Choosing a more authentic life
It could be the plot for a feel-good movie, but his story is true. What makes it even sweeter is that the couple couldn't be nicer, or more deserving of their success.
But let's start at the beginning ...
Since 1904 there has been a bakery in the village of Asnelles in Normandy. This was a time when the plages were just beaches, not THE D-Day beaches. Charles Bansard began making a simple but delicious butter cookie, using only the best local ingredients.
" Garantis au beurre pur" - Guaranteed pure butter. Yum. Almost every decadent treat I can think of contains butter. And in Normandy, the quality of the butter, milk and cream are exceptional, thanks to the Normandy cow. So this bakery became quite successful, and was passed on from father to son, then owner to owner, without pause.
But the Normandy cow is not the only hero of our story.
Meanwhile Jean-Francois Otter was working in the frozen food industry in Paris. He had important roles in purchasing, marketing and packaging, but he worked mostly with fresh and frozen foods. He longed for more personal contact with the food, and the people who would eat it. His friend and colleague Armel Garnier who was working in the fish industry in Paris, had fond childhood memories of the Sables d'Asnelles. When he saw that the business was up for sale, Armel, Jean-Francois and his wife Lyna knew immediately this was it. They took a leap of faith and moved from the City of Lights to the quiet village near Gold Beach.
All of the pieces were falling into place: the childhood connection - making traditional desserts by hand - and the historic location. Gold Beach is significant to us all, but Lyna's grandfather had been in the French resistance in Normandy, so owning a shop in this location was like coming full circle.
It was 2017 when Jean-Francois and Lyna took on this labor of love. While they had left behind the hectic corporate world in Paris, this idyllic vocation was not necessarily any less work! Being an artisan means that you are your business. It means long hours and lots of energy.
I first met Jean-Francois and Lyna in May of 2018. When I arrived, there was a line of people out the door, and the sweet aroma of freshly baked cookies filled the town square. Entering the shop was like coming to meet old friends - there were warm smiles and friendly banter amidst the flurry of activity. As Jean-Francois took me on a tour, what I noticed more than anything was how happy everyone was. There was even singing! Take a look:
When I asked the secret to this joyful atmosphere, Lyna confided that it was two-fold: the first being that husband and wife work together, but each in a different area! That way no one is resentful of the other working long hours, and yet they aren't too close. The second factor is their positive management style, which is based on mutual respect. Employees are carefully chosen for their passion of the products and their good character. Jean-Francois and Lyna have created a familial ambiance where everyone takes care of each other. (We could all use a bit more of this in the world!)
Traditions and New Twists
The butter cookie recipe has not changed since 1904. They are still made by hand, every day, and include the best ingredients from the region: butter from Isigny, flour from Caen, sugar and local eggs. That's it. No machines. A loving tradition continues.
But there is also room for ingenuity. Isigny is also known for caramel, so in 2019 they added the "Carasnelles" cookie which won the public choice award in Normandy. The couple keeps adding to the menu, and recently expanded their space.
The original bakery was quite small, and customers crowded over the pastry display. Now they can spread out (which is especially important now!) and even sit and enjoy their pastries with a hot drink. Speaking of pastries, that menu has expanded as well. There is also room for other local specialities, so you can purchase cider, Calvados, beer, jams, honey, caramel, and chocolate made by local artisans.
When I asked what they liked most about this career, they responded that despite the long hours and manual labor, it is the potential the recipe gives them, and the glitter of gratitude in their customer's eyes. That is all the satisfaction they need.
I hope to return very soon to les Sables d'Asnelles; to take my time, lingering over pastries in this special space. Jean-Francois and Lyna are both fluent in English, so plan to stay and have a chat. You will feel like one of the family. You may even feel like singing yourself!
Les Sables d'Asnelles
2 Place Alexander Stanier
14960 Asnelles, France
Phone: +33 2 31 22 18 57