by Jacqueline Cain
Photographs Courtesy Penguin Random House
In the 30 years since a group of childhood friends from Belgrade co-founded a bread bakery in Hyannis, Pain d’Avignon has become a symbol of quality. If a café stocks its pastry case with Pain d’Avignon scones and cookies or serves sandwiches on slices of the bakery’s classic sourdough, it tells astute eaters that it cares about freshness and flavor.
Pain d’Avignon might have started small but is now a wholesale giant, with its artisanal bagels, breads, croissants, and pastries shipped daily to farmer’s markets, cafés, restaurants, hotels, and large grocery chains throughout the Northeast. But that’s not all: they also operate a popular café in Hyannis serving breakfast and gourmet lunch; at night, it transitions into a fine French restaurant for dinner.
It’s alluring to learn that the iconic Cape Cod company is actually an American dream realized by happenstance at somebody’s mother’s summer house. This improbable backstory stars an interlocking network of Eastern European immigrants who were virtually responsible for the rise of artisan bread in the United States. Co-founder Uliks Fehmiu shares this compelling history in The Pain d’Avignon Baking Book: A War, an Unlikely Bakery, and a Master Class in Bread, co-written with Kathleen Hackett and published by Penguin Random House.
Prefacing the book’s 60 recipes is the Pain d’Avignon story, which unfolds in three “acts” set in Europe, Cape Cod, and New York City. Interestingly, Fehmiu was a theatre actor in Belgrade trying to avoid being drafted into the conflict that would become the Yugoslav Wars when he originally invested in Pain d’Avignon. He and his friends, co-founders Branislav Stamenkovic, Vojin Vujosevic, and Igor Ivanovic, began a new life by opening a tiny bakery on Cape Cod, living in a loft above the business and working round-the-clock hours.
Fehmiu’s page-turning recollections, along with evocative color illustrations, introduce characters like Pain d’Avignon’s “imperious” original baker, Hamdo, a Bosnian Muslim who trains the opening team in bread-baking basics “entirely by look and feel.” It elucidates how Cambridge company Iggy’s Bread of the World raised the bar for artisan bread on the East Coast, and how Fehmiu himself ended up becoming an expert. Despite the formulas, repetition, and consistency required of baking—especially on the level of growth-minded Pain d’Avignon—the former actor sees art in the pursuit and lays it all out for readers.
“We set out to tell the story of the trials and successes that have led us to where we are today and show firsthand how a keen sense of imagination will keep humanity moving forward,” Fehmiu says in a statement. “It paints a picture of creativity and imagination and how baking feeds those whimsies.”
And there’s plenty of whimsy to go around. The book features dozens of Pain d’Avignon’s signature breads, viennoiseries, sandwiches, and more.