French baker finds love, home in Zhuhai

China Daily Updated: March 15, 2024
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Frenchman Ronan Salaun (right) runs the Papa Romantic bakery together with his wife, Zhong Bozi, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

French baker finds love, home in Zhuhai.

A French bakery has become a tourist attraction in Nanping township, which is part of Zhuhai, a coastal city in Guangdong province.

Papa Romantic, located in Beishan community, attracts a large number of Chinese and foreigners alike. After tasting the bakery's bread, some Chinese students who have returned from abroad have expressed admiration, while foreigners who lived in Zhuhai but moved to other Chinese cities such as Beijing continue to have bread and pastries from the shop shipped to them.

The bakery is a welcoming environment for those who want to sit and enjoy authentic French cuisine.

On one side is a well-preserved old ancestral hall, and on the other side are lush trees that provide shade from the sun. The shop has a bright storefront, and the aroma of the bread, the aluminum tables and the chairs under sun umbrellas exude a tranquil atmosphere away from the hustle and bustle.

At Papa Romantic, the best-selling items include baguettes, croissants, sandwiches, crepes and cookies. In addition, some unique treats such as fig bread and colorful macrons are also popular among young customers.

Owner and baker Ronan Salaun, who comes from the Brittany region of France, said the ingredients at his bakery are imported, and he refuses to use chemicals or additives in his food.

Whenever his friends return to France, they know they need to bring him some crystal salt from a natural salt pond in France. The black pepper he uses comes from Madagascar.

"Simple things are important, and the quality of salt and pepper makes a big difference," Salaun said.

While remaining true to his French roots, he has also taken into consideration the dietary habits of Chinese people.

"Chinese locals prefer soft crust bread, while French like the crusty one. I sell both kinds. I can't just maintain the original characteristics; I must adapt to locals' preferences," he said.

"For me, food is an art, and making food is not just a means of making a living, but also a moment of enjoyment," he said.

A former mechanical engineer, Salaun was sent by a Hong Kong company to work at a furniture factory in Wanzai township, Zhuhai, in November 2000. He said he couldn't have imagined how much his life would change with that move.

At that time, Wanzai was a tiny town bordering Macao known for its flower trade.

For Salaun, life in Wanzai seemed simple and rustic. He remembers that when he wanted to take a bath, he had to heat the water up with firewood and then transport the water in a bucket to the bathtub.

Although the living and working conditions were not as favorable as those abroad, Salaun grew to love Zhuhai, which is located at the mouth of the Pearl River.


Frenchman Ronan Salaun (right) runs the Papa Romantic bakery together with his wife, Zhong Bozi, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

In January 2001, Salaun met Zhong Bozi, a Zhuhai native who specialized in making antique furniture. They bonded over their mutual appreciation of traditional Chinese culture and fell in love rapidly.

In 2003, Salaun took Zhong to France to meet his family for the first time. The following year, in June, they got married in Zhuhai and chose to settle down there, working in a furniture factory.

Zhong said her husband, who can speak a little Cantonese, has since integrated into the local social circle. Their daughter is 16 years old.

In his spare time, Salaun began learning how to make bread by studying textbooks from a professional baking school. As he continued practicing, his kneading, fermenting and baking skills improved dramatically.

At first, the bread he made was mainly for his family, and he would also bake some for his friends. Unexpectedly, he received unanimous praise and was strongly encouraged to open an authentic French bakery.

Salaun and Zhong quit their furniture factory jobs, and in 2015, they opened Papa Romantic.

"During the first two years, the bakery basically earned no profit, but Salaun loved the job," Zhong said. "He persisted in learning from a professional Michelin restaurant chef, conducted a lot of mixing experiments and tried various flavors. And it was his love and perseverance that have led us to keep running our bakery."

Papa Romantic now employs six people.

Zhong said she no longer remembers how many baking experiments Salaun has conducted in his pursuit of perfection. For example, he tried 150 different cookie recipes before finally settling on a few, she said.

He wanted to ensure they were low in sugar to fit local demand, but also have a buttery taste so he could stand out from industrial companies, she added.

Salaun said they use very good quality imported butter, and it has made a huge difference.

"I choose quality ingredients as I choose quality for my life. It's my identity, it's my bakery identity. I'm not interested in selling low-quality products. And quality doesn't have to mean expensive," he said.

Salaun said he liked the cozy size of Zhuhai city and the Beishan community in Nanping.

"I can feel a coastal atmosphere here, and I need it as I'm from a seaside region in France, too," he said. "Now that the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area has grown, there is a lot of new infrastructure and facilities. Zhuhai is perfect for me and my family.

"I wish to be part of the Beishan mixed cultural artistic area, and in the heart of Zhuhai locals and tourists. I'm definitely romantic and put more focus on customer satisfaction," he added.