There’s something about Summertown that attracts restaurants and eateries from all around the world and something about this neighbourhood that accepts genuine authenticity in a way that you struggle to find elsewhere. Just in the last few months, I’ve paid trips to Pompette and El Rincón, French and Spanish restaurants where you really do feel like you have made the journey across the channel to their origins. Hervé Gatineau Patisserie, Boulangerie, and Chocolaterie is no different. Whether it is for a daily coffee and baguette, a work lunch, or to indulge in a luxury patisserie item, there is something distinctly French about the flavours, the service, and the setting.
The first items that we tried were from the savoury selection. As well as its signature cakes and pastries, Hervé Gatineau also offers a selection of baguettes and quiches at lunchtime that are predictably popular amongst office workers and students alike. Baguettes all come in at less than £7 and the quiches at around £6. Refreshingly, the flavours here are very different to what you normally find. I opted for a spinach, walnut, and stilton as well as a tomato, mustard, and goat’s cheese. The stilton comes through strongly in the first and the walnuts add a satisfying crunch. The star of the show though was the second. Director Débora explained how the Dijon mustard is lathered onto the pastry and it adds a punchy strong flavour alongside the goat’s cheese that is brought back down perfectly by the cherry tomatoes. Their sweetness compliments the other two flavours just as one would hope.
Then it was onto the sweet selection and realistically this is what anyone is visiting for. Débora also talked us through the provenance of ingredients and techniques here in great detail and it is something that is clearly of massive importance to her. The flour is imported from France and completely free of any additives and sweeteners that are often found in UK wholesale options. Elsewhere, great care is taken to reduce any kind of artificial sweeteners — whole pistachios, almonds, and vanilla pods are what bring the flavour in place of any kind of essences.
The first place we saw this was in the vanilla brioche. You can actually see the black specks of vanilla in the crème here and the taste is distinctly less sweet and artificial than you might be expecting. The canelé is as authentic as you would expect with its signature spongy interior and the plant-based pain au chocolat a really pleasant surprise. There is also a plant-based croissant available, both made using almond flour. The team here have taken special training on the continent to ensure that these have the flaky exterior typical of the French classics but the soft and pleasing interiors that you would hope for.
All chocolate here is Valrhona, the premium French brand that is used across the top end of the industry. The Larieux patisserie was our first taste of this and it does have a noticeably high quality. This cake has been on the menu ever since opening in 2007 and combines milk and dark chocolate mousses atop a chocolate sponge base. The tastes work well and the layering is definitely aesthetically pleasing but at £9 it’s not the kind of indulgence that people would likely be opting for on a daily basis. The Pistachio Paris-Brest is a top pick for non-chocolate lovers and is much lighter with a flavour-packed praline topping.
For a smaller and cheaper snack, look no further than the macarons. These are available for just £3 and the variety of novel and interesting flavours makes them stand out. The passionfruit was my favourite with the tart sweetness and the lightness of the high-quality meringue making for a good pairing with an afternoon coffee on a treat day.
Varlhona also provides a wide variety of chocolate truffles on offer in the chocolatier counter and is used to create the chocolate bark with almonds and hazelnuts. Go for a small piece of the dark for a deep and rich indulgence.
Now, I want to make clear that I basically don’t like carrot cake. Years of them being dry and bland have tainted my view of them overall. The plant-based offering here though might just have put me on the road to recovery. Nuts and dried fruits in the batter make for distinct moistness and coconut cream icing means that the sweetness isn’t artificial but fresh and light.
I did of course also have to grab a baguette to-go, a trip to a boulangerie feels worthless otherwise. In England it is very easy to become immune to the bland supermarket baguettes that carry no real flavour but do a job for sandwiches or dipping but that is completely different here. The multiseeded stick tastes so distinct on its own it doesn’t need filling or dipping. In fact, in my view any additions only take away from its flavours.
In recent years, Hervé Gatineau has rapidly expanded its wholesale business to such an extent that its revenue from that size matches if not surpasses that of the retail shop. Supplying over 30 sites across Oxford and also catering for large events, the bread and viennoiserie are now made in a production kitchen in Kidlington. Still though, there is a large bakery in Summertown and this is where all of the cakes are crafted. Luckily, this hasn’t taken the team’s attention away from the store and recent remodelling now means that there are tables back inside and bar seating in the window for coffee and lunch breaks.
All in all, Hervé Gatineau is yet another addition to the thriving Summertown food scene. Much like the rest of the area, price points are high but customers are rewarded with lovingly-created and high-quality results. Any Oxford lovers of diverse and friendly local businesses should wander down here on a weekend — I won’t stop shouting about it until they do!