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Sunday, April 17, 2016

If it is Sunday then it must be cake!

There is an uplifting story in the Independent today about the celebrated Jeannette biscuit-making factory in Caen in lower Normandy which closed down two years ago. The factory had been open since 1850 and in that time had produced some of the finest madeleines in France.

The paper gives a brief history of the factory:

It is quite possible that the madeleine which conjured up memories of Proust’s childhood was a “Jeanette” madeleine.  In the famous passage, Proust’s autobiographical hero is staying at the Grand Hotel in Cabourg, a few miles along the Norman coast from Caen.  At the turn of the 20th century, the hotel bought its madeleines from the Caen factory later known as Jeannette.

By the turn of the 21st century Jeannette had become a stale crumb of its former self. It had suffered a series of buy-outs by larger companies which sought to make money by asset-stripping its reputation, lowering quality and boosting quantity – and failed. In 2013, the owner decided to close the factory and sell the brand.

However, the remaining female workers refused to go quietly. For more than a year, they occupied the premises and demanded government help to find a buyer:

Enter Georges Viana, 50, a Portuguese-born professional industrial trouble-shooter with no connections with Normandy or cake-making. After years of earning a good salary rescuing failed enterprises in France and abroad, he was touched by the Jeannette story. He decided to leave his job and save the factory.

“The truth is that by the time of the closure in 2013, Jeannette was producing the most disgusting rubbish and calling them madeleines,” Mr Viana told me.  “They were using oil instead of butter. They were using industrial eggs so pale that you could hardly tell the yoke from the white.”

Mr Viana, with the blessing of the workers and their hard-left union, the CGT, set out to resurrect Jeanette as a producer of “top of the range” madeleines.

The government refused to help. Banks refused to lend him money. He turned to “crowd-funding”. Thanks to a media appeal, he raised €102,000 in gifts of between one euro and €1,000 each. This was more than enough to buy the brand from the bankruptcy court.

In a second “crowd-funding” appeal for equity investors, he raised another Euros 330,000 – enough to re-start the factory on a small scale on a new site in September last year.

With the help of Philippe Parc, one of France’s leading pastry chefs, Mr Viana adapted a late-19th century madeleine recipe to modern standards. He hired, or rehired 18 people, mostly former Jeannette employees. He insisted on using only the best local raw materials – Norman butter, flour and free range eggs and vanilla from Tahiti

Seven months later, the little factory on the edge of Caen is humming. There are 16,000 internet customers and a factory shop. Many local shops and supermarkets are stocking Jeannette madeleines.

The factory – more like a giant patisserie – is producing 24,000 madeleines a day but is unable to keep up with demand.

Such stories really lift the spirits during a hard-fought election campiagn.
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