New Delhi: Eclairs, macarons and authentic mille-feuille too.. Dusted with sugar and edged with the finest chocolate, Saqib Mir’s sweet dreams for Kashmir are made of these.
Srinagar’s Boulevard Road may be a far cry from Parisian boulevards with their outdoor cafes and bistros, but the pull of his homeland brought Mir back from France two years ago.
And though he has looked back several times since, he is certain that his decision to open a genuine French patisserie in the heart of volatile Srinagar is the correct one.
La Delice, which serves not just the best in French confectionery but also baguettes, quiches and the like, didn’t get off to the greatest start. The brand new workshop, set up to conjure the delicacies, was literally swept away in the Kashmir floods of 2014. But he built it up again, bought new machinery and opened in 2015 to great success.
And then in July 2016, as trouble erupted in the volatile Valley once again following the killing of militant leader Burhan Wani, Mir was forced to shut shop. But the French-trained chef and entrepreneur is back in business, quite undeterred and determined to continue with his dream of opening a little window into France in Srinagar.
“When we started in 2015, it was a period when things were really, really peaceful in Kashmir. We reinvested again [after the floods] in machines and came up with a little store on Boulevard Road in Srinagar and it started with a boom.
“Everything was going well until the unrest in 2016. We had to go back to France again because everything was closed in Kashmir,” Mir told PTI during a recent visit to Delhi.
But the hope of lasting peace hasn’t dimmed. After a long lull of almost a year, the baker is back in Kashmir to restart his “dream project”. His wife, Melanie, and their sons, an eight-year-old and the other only seven months, are expected to join him in a few months.
Now 34, Mir says he left Kashmir when he was 18 to take his family business of handicrafts forward. He landed in Paris, where he was drawn to French cooking, particularly French breads.
“In France, I used to eat a lot of bakery food and slowly the idea of getting into food came to my mind. In 2012, I took a short training course in baking. It was not really a professional one, but it became clear to me that this is what I want to do. So later I also trained professionally,” Mir said.
His love for his homeland was perhaps even greater than his love for food. So, 14 years, a French wife and a son later, he decided to return to Kashmir and open the tiny French cafe, which, Mir says, was flooded by tourists and locals alike.
While Melanie did not find it very difficult to adapt to the change in the environment, thanks to their frequent visits to Kashmir, his son did get a “culture shock” of sorts.
“It is not very different for my wife as she has been coming here since 2001, and every year we would spend at least a couple of months in India. But my son, who has grown up in France, is still reeling from a culture shock I think, especially because of things like a very different education system here,” he said.
“Kashmir is where I was born so my roots are here and I would like my children to grow up in this culture. Things are uncertain in Kashmir and we cannot always keep on going back to France, but like any other Kashmiri, I also hope for a better future here.”
Other than the pull of home, Kashmir was his place of choice for the bakery because of the weather. Though he’s now looking for opportunities in cities like Chandigarh and New Delhi, Mir says the cooler temperatures in Kashmir are suitable for the kind of food he makes.
“The climate is very suitable for French bakery products because normally we work in 20-25 degrees. In hotter places like Delhi you would need more sophisticated equipment,” he says.
Mir likes to start his day at five in the morning. “The cooler the climate, the better it is for preparing the food, and by ten, the shutters at Le Delice go up.”
However, he admits that doing business is extremely challenging in a conflict zone like Kashmir, where something as basic as butter needs to be sourced from outside.
Often, the bulk orders for raw material that he sources from places like Delhi and different regions of Europe take over a month to be delivered.
“I get a lot of ingredients from Delhi and some things like chocolate, hazelnut and pistachio bases from Europe. But we need to organise ourselves well. It is not like you place an order today and you get it tomorrow.”
“You place an order, it can come in a month’s time and sometimes it takes more than a month. The raw material is not readily available and it is not easy for us to work in this condition,” Mir said.
Invested in Kashmir’s future, that’s clearly a challenge he’s happy to face.