This is a bit of a nostalgic trip for me. In the late 70s I studied Fine Art at Leeds Polytechnic when art schools were still the ‘sandboxes of the disaffected’. I was trying to be an artist but, as my tutor pointed out, while I wasn’t the worst painter in the world I was “fucking close”. I realised that I was never going to be Lucian Freud but the course did fill my me with an undying love of European Bohemianism. These thoughts drift through my head as I pull into Leeds Station to review the menu at the relaunched Patisserie Valerie.
There is a wonderful photo of Lucian Freud and his mother sitting in the original Patisserie Valerie in London’s Soho. You can find it online and it’s worth a look. Both stare at the camera in glorious ennui, remembering perhaps that Patisserie Valerie, too, reminds them of a place they once came from. I went to Patisserie Valerie on a trip to London as that young art student to soak up the rich atmosphere of Soho which had been the hub of so much that was exciting from the end of the war. The names of the places dripped with Europeanness. Not only Patisserie Valerie but The French House, Bar Italia, Jimmy the Greek’s and the infamous Colony Rooms. It reeked of sex, art, paint, prostitution, alcohol, food and good coffee. A cake at Patisserie Valerie tasted of all these things.
From its beginnings in 1926, Patisserie Valerie always represented that culture. Great quality merchandise at fair prices on rickety chairs and mismatched tables in a dark panelled interior. In 2006, the name brand was bought out by Luke Johnson’s Risk Capital Partners, expanding to 192 shops including on Deansgate and Oxford Road in Manchester. By 2019, the company had gone into administration and the Serious Fraud Office was investigating “a multimillion pound black hole in the accounts”. Somebody had eaten all the pies and Patisserie Valerie stopped trading with the loss of 2,500 jobs. When a risk capital fund buys a valued institution with no understanding of what it means, it will end badly. I did try it and the quality and unique atmosphere had disappeared, just like Lucian and his mother.
Earlier this year the company was rescued in a management buyout by Causeway Capital Partners. The Leeds interior has retained some of the panelled walls, and the chairs and tables, while no longer rickety and mismatched, were as deep red as I remembered them. Melissa, the Maitre’d, greeted me with a hearty smile and a reserved table. The menu was filled with what you would expect from a good mid-priced café; sandwiches, omelettes, cakes and the ubiquitous full English. I stuck to the most European food on the menu. A Croque Monsieur, salad and parmentier potatoes all arrived with auspicious punctuality. The ham and cheese was smokey and embedded within well-toasted bloomers and a creamy bechamel sauce. My only wish would have been a glass of a dry Viennese Riesling to cut through the creaminess. I finished with a delightful baked cheesecake. Melissa obliged me with a request for an off-menu espresso con panna. More creamy goodness on top of excellent coffee.
While it will never be the same as the glory days of the Soho original, the Leeds venue had enough of a European taste to remind me of that time. I hope that Patisserie Valerie survives and thrives because we need something on our high streets to show that, deep down, we are still cultured and, above all, European.