for the beeswaxy baked good, which he tells me originated in the Bordeaux region of France, where they were made by nuns. Geulin promptly ordered some. The crunchy, golden brown exterior of the delectable cake gave way to a soft, smooth-textured center and a subtle flavor unlike anything I’d ever had before. They were délicieux.
Of course, canalets aren’t Saint Honoré’s only pastries, many of which are baked in an imported oven made of a special clay firebrick from France’s Rhone Valley that’s known for its heating properties. Twice-baked almond croissants, Geulin points out, are a customer favorite. He also introduced me to Pont Neuf (named for the oldest bridge in Paris), a puffed pastry loaded with blueberries. Se magnifique!
In addition, the bakery offers a variety of traditional and specialty breads, from seeded ficelle to a nicoise olive roll, as well as cold sandwiches (casse croute) and grilled panini.
And, of course, there’s the coffee.
Geulin explains that he and his wife always wanted to open a shop with “upscale, excellent, high-quality coffee” and “upscale, excellent, high-quality baked goods.” He says you seldom encounter both in one place.
Not only can you find both at Saint Honoré, but there are two locations from which to choose. Geulin opened a second boulangerie in Lake Oswego, Ore., last April. The energetic young employees at each store - many of whom hail from the Western Culinary Institute’s baking and patisserie program - are encouraged to create new recipes, resulting in “an open-minded environment where people are being listened to,” Geulin says, rather than one with a “corporate feel.”
Baking is in Geulin’s blood. Raised in Normandy, he was meant to take over his parents’ bakery, which they ran for some 35 years. Instead, he took a job in Portland that turned into “a lifetime experience,” he says.
Geulin did, however, go back to France to compete for the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France (an intense contest showcasing one’s baking skills, ability to lead a team and follow a detailed schedule, and creation of an Eiffel Tower-themed “masterpiece,” which Geulin crafted from bread over the course of six months). At age 26, he was the youngest ever to win the prestigious “master baker” prize.
As if that weren’t enough, a chain of retail bakeries in Japan - No. 8 will open this February - bear Geulin’s name.
Today, Geulin’s cousin owns his parents’ bakery back home, but his family’s recipes are the foundation for Saint Honoré’s classic menu, which never catered to low-carb-craving customers, for example, but instead maintained a “true French” feel, he says. Consequently, Geulin adds, many people ended up coming to his bakery to cheat on their diets.
“Atkins was a very good thing for us,” he states, smiling.
Despite the growth of other once-small retail bakeries into massive syndications that now span the nation, “bigger is not necessarily better, to my view,” Geulin says. For example, the Thurman St. storefront met with his desire to find “that little niche neighborhood” where locals can hang out ... and perhaps enjoy a canalet and coffee.
Turns out Faith’s not the only fan.