© The Observer, Sunday March 25, 2007
The fabulous baker boys
German-born Falko Burkert, whose bakery won the judges' best producer award, is a fast mover. Two years ago he started selling his bread and cakes at Edinburgh's farmers' market. A year later, he sold his flat to open Falko Konditormeister. He tells Joanna Blythman about the perversion in the food industry, the British 'cake of horror', and the benefits of a proper beating
Best producer (judges' award)
It can be a little disorienting when you first find yourself outside Falko Burkert's baker's shop in Edinburgh. First there's the intoxicating smell that wraps itself around your nose and draws you magnetically through its doors in a trance-like state, reminiscent of Patrick Süskind's olfactory novel, Perfume. Then there's that 'pinch me, I'm dreaming' feeling that somehow you have been hijacked by Ryanair and whisked to some obscure German city where you have been conveniently deposited at the door of the best, traditional craft baker in town. You stand and gape at helter-skelter rings of cinnamon-scented baumkuchen; stacks of free-folded stollen; crown-shaped, yeasty, fruit-studded kugelhof; rows of loaves baked with wheat beer; paving stones of treacle-dark rye; and sticky Swabian fruitbreads and you are gripped by a sense of mystery. What is Falko - such a demonstrably accomplished ambassador for the German baking tradition - doing in Scotland, a country whose bakeries are best known for greasy pies and lurid cakes with vinyl icing? Is it all just a lovely dream?
Falko Burkert burst on to the Edinburgh food scene two years ago. People started talking about a brilliant German baker who had turned up at the weekly farmers' market. He was selling wholesome breads and unadorned, quite plain-looking cakes that were not cheap, yet people would patiently queue for half an hour to be sure of buying something before he ran out.
Now that Falko has opened his atmospheric shop close to the city centre, his fans can relax a bit and let themselves believe that he is actually there to stay. But it was touch and go. Had Falko not met, and fallen in love with, his now partner and business partner, Robert Linton, a computer programmer, then by now he would have been training up the next generation of professional master pastry chefs back in Germany. 'I couldn't leave Rob behind,' says Falko. For his part, Robert says 'I tasted his cakes and that was it.'
When Falko first came to the UK a decade ago to work in Birmingham, there was not a lot to keep him here. In Germany, cake-baking is a highly regulated profession. In order to open a cake shop, employ apprentices and call yourself a konditormeister, or master pastry chef, you must have served at least five years in the trade and have passed demanding craft exams. So, Falko was staggered by the lack of respect shown towards his craft in Britain, and appalled by the state of cake-baking. 'It was a shock to work in a British kitchen for the first time. The bakery was like an old factory shed. Everything was pre-baked, frozen, then assembled to order.'
Get Falko on the subject of what he refers to as 'perversion in the food industry' and he reels off a list of abominations, everything from butter 'flavouring' and ready-prepared lemon zest, to 'marzipan' that contains only 20 per cent almonds. His sternest words are reserved for what he calls 'the cake of horror', that ubiquitous assembly of long-life sponge, fake buttercream and artificial bucket-mix icings. British tastebuds, he believes, have been corrupted by aggressive, in-your-face flavours. 'My personal aim is to make people understand what the real thing should taste like, that a good cherry is not fire-engine red and that Black Forest cake should be light, not overly sweet and full of Kirsch.'
For a 37-year-old, Falko is curiously old-fashioned in his instincts. He is both passionate and inspiring in his belief that time-honoured, labour-intensive, artisan skills can never be replaced by machines. He elevates taste over aesthetics. 'I want to eat cakes, not look at them,' he says. 'A cake should not look like an overdecorated Christmas tree.'
His style is all about restrained amounts of sugar and subtle flavours. He will have no truck with the technological armoury used by most modern bakers, refusing, for example, to use a proving machine to speed up the making of his breads and insisting that all sponges are raised by hand in the orthodox German manner by beating air into the eggs, not with the addition of raising agents.
With such a purist vision, Falko was not initially convinced that he would find a market for his cakes and breads, so he and [Business Partner] Robert decided to take a stall at the Saturday farmers' market to test demand. At first they used the kitchen in Robert's top-floor flat to bake around the clock on Fridays to make enough for the market. 'We worked day and night because we could only make one small batch after another. When I fell asleep Rob would carry me to bed. Then I would wake up and find Rob asleep on the sofa with the machinery still working away,' says Falko.
Far from complaining, the neighbours loved the fantastic smells in the stairwell, not to mention the enticing free samples. After a year, having come to the conclusion that people would support Falko's quality and prices, they made the big leap of Falko moving in with Robert and selling his own flat in order to finance the opening of a small bakery with a retail shop.
One year on, the business has already outgrown its premises and the shop is thriving. This isn't just because the smell from downstairs is intoxicating, but also because the setting is deeply civilised, clean-cut and modern in one sense, but still revealing Falko's fondness for tradition. As yet, Falko Konditormeister has only one small, sit-down table in among the antique copper spice-biscuit moulds, pendulum scales and a wooden cash register. But Falko's dream is to have his own elegant salon, in the style of the classic Viennese coffee house. 'I have always loved these rooms of nostalgia where you have tea or coffee and cake, listening to the piano, being served from silver pots by waiters in blazers. It must have that distinctive smell of chocolate truffle, alcohol-soaked cakes and leather,' he enthuses. On present form, he may yet achieve precisely that.