Wittamer is 107 years old. It is not the only company, not even the only European pastry shop with a centenarian history, but it would be difficult to find a similar case in which a spirit and a series of almost unchanged recipes have been maintained since its beginnings. The siblings Paul and Myriam Wittamer are the third generation of this saga and responsible for not only maintaining that spirit but emphasizing its excellence and its iconic character, closely linked to Belgian culture and gastronomy. It could almost be considered a sin to visit Brussels and not go to the Place Sablon, rife with mythical chocolate shops, to enter and try something in Wittamer, the only pastry shop that has sales and production in the same space, merging several annex buildings and which also includes the residence of the owner family. ‘You can smell the Wittamer spirit when you come in here,’ says
Christophe Roesems, executive chef with more than 30 years of experience delivering his services to the Maison. His mission is to ensure that this spirit materializes in its day-to-day production, ‘it is not a question of applying a recipe or a technique, it is something that only the years can provide and feeling part of Wittamer.’ A total of 20 people are distributed in the different workshops under the orders of Christophe Roesems, who works with the collaboration and complicity of the siblings Paul and Myriam. Through him, we learn about three of the most emblematic specialties of the house: the Lingot d’Or, the Misérables, and the Samba cake.
Photos by Debic and Wittamer
What is your role in Wittamer?
I am responsible for ensuring the spirit of the house in all the production, whether in cuisine, pastry, bakery, ice cream, or chocolate. I am the guardian of Wittamer quality. We are a maison that breathes tradition and it is important that all the equipment conforms to the interpretation of this tradition, that it follows the creation of the recipes in a certain way. Everything must have the same character, spirit and philosophy.
After 33 years in this house, I think I perfectly know what the spirit that inspires each product is. That soul does not permeate easily. It is not just a recipe, there are many more things that are inherited in a house with a hundred-year history. There are many elements that have to be mastered.
Can you put that Wittamer spirit into words?
Generations. Middle-aged people who want to convey to their children what they felt when they were little when their grandfather brought them to try a cake in Wittamer. It is exactly the same Lingot d’Or! Everything remains the same, we have not changed the quality.
Have you kept yourselves intact?
What must remain intact is the spirit, not the recipe. And the difficulty of maintaining that spirit is in finding the balance between satisfying new trends and the concerns of the consumer, the new times, always with Wittamer products. Those older people who come to our store want to find the flavor and the product they tried when they were small, but at the same time they now want products which are less sweet, less fatty. It is not easy to find that balance. But if we have turned 107 and we have succeeded, we are confident that we can continue to do so in the future.
Is there no room for innovation in Maison Wittamer?
We represent the quality of the product. It is what our customers are looking for, classic flavors like chocolate, vanilla, or caramel. Each Christmas increases our sales by 10% or 20% because we embody that classic spirit. We created a cake for Easter, with milk chocolate, passion fruit, and a coconut panna cotta. It did not work well; the combination was too bold for a place like ours. We changed coconut to vanilla, and the response improved significantly. Where we are different from the rest is that we work with the best vanilla.
“We represent the quality of the product. Where we are different from the rest is that we work with the best vanilla’
Aren’t the young ones anxious to do different things?
Youth is sometimes interested only in aesthetics, but the real challenge is surprising with what is inside, and that is where I need to place interest. It is difficult to reinvent a classic, there is a reason it is there. I think that today there are many chefs who try to create new things constantly, but do not look deeply at the combination of flavors, the balance of what is behind a product. Also, a lot happens in the kitchen, there are many changes, many things. They play far from the essence and then realize that they have to go back to the basics.
Can you give an example of your role as guardian?
I remember an anecdote related to the creation of the Misérable. The recipe we have in the workshop has the amounts calculated for four cakes, but an employee wanted to take better advantage of the mixture of the cakes to get two more plates. This caused a decompensation of the thickness of the sponge with respect to the cream and the result was completely different. In the end, it is in these details where you try to make a difference, your own way. The texture of each cream, each cake, the thickness… is a mixture of many variables that do not stick to a formula. We try to maintain that spirit, that practically intact result in the last decades. I do not think there are many historic pastry shops that can say the same thing.
Does your team understand this rigidity?
I am open to evolving, to changing things, but I need to control everything to make sure that we get a regularity. I do not want our products to vary according to the day. I recently had to return one of our oldest pastry chefs to the viennoserie station, because we had detected that a chocolate filling did not come out as usual. Not that they were doing it wrong, but they had changed something of the usual system and we had to re-establish the customary method to recover the same result. I always say the same to my team: you can try what you want, if you have an idea, come to me and we will try it. If it is better than what we already do, we will incorporate it into our system. But if it is not better, then it is advisable to continue as before. Paul and Myriam Wittamer also help me to supervise that all products go out as usual, together we take care of that regularity.
Is it your main task?
There is a spirit in our maison, I would say that I can smell it. I try to pass it on to the younger ones, to the latest additions. That spirit is special, it should be remembered that some of the greatest figures in European pastry – Hermé, Biasetto, Perruchon – have passed through here, have been able to feel this spirit. And I know that they all have a good memory of the experience.
Have you considered any changes for the future?
I have been in this house for more than 30 years and it is a great challenge for me to maintain the spirit of this family business. The truth is that I want to remain part of this history.
You will find this three recipes in so good #18