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Serious matter of having your cake and eating it

By Evan Short

“In France food is very very serious. You can mess about with everything expect food.” As a motto it’s a pretty good one, especially if you are in the restaurant business, and French of course.

Abel Mehablia is both, and he is probably North Belfast’s best kept culinary secret. The proprietor of La Table ‘Pastry School and Tea Lounge’ located in the picturesque Merville Garden Village, he is quietly trying to affect a revolution in homes around Belfast.

He has uttered the above words as he discusses his background in baking back in France. Opening a patisserie is very serious back home. To have that name above your door you have to be qualified, and the government actually polices the shops that claim the title.

While he doesn’t call his coffee shop and baking school a ‘patisserie’, he has earned that right should he choose to do so, describing how gruelling the training is to earn the coveted title.

“To earn your CAP (French baking qualification) it takes two years of training, 40 hours a week” That, he says, is only to get the basic qualification.

“There are years on top of that to get higher classifications.” Abel has them all.

Such is the strictness of being a French baker, while Abel can bake bread better than most, he cannot call himself a baker.

“The class splits into two, with half going onto patisserie, and half to boulangerie.”

So how did a French pastry chef end up in Merville House?

A job in Dublin led to travelling around the island, and then six months as the Europa Hotel’s pastry chef got him thinking he would like to open something himself.

A tour of Belfast brought him to Merville Garden Village and the listed Merville House, where he has taken over a wing and been trading since last September.

He said it was exactly the type of setting he envisaged for his business.

“This is a conversation area and the house is listed. It’s perfect for what I wanted to do. I had a picture in my mind to find somewhere worthy for what I was attempting to build, and this place was perfect.”

Having lived in Belfast for years, he felt the time was right for something a little bit different from our traditional Irish bakeries.

“Irish bakeries sell a lot of the same project. Everywhere you go you get similar things. People here eat what they know, but that is changing.”

To get Abel to say what he thinks of local bakeries took some time, but he says that as people travel further, they experience more things and look for it when they get home.

“People are looking for more quality and something more European. Everywhere you go (here) it’s pavlova and cup cakes which is very American, although they are very popular.”

The selection of cakes, buns and baked produce on display in La Table is like a picture, only better, because you can eat it.

He says the desserts that are served are always different.

“I always use fruit that’s in season, so for example today we have a plum, pistachio and almond tart.”

A major bugbear of Abel’s is the amount of sugar that is put in our desserts. He says if you use fresh ingredients, there is no need for such artificial embellishment.

“I use the sweetness of the fruit, and a little sugar, but I want the natural sweetness to come through, it’s very important.”

He said supply lines are so good in Belfast now, fresh ingredients from around Europe are easily accessible.

“I am able to source my products from France so you are getting a very authentic product.”

In addition to the cakes and tarts, La Table also has a full savoury lunch menu, but it’s the former that are Abel’s first love.

“From a little boy seeing the patisserie I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

And now he is ready to pass on these hard won skills. Starting next month he will be opening his cookery school to impart some of his knowledge and try to inspire similar baking feats at home.

“The classes will be for between four and 12 people and last around two, to two and a half hours.

“Everything we sell in La Table is baked here and we will be teaching how to do the same at home.

“I am looking forward to it,” he says.

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