Lifestyle

Niigata baker winning over Swiss palates with traditional sweets, breads

by Maya Kaneko

Kyodo

Born into a family of bakers with more than 100 years of history in Japan, Hironori Takahashi has considered himself an evangelist of traditional Japanese bread, filled with such ingredients as red bean paste, curry and custard cream.

Even so, it was a challenge, to say the least, for Takahashi — said to be the only Japanese owner of a bakery in Switzerland — to promote soft and fluffy Japanese bread in the country, where people mostly eat bread with thick crusts and often use it to scoop up soups or sauces.

But with the help of the popular cartoon “Yakitate!! (freshly baked) Ja-pan,” the story of a fiery Japanese baker seeking to make the ultimate bread, Takahashi’s shop in the suburbs of Zurich now has as many local Swiss customers as Japanese expatriates.

“At this year’s ‘JapAniManga Night,’ a fair of Japanese cartoon and animation in Davos (southeast of Zurich) in May, we sold as many as 3,000 breads in one day thanks to the popularity of ‘Yakitate!! Ja-pan,'” said the 41-year-old baker from Niigata Prefecture, who opened his shop in 2010.

The cartoon series, which chronicles a boy named Kazuma Azuma and his quest to create a national pan — the word for bread in Japanese — was adapted into an anime television series and aired between 2004 and 2006 in Japan.

Takahashi said that because of the anime series his Swiss fans have especially taken to melon breads, a type of sweet bun covered with crispy cookie crust that resembles cantaloupe.

“When I opened my own bakery, 80 percent of customers were Japanese living in Switzerland because Swiss people seemed to shun the concept of breads being soft,” he said. “To many Swiss people, it may also have been unthinkable to eat sweet beans.”

But led by cartoon fans and those who have been to Japan and eaten Japanese bread, sales at his shop, located in an office district, have doubled since it opened.

The bakery, called Hiro Takahashi, sells about 30 varieties of Japanese breads made with such ingredients as beans, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, crab and tuna flakes, chocolate cream and matcha green tea powder.

They are mostly sold at 3 to 3.5 Swiss francs (¥375-¥437), roughly triple the prices in Japan, but local customers seem to be more concerned about taste than price.

A policewoman who came to the bakery for the second time to buy melon bread for her and a co-worker said, “The taste is special and the texture is so light. Compared with Swiss breads, they are a bit expensive, but it is reasonable because special ingredients are used.”

Takahashi also delivers bread from his bakery to 20 shops in the major Swiss cities of Zurich, Bern, Geneva and Lausanne. To cater to the local palate, he has reduced the amount of sugar used and made the taste of bitter matcha milder.

“Japanese breads are made from flour containing more gluten than flour used to make breads here in Switzerland. I procure custom-ordered flour from a local supplier,” he said. His shop also uses a machine imported from Japan to knead dough.

For Takahashi, who came to Switzerland in 1999 to study confectionery after completing culinary school in Tokyo, life has been full of twists and turns.

Originally wishing to study either in France or Austria, he sent about 200 letters to apply for confectioner jobs in Europe, but only Switzerland issued him a work visa — not as a pastry cook but as a chef for Japanese restaurants.

After working at sushi and teppanyaki (iron grill cooking) restaurants for three years, Takahashi finally obtained a visa to work as a confectioner and landed a job at Savoy Baur en Ville, a five-star hotel in Zurich.

While working at the hotel as a patissier, he launched a catering business with his wife as a side job, delivering Japanese bread and sweets to families for birthday parties and other celebratory occasions.

“When I was working as a chef of Japanese food, there were only five sushi restaurants in Zurich, compared with 20 at present, and Japanese dietary culture was not widely introduced,” Takahashi said. “I wanted to bring in delicious Japanese food other than sushi.”

As the catering business began to thrive, Takahashi decided to open his own bakery, which now also offers other Japanese food items including edamame soybeans and fried shrimp.

His business was affected by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, as Swiss avoided Japanese food items for a while and imports of flour from Japan for bread-making stopped.

In 2012, tragedy struck when Takahashi’s wife was killed in a traffic accident. “But I didn’t think of closing the bakery because I wanted to keep running it as she had desired,” he said.

Leaving behind his two children in Japan, Takahashi continued his business and remarried last year, with the couple later having a child. He plans to reunite with his two other children in Switzerland next year.

Looking back on his experience of venturing out of Japan rather than inheriting the bakery his great-grandfather started in Niigata, Takahashi said he expects people trying to blaze a trail to “believe in themselves and take the first step despite fear, since the second step will naturally follow.”

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