Several times each week I stop at my favorite business, The French Confection, in Sandy Spring, Md.
I usually have a ham sandwich on a mini-baguette, a mug of chocolate macadamia nut coffee, and a walnut chocolate chip cookie. I relax at one of their wrought iron tables to read, watch customers and what they buy, and have a chat with Xavier and Karen Mauprivez, the proprietors.
I feel as if I’m at a sidewalk café in Paris, far from the retirement community where I live that is actually only a mile or so from The French Connection.
My friend Ann, who was once a student in southern France, said that the minute she walked into this bakery and smelled all the delectable aromas, she felt as if she were right back again in France.
In one glass case there are pecan sticky buns, different kind of croissants, Danish pastries, turnovers, savories, meringues and cookies. In another case there are wonderful kinds of cakes, tarts, pies and pastries trimmed with kiwis, pecans, whipped cream or glazed fruit.
The French Confection customers come from as far away as northern Virginia and Frederick, Md.
When the bakery opens, students and teachers from Sherwood High School and other nearby schools carry out juice or coffee and a croissant or a pastry. Later, seniors drop by for morning coffee, lunch or afternoon tea. Other customers arrive to pick up orders.
During the Clinton White House years, a caterer heard of Xavier’s skills as a pastry chef and ordered mini-pastries and “charlottes” (fruit puree, whipped cream with ladyfingers surrounding the filling. A special Mauprivez touch can be a red ribbon wrapped around the outside.)
One day when I was in the shop, I observed an interview between Karen and a future bride and her mother. They were discussing wedding cakes — the design, flavors of frosting and fillings, and what kind of flowers that might be used for decorations. Karen brought out a plate of samples for the women to taste, and she took notes on every decision.
Later I asked her, “How do you deliver the cake? Do you have a special container?”
“We put a special board a little more than half an inch under the cake. It’s called ‘a drum,’” she said. “It’s covered with gold or silver foil or paper that’s frosted to look like part of the cake. Then we put the cake in our van and take it to the reception place. If it has columns between the tiers, we divide it and put the cake together after we get there.”
I asked her if they’d ever had any unusual experiences with wedding cakes. She smiled, “Once someone phoned and wanted to know if we could make a wedding cake for 100 people, decorated in fall colors, and deliver it within two or three hours to the Sandy Spring Firemen’s
She explained that there had been some sort of disaster to the cake the caterer had ordered, and the bridal party was desperate.
“We made it and even got it there on time,” Karen laughed.
“How did you and Xavier meet?” I asked.
“At a St. Patrick’s Day party,” she said. “But you should hear how Xavier’s parents met. Jacques and Paulette met at a bakers’ ball in Champagne.”
His parents had four children and four bakeries. Each family lived upstairs, and each member performed some task in the shop.
“When I was about 6,” Xavier told me, “I would slash the bread [on top], run around and make my father crazy.”
Xavier is the fifth generation of Mauprivez bakers. He came to the United States after his brother had worked as a pastry chef in Washington, D.C., restaurants to earn his way through law school.
He became a baker and pastry chef in a restaurant in Bethesda until he was asked by the W.R. Grace Company to manage the bakeries of its former American Café chain. Finally, Xavier decided that he might as well go into business himself, so he opened a bakery first in Olney
and then The French Connection in Sandy Spring.
I was curious to find out what a typical day is like for Karen and Xavier, so I asked them.
“I get here at 4 a.m. to turn on the ovens,” he said. Then he begins making everything from dough he made the day before.
Karen arrives at 7 a.m. She does office work, taking orders from wholesale dealers, arranging some bakery items on trays, and assisting customers.
They took me back to their amazing workrooms, which contain a Wonderland of stainless steel equipment — three different sizes of mixers; something magical that’s called a “Proofer/Retarder” that automatically cools, then warms dough; ovens that hold 12 shelves of sheet pans; refrigerators; freezers; and shelves for storing various kinds of cake pans.
The only time Xavier uses his hands is to work butter into the croissants.
Sadly for Sandy Spring, Karen, Xavier and their two sons will be moving to Newport, R.I., this summer. They’re finally going to build a home on a lot they bought some time ago.
“Why Newport?” I asked them.
“It reminds me of home, [the French Riviera near Nice] … the sailboats,” Xavier said.
Karen added, “We’re going to buy a boat. We took sailing lessons last summer.”
Karen and Xavier will be selling the French Confection to another bakery. We’ll miss the Mauprivez family, their civic mindedness and their providing a hospitable meeting place for villagers and travelers passing by the red brick colonial-style building on Md. 108.
I hope the next owners can duplicate my favorite walnut chocolate-chip cookies.
The French Confection is at 816 Olney/Sandy Spring Road (MD 108), Sandy Spring, Md. 20860 Phone: 301.774.5082