I should know better, and in theory I do, but somehow I always forget about Fridays in Mayfair. Last week I did my usual stupid thing and arrived in this inner city, predominantly Muslim, Johannesburg suburb at about 11.45 on a Friday morning – just as all the shops and restaurants were closing for mid-day prayers. I ended up loitering in one of the few Hindu-owned fabric shops at the Oriental Plaza until the faithful came back to work at 1.30.
Saleh’s Bakery was definitely worth the wait. The location is a challenge. It is on a heavily-trafficked road complete with hooting taxis and roaring juggernauts. I have repeatedly driven past the bakery but the anxiety engendered by the mere idea of trying to turn right has previously put me off attempting to park. This time, I plucked up my courage and managed the manoeuvre.
We live in a world where real, old-fashioned pastry and bakery skills are rare but Chef-patron Ayub Saleh is the real deal. When I praised his work he shrugged modestly but he did ultimately acknowledge that he was “properly trained in Coventry a million years ago” (although it looks as if it was probably more like thirty) and that he does “like doing things the right way”. I was extremely excited to discover Saleh’s Bakery. I rushed about the tiny shop with attached kitchen like a mad woman buying one of everything and offering repeated, effusive complements. Ayub Saleh and his sons laughed off all such admiration in West-Midlands accents but their talent is apparent to anyone with eyes and/or taste-buds.
Every bite of the Macaroon at Saleh Bakery (available in classic and funky flavours – think salted caramel, rooibos, lemongrass etc) is a brief moment of perfection in which a light, even-textured crust gives way to a layer of moist almond meringue and then a centre of silky smooth filling. Many Macaroons in Johannesburg have bumpy skins (almonds insufficiently ground) and dry, tough shells suggesting staleness. Often they are also cloyingly sweet. At Saleh’s Bakery sugar doesn’t take over. The flavour is really there. It is not just colouring masquerading as taste.
Before anyone starts imagining a Parisian patisserie with fittings and food in pretty, muted pastel shades, it is important to point out that the store’s aesthetic and recipes owe at least as much to a Bollywood colour scheme and flavour repertoire as they do to Francophone posh nosh. I am a magpie so I adored all the edible diamonds. I especially admired the rainbow Swiss rolls. It is impossible to imagine anything more eye-catching than these glorious swirls of cream-cheese filled striped sponge. They are perfect examples of the Joconde decorative technique but the kaleidoscope of colours would put the gay pride flag to shame. Each Swiss roll is a classic roulade but vibrant in a way that is simply not possible within a French understanding of the colour wheel. All the South African sweet treats – from Cape-style, coconut-rolled Koesisters to ruby red kasi-classic Queen’s cakes – are also available. The bread selection is particularly eclectic with crusty Portuguese-style, flour dusted rolls sitting next to platted, brioche-like Jewish Challah and a stack of of Tamil cardamom-laced sweet Puran Poli fried flat breads.
When was the last time you saw a Gateau Saint-Honoré anywhere? And yet, there they sit in Mayfair, puffed up with the pride of well-risen choux pastry. Saint Honoré was/is the Catholic patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs. Friday lunch time closing notwithstanding, the afore-mentioned holy man’s blessings and beneficence are apparent everywhere at Saleh’s Bakery.
Saleh’s Bakery 011 837 4274 or 082 378 7178; 81 Church Street, Mayfair, Johannesburg
• Dr Anna Trapido was trained as an anthropologist at King’s College Cambridge and a chef at the Prue Leith College of Food and Wine. She has twice won the World Gourmand Cookbook Award. She has made a birthday cake for Will Smith, a Christmas cake for Nelson Mandela and cranberry scones for Michelle Obama. She is in favour of Champagne socialism and once swallowed a digital watch by mistake.