Alexandra's cakes, cookies, and caps

Dina Ezzat , Monday 7 Oct 2019

Lilianne Issa talks about environment awareness as part of the evolution of the century-old patisserie business

Lilianne Issa
Lilianne Issa (Photo: Lilianne Issa)

The entrance of Alexandra Khamos Patisserie carries an intense presence of the long history of one of Alexandria’s oldest pastry shops.
The interior design is simple, with a basic display style. The selection of pastries and cakes is another testimony of where Alexandra Khamos comes from.

The selection of mille-feuille, sable and St Honoré is unaccompanied with even the remotest presence of the recent assemblies of cakes covered with chocolate bar chunks and candy bits. The boulangerie section displays croissants and pâtés that are made in the traditional recipes – with no chocolate chips toppings or chocolate paste fillings.

The one thing that seems out of the ordinary for the otherwise mostly traditional setting of the place is a set of big plastic pots filled with colourful bottle caps.

Those are the covers of bottles of oil, milk and maybe water that Lilianne Issa, the proud owner and manager of Patisserie Alexandra Khamos, and her clients have been collecting for over six months.

The three containers would soon find their way to one of Alexandria’s prominent charities that would in turn take them for a recycling business in exchange for an amount of money that would be dedicated to provide medical assistance for some Alexandrians.

It was earlier this year that Issa was attending a fund-raising event for a charity when she got this idea. Throughout the year, Issa had shown a firm commitment to the cause.

“I make sure that our patisserie does not miss putting a single plastic cap for this purpose; and I take the liberty to keep encouraging our dedicated clients to join our cause,” Issa said.

For Issa this is not just about charity, “although this is really an important cause,” but also about promoting environmental awareness.

“The whole world is becoming more sensitive to the disastrous repercussions of plastic waste on the environment; and in the meantime our business has become quite trapped in the plastic waste because almost everything now comes in a plastic container,” she added.

It has been over 20 years since this half-Greek, half-Lebanese-Alexandrian had taken over the store that used to carry the name of her mother’s maternal grandfather: Khamos, who came to Alexandria in the early years of the 20th century and caught up the baking business at a downtown bakery that was owned by a Greek and an Italian before he moved on to start his own business, first as a boulangerie and then as a patisserie, in Ibrahimiya district.

Old Khamos at AlIbrahimya

famous brioche at Khamos
famous brioche at Khamos

For a few consecutive decades Khamos' was providing the city’s top hotels with their bread and breakfast bakeries. It was also providing the Greek and Armenian communities of the harbour city with their brioche that they serve for alternative religious, festive and sad occasions. It was then also providing its clients with cakes and cookies.

The products of Khamos at the time catered for the diverse community of the city – but of course it had a special tilt to the Greek patisserie recipes. So there were always the Skaltsounia, a cookie made of a peanut paste, for Good Friday, the Tsoureki, which is quite similar to the brioche, for Easter, the Vasilopita, which is similar to a brioche with a good luck coin in it for new year because Orthodox Greeks give gifts on New Year’s Eve, not on Christmas Eve, and the Finicsia, a cookie made of a semolina and cinnamon paste, for Christmas.

Today, Issa said, these very same recipes are still served, with very few amendments. Some of these amendments are designed to fit the budget concerns and this includes the more often than not replacement of olive oil with vegetarian oil. Other amendments cater to the seyami (fasting) demands of the city’s Coptic Orthodox community that observes several fasts throughout the year when they refrain from consuming all dairies.

“So I guess one key evolution in the business as I have taken it over 21 years ago is the few customisations we had to introduce to the demands of the clients of today as opposed to the clients of the early decades of the 20th century,” said Issa.

Issa takes credit for having introduced selected items of oriental patisseries for the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan and of diversifying its feast cookies options and its chocolate selections.

“It is good to keep the traditional recipes that have given this place its celebrated name, but it is impossible to ignore the norms of the time,” Issa said.

Old Khamos at AlIbrahimya
Old Khamos at AlIbrahimya

famous brioche at Khamos

Khamos was closed for close to 20 years, when the Nasser regime introduced the nationalisation of foreign businesses until the second half of the 1970s when the family that had left Egypt to Lebanon in the early 1960s came back as the Lebanese civil war broke out.

When it was time for Issa, who carries the family name of her Lebanese father, to take over the Khamos business that carried the name of her maternal grand-mother, she decided to first take it to its new phase whereby it has become Alexandra Khamos, in honour of her maternal grandmother.

Then she decided to pick up the recipe book of the chefs who managed the baking of Khamos bakeries and pastries from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s and to make sure that her products were faithful to the legacy.

“By the early 1990s the patisserie business had not yet shifted fully from its traditional choices but it was starting to evolve in a way that brought the traditional recipes into more variations,” Issa said.

A good example, she would argue, was the mille-feuille that was a classic Napoleon recipe to embrace more fruity variations. The same, she added, went for the éclair that was also moving from the traditional chocolate and vanilla recipes for the mocca and fruity variations.

These were developments that Issa was willing to take along. However, during the past years the evolution took a curve that the Alexandra Khamos boss would not succumb to. Her store would not serve the assemblies of mille-feuille and éclair or the mille-feuille with kanafeh and pistachio fillings. Nor would her chefs do Maltesers mille-feuille or an éclair with M&Ms.

“Out of the question; I will not get there,” Issa said.

For her this is not just a question of what Alexandra Khamos stands for in the world of Alexandrian patisseries, but also “for what is healthy and of quality and what is not.

“A piece of cake has enough sugar in it and it does not need the excessive toppings of candies and chocolate bars; people should be able to enjoy good-quality cake without dumping endless calories into their bodies,” she emphasised.

Then, again, Issa added, it is ultimately about the identity of this patisserie. “This is a traditional French patisserie that was launched by an Alexandrian Greek in the early decades of the 20th century and that is currently serving to clients of Alexandria who are growing increasingly aware about the health concerns of excessive sugar consumption,” she said.

Issa is not worried about losing clients to new, or for that matter old, pastry stores who venture into the recipes of the assemblies. After all, she said, if there is one obvious space where the saying of "you cannot please everyone" applies most, it is certainly the patisserie business.

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