From Aleppo to Paris, pastry chef Myriam Sabet marries French and Levantine flavours
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The Maison Aleph pastry shop, in Paris, stands as a reminder that Aleppo’s identity stretches well beyond Syria’s civil war. At the crossroads between France and the Levant, Myriam Sabet hopes to revive her hometown’s golden age with her pâtisserie.
Aleppo… Wait, not THAT Aleppo. The Aleppo on offer at 20, rue de la Verrerie, in the French capital's Marais area, evokes the Silk Road, the “Thousand and One Nights” heady with jasmine, Samarkand and delicate crystallised rose petals. Myriam Sabet was born and raised in that Aleppo and it is to that city that she pays tribute with Maison Aleph. The name refers to the first letter of the alphabet in Arabic and Hebrew, “but resonates, too, with Aleppo”.
“I was very lucky to grow up in a city where families lend a lot of importance to gastronomy,” Sabet says, her eyes twinkling with her love for tasty delights. “In Aleppo, families are known for the quality of their cuisine. It is a source of pride.” And the city, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, has a lot to be proud of. As the last Western stage on the Silk Road, it enjoyed pride of place for the sheer selection of raw material arrivals, the influx of fruits and spices from China and India. “It was a city associated with pleasures and it drew many gourmets and cooks. Much more than other cities, Aleppo has the quest for gastronomic pleasure in its DNA,” says Sabet.
Before war broke out in 2011, Syria’s second-largest city, in the country’s northwest, was unanimously acclaimed for its gastronomy. “This is where you will find Syria’s best restaurants,” travel guides proclaimed of Aleppo.
Kamal Mouzawak, who wrote “Manger libanais” (Eat Lebanese), agrees. “Aleppo is a city that incarnates sophistication par excellence: ‘Halabi chalabi’, as they say, the Aleppine is sophisticated,” Mouzawak told France 24. “It has always been a city of commerce, of exchange, of riches at every level, and in particular at the culinary level. Aleppo cuisine is a cuisine apart from those of the entire region in terms of its richness, its sophistication, its technique, its taste!”
It is those unique flavours that the Franco-Syrian Sabet imparts on her clientele. “I dig through my memories, like this ice cream made from an infusion of roasted melon and watermelon seeds. I remember the flavour and I try to recreate it.”
Bitter orange, thick-rinded citron, “the conspicuousness of rose”, pistachio, orange blossom… Sabet’s shopfront is a window on the garden of her childhood. Peek inside and one is transported within her sweetest memories. To the Sunday meal where the family and the in-laws pit their culinary talents up against each other. To the balconies where apricots, red cheeks blushing with sweetness, turn to jam over days under the sun. To bread spread thick with halva, a snack on the road to school, or the cherry and almond ice creams.
Thirty years on, after a first career in finance that taught her analytical skills and how to take a step back, Sabet is lifting the veil on the finest flavours and pairings the Levant has to offer: almond-orange blossom, lemon-cardamom, zaatar-orange, chocolate-sumac, rosewater, her grandmother’s recipe, the same one she often bottles and slips into her daughter’s school bag. And the pistachios, especially the pistachios. Sabet gets emotional at the memory of the crackling sound they make as they burst through their shells on the tree.
It is in Sabet’s neighbouring lab that she sets out to replicate the emotions of her childhood. “When I was little, I loved everything that was sweet: knafeh bil jibne, golden angel hair wrapped around a fine layer of melted cheese, drizzled with orange blossom syrup, sweet and sour vishne cherry ice creams, green walnut jam…” The list is long and the 41-year-old Sabet’s knowledge is deep.
She never imagined that all of these memories could become a profession. “If you had told me I would open a pastry shop, I would not have believed you. I am living a dream. It is so big that I never would have dared express it. Making pastry, talking about my profession, helping people discover it, sharing… I’m hooked!” she says.
It was Sabet’s love of good food that took her from the trading floor to the pastry counter. “Giving birth to my daughter made me feel the need to give meaning to what I was doing. There were things I didn’t accept anymore. Since pâtisserie was my primary pleasure, it became obvious,” she exclaims in her Marais shop, a visual and refined boutique where Mediterranean blue nuances meet gold and immaculate white.
Flavours as they should be
“I couldn't find an oriental pâtisserie in Paris that suited me and I could not conceive of my friends having that image of oriental pastry and finding it good. It made me want to introduce people to the flavours as they should be,” she says between streams of customers, from the local businessman to the Japanese tourist and the young schoolboy digging for change at the bottom of his book bag for Maison Aleph’s latest creation: an Easter egg dressed in praline, almond and hazelnut, with a hint of orange blossom, set into a nest of angel hair.
To bring her project to fruition, Sabet went back to school and obtained a professional certificate in pâtisserie in Paris in 2014 before seeking initiation into Aleppine savoir-faire. She found a master pastry chef in Canada whose father had practiced in Aleppo during her grandfather’s time. “It was fundamental to me to understand the ins and outs of the profession, as much on the French side as the Syrian. I wanted to use both as a jumping off point and to reinterpret, to adapt, from there. We are a long way from Middle Eastern pâtisserie, but I wanted to help people discover the flavours as they are, orange blossom as it is.”
Everything here is about flavour and sharing emotions. “I do neither French nor Levantine pâtisserie,” she says. As such, French chocolate shares the spotlight with pomegranate; the butter is clarified according to oriental tradition but with butter that comes certified from Poitou-Charentes, in France. Fresh fruit, which isn’t used in Levantine pastry, nests inside the angel hair, or kadaïf, representative of Middle Eastern desserts.
“Her work fits with the world today: Diverse, colourful. It’s a patchwork,” says Mouzawak, who encouraged Sabet to “recount her origins all in sweetness” early on. “Myriam’s pastry isn’t fusion but really a blend of the bases and ingredients of an oriental pâtisserie with French pâtisserie, just like the people that we are,” he says.
Suffice it to say that sweetness is welcome. Sabet’s birthplace – and indeed the very cradle of Levantine cuisine – has been destroyed by the civil war that entered its eighth year in March. What remains is the food, the memories, the flavours of her childhood. “People have never spoken more about Levantine cuisine than they have since the war in Syria began. Maison Aleph is my way of celebrating a gastronomy, of helping people to relive the flavours, even though it isn’t done in a traditional manner,” says Sabet.
This article has been translated from the original in French.