THE GOOD LIFE
SEPTEMBER 7, 2010
BY ELISABETH KHAN-VAN DEN HOVE
Not an April Fools’ prank, but joyful news for Metro Detroit: Dick Julian, owner of the Julian Brothers Bakery, a hidden gem tucked away in a nondescript strip mall off Rochester Road near 14 Mile, has been turning out a couple dozen of the delicacies – all but indistinguishable from the Belgian original – on an almost daily basis for several weeks now. (The extra touch is the almond on top, giving the American customer a clue as to the flavor of the pastry).
As the name “mattentaart” is protected in Belgium and limited to the area around the town of Geraardsbergen (East Flanders), where this regional specialty was first developed, we may have to call it “mittentaart,” after the shape of our Lower Peninsula. Just kidding! At Julian Brothers, the pastries are referred to as “Belgian almond cakes.”
There’s not a drop of Belgian blood in the Julian family, but plenty Italian. “My grandfather had to change his name from Giuliani,” says Dick, “in order to find a job.” And the brothers? “I tried to get all of my brothers to work in the bakery with me at one time or another, but in the end they didn’t like it and left. But one of my sisters is still here.”
“A baker’s life is not easy; it ‘s tough on the family, on the marriage, too,” says Julian when I tell him how old-fashioned warme bakkers, who bake fresh bread every night, are fast disappearing in Belgium. Julian has worked in bakeries since age 13, when he started as a bench hand or apprentice, cleaning and oiling baking pans. In his early twenties, he tried several other jobs like bartending and pharmaceutical sales, did stints in a bank and worked for Chrysler. At age 26, wearing a suit and tie straight from his office job, he spotted a “For Rent” sign on these premises. The landlord laughed – “That’ll never work!” – when Julian told him he planned to open a bakery there. That was 38 years ago. Nowadays, 20 to 35 people are employed here (including part-time workers) at any given time as bakers, sales staff, and cleaners. Dick Julian still loves the job; he has no intention of retiring.
To keep things interesting, Julian is open to innovation, and when longtime customer Laurie Kohler and her Belgian husband, Ivan De Wilde, gave him the recipe for the mattentaart, he started experimenting with it in his spare time. The process reminded him of certain Italian specialties made with Ricotta or Mascarpone cheese. It took him about four months of trial and error to get to the point where the De Wilde family said, “No more changes, you got it just right!”
The little cakes appeared on the bakery shelves without much fanfare. Belgians started turning up by word of mouth, some of them driving half an hour or more, coming back for another dozen soon after. Dick also hands out samples randomly to customers. The novelty has been well received by the locals, Dick reports, but “the Belgians’ eyes just light up seeing them.”
At the moment, the “Belgian almond cakes” retail for $1.79 apiece. “It’s a fairly laborious procedure,” the baker says, “starting with the making of cheese curds. Right now, I buy my milk in gallon containers, but I’m looking for a bulk supplier, so I can get the cost down. Then it will become cheaper for my customers, too. I prefer to do a volume business, rather than selling exclusive, expensive things. I don’t see myself as an artist either. I just want to make good things that ordinary people will love to eat.”
Any other products of interest to our readers? “We have a full assortment of European-style cookies,” says Julian. “We also make lunch foods, and will make just about anything you care to order.” It’s news to him that his raisin egg bread reminds me of Belgian “koekebrood” (cake bread) or “kramiek.” The only difference is that his loaf is braided, which we don’t usually do in Belgium. “Give me the original Belgian recipe,” Julian says, “and I’ll try it!”
P.S. Mr. Julian has started experimenting with recipes for Belgian honey cake, known as “peperkoek,” “ontbijtkoek,” or in French, “pain d’épices.” He hopes to come up with a saleable product by December 2010.
518 S Rochester Rd
Clawson, MI 48017-2124