Discover more from Flour Power: by Felicity Spector
Baking with bravery
I wanted to write more about Pouhque - a wonderful bakery I visited in Kharkiv which has kept business going despite the huge challenges in a city so frequently under Russian fire.
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Just off one of the main streets in central Kharkiv, there's a bakery and cafe which wouldn't look out of place in the coolest parts of east London - a few young people perched on the step outside, drinking flat whites and iced coffee, and inside - a wall covered in shelves packed with board games, along with a long ladder so you can climb up to choose one to play. Pakfuda has something of a cult following - not just for the board games but the excellent pastries they sell.
We had arrived at lunchtime, a bit late for the full range, but there was still a tempting selection on the counter: cardamon buns, beautifully laminated croissants, some banana cake and wedges of cherry clafoutis. We got one of each.
The baked goods are the work of Pouhque, which is based downstairs in the large basement kitchen below the cafe - and the owner Tatyana Sinyugina showed me around. She opened the business back in the spring of 2020, just as the pandemic hit - and when Russia's full scale invasion happened, and there were very real fears that enemy forces would overrun the city - they had to shut the bakery, painting over the big windows which made it very visible from the street. But Russian troops never managed to occupy Kharkiv: the resistance fought them back.
Kshu and fellow baker making cookies
While Tatyana and her partner Lilia temporarily moved to Ivano Frankivsk in the west of Ukraine - the rest of the team stayed in Kharkiv, and the basement kitchen became their temporary shelter. One of the two young women I met there was Kshu, who had led the remaining bakers on Tatyana's behalf. During the intense bombing, Kshu and the others slept overnight in the office next to the bakery kitchen for safety - and in the morning they rolled up their mats and calmly went back to work.
When they have spare capacity and funds, the Pouhque team make cookies for soldiers on the front line: at one point they made raisin cookies for the 92nd Brigade, named after the town of Izyum (Ukrainian for raisins) which was liberated from Russian occupation during last autumn's counter offensive. The day I visited they were making chocolate cookies, shaping the dough into balls, ready to bake off. "Our boys need sugar, they need the energy", Tatyana said. In the little store room upstairs, she showed me some diagrams she'd drawn on the wall showing how to fold the intricately laminated dough.
Pastry diagrams on the wall
It's hard to appreciate the sheer scale of the challenge of running a business somewhere like Kharkiv. Around half the city's population has left - it is frequently attacked with Russian missiles fired from just a few miles away, across the border: making it difficult to give much notice with air raid alerts. Prices have gone up for raw ingredients like eggs, flour and butter - there have been frequent power and water cuts. There's not much help available for small businesses, other than what they can organise themselves.
But Pouhque is still open, keeping their small team of bakers in employment, turning out fantastic pastries, sandwiches and cakes. And Kharkiv, where life is still anything but normal, is at least a lot busier than when I visited last September - many of those who left for safer areas have missed their homes and moved back. Sitting in the bright sunny cafe space with its big window onto the street to drink our coffee, the clafoutis was creamy and sweet with jucy cherries. I bought an extra slice of banana bread for the road, and we walked outside towards the city's central park: as we crossed towards it, the sound of yet another air raid siren cut through the air. Kharkiv, hero city, battered but defiant, where courageous people like Tatyana and Kshu are working impossibly hard to keep businesses afloat - where life in wartime adapts to every challenge, and powers on.