I wrote this piece a few years ago, while we were trying to track the Mekong River from source to mouth (I love a trip with a theme!) and we were beguiled by The Bakery No. 88. It’s still there, and it’s the sort of place I’d travel to the ends of the earth to get to (which is a bit what Yunnan province in China felt like).
It was the cakes that did it. There were so many of them. They tempted me. Lured me in. I was lost. I resolved to try as many as I could during the time that I was in Dali. And so my visits to The Bakery No. 88 began.
Chatting to Karine, the German owner, I discovered that in a past life she’d been a chemical engineer. But she told me: “I always baked. My mother made wonderful cakes, and when I was fourteen I made my first cake, telling her I could do better than she could”. A wonderful thing, the confidence of youth. She made cakes for friends and now in her retirement has used this passion to help young Chinese women. “I wanted to show them that if they worked hard and made an effort, they could achieve something”. Karine’s passion is clear. She’s often at the bakery, working on new products, and chats easily to customers, giving out free samples of her newest lines. I tried delicious sugar-coated almonds, and fruity, sweet strawberry jam – freshly made.
There are twelve young girls working at the bakery ranging in age from sixteen to twenty-five. One lad works in the kitchen.
Shan Shan has only worked at the bakery for a little while. She told me she loves it. “Here I only have to work eight hours a day, and I get one day a week off – this is very good for a Chinese person, most have to work long, irregular hours for very low pay”. Aying, the manager, echoed her sentiment, telling me: “Working this job, I have time for myself. I love to write”. Shan Shan told me the best thing about the job is her colleagues. “We come from all different parts of China and we’re a real team”. Both girls are happy to have a chance to practice their English and German and to meet people.
I asked if it was hard to learn to bake. Shan Shan is looking forward to her chance to try. She says the other girls have told her it’s difficult at first. The ingredients are strange, and all the measurements are precise. “But after a week or so it becomes easier”. Karine encourages her to try the cakes, so she can tell customers what they’re like. Her favourite is the chocolate walnut cake. Both girls said there was nothing really difficult about working at the bakery. I asked Aying if it was hard to tell the others what to do. She hesitated. She told me she wants to encourage everyone, wants them to learn new things, and sometimes this is hard because some of the staff are very young and haven’t had much schooling.
All of the staff are friendly, attentive, lovely. Some don’t speak much English, but their eagerness and smiles speak volumes. It’s an easy relaxed atmosphere, and I while away many hours writing my journal, looking out onto the street. Old Bai women with dark blue clothes and checked headscarves pass by with baskets on shoulder poles laden with vegetables. One wrinkled old lady taps softly on the glass door, carefully setting down two oval wicker baskets of eggs. “Do you need any today”? she asks. A man brings in three cartons of milk. Cakes are constantly brought in from the kitchen and arranged in the glass display case – it’s a juggling act trying to fit them all in.
Ah, the cakes. Cheesecake; lemon tart – tangy, tingling on the tongue; chocolate walnut cake – rich, moist, full of flavour; apple pie, pear and chestnut torte, nut roll, pumpkin pie – the list is endless. The piece de resistance was the two-layer strawberry sponge cake, oozing cream, and piled high with juicy red berries. Surprisingly, eighty percent of the customers are Chinese. Karine told me that the Chinese like to eat cake in the evening after eating dinner.
The bakery also makes wonderful bread, jams, pickles, and has a range of European products: prosciutto, salami, cheese. The cakes are, well, just the icing on the cake!