Margot Bakery isn’t the kind of bakery you would expect to find in East Finchley, North London. Well, perhaps you would but I didn’t. Maybe because it was my first visit ever to East Finchley (or, for that matter, to that part of North London) and all I had to rely on were preconceptions. Also because, when we stepped off the tube, the area looked so quiet in a British don’t-rock-the-boat kind of way that if I had had to conjure up a bakery there, it would have been the traditional English sort selling cottage loaves, scones, buns and pre-packaged sliced sandwich bread. Margot Bakery definitely isn’t like that.
Looking back, I wish I had had the presence of mind to take pictures as we walked from the tube to the address on East End Road. Michelle Eshkeri, the bakery’s owner, had told me we could either take a bus that would drop us very close to the shop, or use the Causeway, a pedestrian shortcut that does away with a bend in the road, and would bring us from the station to the bakery in about ten minutes. Since the bus had just left when we got off the train and the next one wasn’t due for another fifteen minutes or so, we decided to walk.
The Causeway was a narrow leafy tunnel along suburban back gardens. The railway was on the right, hidden behind foliage, houses on the left, still and silent, seemingly asleep. The path was deserted although other pedestrians occasionally appeared out of nowhere, most likely headed for the station, backpacked, ear-budded, eyes glued to their phones. No eye contact was made. It was a cloudy day with no shaft of sunshine to pierce the canopy of trees. Were it not for the periodic rumble of a train, the distant buzz of traffic, and of course the glorious birdsong (why is it that birds in Europe always sound so much more melodious?), the place would have felt like the set of a silent movie or maybe an unshakable dream.
All I know is that I was glad when we finally emerged onto East End Road. Now that I am back home though I find I cherish the memory of this sheltered path. How endearing that such enclaves endure in a metropolis like London, living remnants of a landscape that has mostly vanished.
East End Road was lined with Victorian (or is it Edwardian?) houses. The neighborhood felt definitely more middle-class than the one in East London where our Airbnb was located. It was also much less busy. Everyone must have been either at work or in school (it was close to noon) and I was beginning to think that I had misunderstood the directions and that we should indeed have taken the bus when seemingly out of nowhere shops appeared and, right in front of us, the sign for Margot Bakery!
We walked in. My appointment with Michelle wasn’t until 1 pm and we were hungry. We ordered coffee and sandwiches.
Ah that bread! Talk about love at first bite! The crumb was both perfectly chewy and gloriously mellow with notes of rusticity that hinted at rye. I later learned it was indeed Margot’s New York light rye.
The store itself was light and airy.
Notice the mailbox in front? In the old days, the bakery was actually a post office and the last postmaster is still the landlord. The franchise was taken away in 2009. The premises were then let to an uninspiring convenience store which didn’t last long and the store had been empty for two years when Michelle heard through her hairdresser that the landlord was looking for a new tenant.
The timing was good (Michelle had already started work on a business plan to open a bakery) and the location perfect: she lived right around the corner, which made it easy to manage the family’s schedule. She hired architect Lucy Tauber to remodel the shop (do click on the link for the story by Izzy Ashton and excellent pictures by photographer Ed Reeve.) “Her intention was to keep the interior relatively bare, in order to focus the customers’ attention on the food for sale.” It worked. The bakery is bright and cheerful. The first thing I saw was the babka for which Margot is justly renowned. We bought a slice to take home (sorry, it got a bit banged up in my backpack.)
Michelle is self-taught. She did take a bread class with Richard Bertinet twelve years ago when Bertinet was still in London but that’s it. She worked for a year as a pastry chef and today her pastries are a big part of what keeps the bakery in business. In her experience people start looking for their sugar fix come Friday. So she makes more wholegrain items at the beginning of the week when they feel more virtuous. She changes the weekend bread specials every month: this month (May), wild garlic on Saturday and carrot on Sunday. The formula is the same as for the beetroot sourdough but Michelle says people seem to prefer the beetroot. All breads and leavened pastries are sourdough-based.
Cakes are standardized for the month. Almond/apple cake, shortbread with caramel and chocolate are very popular. There are always dinosaurs for the kids, tahini cookies, sometimes peanut butter cookies, muffins every weekday. The selection of pastries is more diverse and exciting on weekends: brioche suisse for instance is always a hit. Before Margot, Michelle ran the Lavender Bakery in Islington where she used to live. She was single then and baking cakes for special occasions, celebrations, birthdays, etc. She scaled back when her kids were little, limiting herself to three or four cakes a week.
Like many bakers I have met over the years, Michelle started making her own bread because she was dissatisfied with what she could find in the stores. She built herself a starter and went to work: first it was mostly challah (for which Margot Bakery is still famous)…
But soon she found herself baking more bread than her family could possibly eat and giving it away to friends and neighbors. That’s when people started asking why she didn’t open her own place. When the opportunity presented itself, she went for it. She had the gut feeling that the bakery would be a community hub and it truly is. Her customers are neighbors, friends, parents of school friends. Families drop in on the way from school, they come and get their goodies on weekends, everyone knows everybody.
Margot Bakery opened on Valentine’s Day 2016. At the beginning it was only open five days a week. Although it took a while for it to establish itself, soon it had to open an extra day. Now it is open everyday although opening hours are shorter on Mondays.
The bakery started with a staff of four (two full-time, two part-time). Now Michelle has ten people working for her. She herself doesn’t bake as much as she would like to anymore as she finds it impossible to both be a good baker and run the bakery. But almost everyday she still does a bit of mixing and shaping and mans the oven. She also does the training, fills the gaps and covers days off. Still running a seven-day shift pattern is not an easy task in terms of consistency and quality.
One thing never changed: the bakery remains family-friendly. Michelle was determined to make it fit her life, not the other way around. And that’s true for the staff as well. Which means nobody comes in to work at ungodly hours. The earliest shift is the pastry chef’s who comes in twice a week at 5 AM. All others are day-shifts.
Where does the name Margot come from? “I wanted a woman’s name. My grandmother’s name is Margaret and my husband’s grandmother’s name was Perla/Perlette, which come from the same Greek and Latin root as Margot, so the name makes me think of both of them.” Michelle didn’t elaborate but I heard love and awe in her voice and I could feel the strength of the connection.
Michelle didn’t want to be photographed for this article. “The focus should be on the bakery, not on me.” Respecting her wishes, I won’t attempt to describe her. But I will say this: if I lived in the neighborhood, I too would be hanging out at the bakery. Not only because of the bread and pastries (although it would probably be the main reason) but because Michelle’s welcome couldn’t have been warmer, confirming my long-held belief that bakers are truly the salt of the earth…