October 26, 2006
Walking through the Oberkampf neighborhood this past Friday on my way from one appointment to the next, I glanced at my watch and gleefully realized I had just enough time to drop by La Bague de Kenza, a luxurious Algerian pastry shop on rue Saint-Maur.
There was a line snaking outside onto the sidewalk -- it was still Ramadan then and many of the customers were buying sweets for the nightly fast-breaking feast -- but this gave me time to be entertained by the verbal fight that broke out when one lady accused another of trying to cut in front of her (if you hadn't eaten or drunk anything all day, you would be nippy too), and to admire the colorful multitude of picture-perfect delights filled with almonds, pistachios, walnuts, figs, or dates, and flavored with honey, rose water, orange blossom water, mint, citrus, or vanilla.
It's okay not to know the names of all (or any) of the little guys: the staff often caters to novices, so you can just smile and point, or ask for an assortment. I myself ordered eight different ones: a pistachio skandriate and a lemon and vanilla cornet aux amandes (pictured above, top and right), a sugar-coated corne de gazelle and a walnut baqlava (pictured here, left and top right), a doigt de Kenza, a rfisse (a mix of semolina, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, date, and honey, ground into a marzipan-like, pleasantly grainy paste), and two more that I unfortunately can't name: a piped round of almond and walnut paste flavored with orange blossom water and topped with an unpeeled almond (pictured above, bottom left) and a meringue round filled with pistachio paste (pictured here, bottom right).
People tend to group under the general label of pâtisseries orientales any pastry that comes from North Africa or the Middle East, but the fact is that each country and each region has its own style, and the pastries at La Bague de Kenza generally follow that of the city of Algiers. Although they couldn't be considered diet-friendly by any stretch of the imagination, their confections show a subtlety and balance that clearly set them apart from the cloying, oily specimens one occasionally comes across. And because the shop is renowned and popular, their turnover is high and their selection corrrespondingly fresh.
While two thirds of the boutique are devoted to sweets, it would be a mistake to overlook the savory section close to the register: their coca and bourek (flaky or crisp turnovers filled with meat or vegetables) are delicious, as are their semolina breads, leavened or unleavened, and their m'hajeb (bell pepper and tomato crepe). They also carry soft pouches of excellent laban (fermented milk) and raïb (curdled milk) from a farm outside of Paris.
And if you're interested in making your own Algerine pastries, you can turn to the inspiring and beautiful recipe book that the shop owners wrote, called Les Douceurs de Kenza. It will probably take a bit of practice to get yours to look as exquisite as theirs, but it is a great book to learn more about the cultural and legendary backdrop of each confection.
La Bague de Kenza
106 rue Saint-Maur - 75011 Paris
01 43 14 93 15
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