A taste of France

Thursday, March 1st, 2012
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Special to NHN

There are only four ingredients that go into creating a classic French baguette: flour, water, salt and yeast. Simple, yes?

Easy? No.

“Crusty bread here is the devil’s work. The humidity puts the attack on it, and there are so many variables that would drive anybody crazy,” said David Touchet, baker and owner with his wife Tammy, of Palani French Bakery. “There are so many good chefs on this island and not in a million years would they do this.”

Touchet’s recipe for a French baguette is comprised of a simple list of ingredients that could easily have been replicated 100 years ago. Even so, he explained, baking bread in Hawaii is no easy task.

“Bread dough is like a little kid; it’s temperamental, moody, and there are variables you’re not counting on. And by the time you’ve made a mistake, it’s too late,” Touchet said.

Which is why no one has really attempted to do bread and pastries on a commercial level the way Touchet is, the classic, French way.

That’s also why it’s so popular. On an island with an appetite for malasadas and mochi, these breads and pastries stand alone. Goodies like flakey chocolate croissants and macadamia nut coconut bear claws are gaining a following.

“People look at this bread and go ‘wow’”, Touchet said. “And everyone loves sweets. We always sell out.

As Palani French Bakery experiences growing pains, the Touchet’s are working to keep up with the demand. They are doing the impossible; increasing production of a fragile, perishable product while maintaining the quality their customers have come to expect. Like their best-selling rosemary French bread, the sun-dried tomato fougasse, brioche rolls, cinnamon danish and the popular chocolate croissants.

Palani French Bakery is a small, family-run operation on two acres in Kohala Estates, where there are no CC&R’s. The Touchet’s designed and built their certified kitchen on the same property they built their house, and have plans for additional agricultural shade houses. Touchet’s wife, Tammy, operates the business side of the bakery and is developing a farm on the property to grow fresh culinary herbs used in the baking. Here, there’s no overhead for a retail store, and the neighbors – no doubt – don’t mind the smell of freshly baked bread.

The Touchet’s sell their breads and pastries at the Waimea Homestead and Hawi farmers markets on Saturdays, and at the midweek Anna Ranch and King’s Shops farmers markets on Wednesdays. Visitors and locals are shocked, Touchet said, that they can now get the kinds of French breads and croissants that they can on the mainland.

Nancy and Prentiss Adkins buy croissants and five-grain bread from Touchet every Saturday at the Waimea Homestead Farmer’s Market. Originally from Delaware, they live part-time in Waikoloa.

“Everything we’ve had is excellent and it lasts. It’s really healthy and delicious,” Nancy said.

Artisan breads fall into a different category than commercial bread. It is a matter of quality versus quantity, and Touchet uses as many organic, local ingredients as he can find. He uses 100 percent whole wheat, butter – lots of butter- Hawaiian alae salt and fresh herbs like basil and rosemary that he gets mostly from Waimea.

“It’s a real science getting the right stuff,” said Touchet, who is proud of his special egg pan and agonizes over the right combination of salt.

The Touchets, with sons Ryan and William, moved from California to the Big Island 10 years ago. Initially, Touchet put his family-learned construction skills to work, but when the economy hit hard times in 2008, he looked at baking again.

Touchet graduated from the New York Culinary School of Arts, and honed his skills in the highly competitive environments of five-star restaurants in New York City and San Francisco including Ernie’s, a landmark restaurant that served mostly traditional French cuisine. In these establishments, he perfected the “hard stuff” like soufflés, and cookies and pastries that were “tiny bits of perfection”.

The French, much like the Japanese, take pride in the finesse and intricate details of food presentation. Touchet enjoys this challenging and time-consuming task. Like a lot of chefs he is a perfectionist, which is why his breads maintain a consistent quality.

“It’s time consuming. Every little thing has to be measured, weighed and rolled by hand,” Touchet explained. “The hardest things to do are the things that people respond to the most.”

Croissants are especially labor intensive. The dough is rolled out again and again, and layer after delicate layer of tissue-thin puff pastry, or mille-feuille (French for “thousand leaves”), is laminated with butter and more butter.

“There are a million things people ask me for. (But) it takes an act of congress for me to change things,” Touchet said.

Most commercial breads found in the grocery stores on the island are baked and hermetically sealed on Oahu and flown to the Big Island, and the Palani French bakery is not in competition with these commercial breads and pastries.

“Bread needs time to cool down, and packaging is an art in itself. From the minute it comes out of the oven, it’s getting stale,” Touchet said.

The Touchets bake their bread on Friday night for the Saturday morning farmers markets. They also sell their bread to a few of the hotels on the Kohala Coast and provide bread for catering.

Do they sleep? Not much.

“We’re really going crazy. Our products do really well and we’re happy. There are worse problems than how to succeed,” Tammy said.

For more information go to palani-french-bakers.com.