Address: 761-763 Sydney Rd, Brunswick VIC 3056
From an interview with Fadia that has been edited
My husband Tarek qualified as a pastry chef before he migrated to Australia.
He was fascinated with baking and – I wouldn’t say that he never loved school – but when he was young he used to skip a lot of classes to watch the chefs.
He left to work at a random pastry shop in Lebanon. They gave him a job and he loved it. That’s where he got his passion for baking.
So he does all of the baking and I do all of the paperwork
In the early 1990’s my husband and I were retrenched from work.
I was working for Commonwealth Industrial Gasses and he was working for Ford.
We had just enough money to open this business. At the start we couldn’t afford to pay anyone. For the first six years – between 1991 and 1997 – it was just me and my husband.
We just wanted to survive and didn’t want to be on the dole. But, we became busier as time went on.
It is going really well now.
I never wanted to be in competition with anyone.
There were two Lebanese bakeries on Sydney Road which are still there.
We opened closer to Victoria St but moved to this premises about ten years ago. It was flat out and we couldn’t keep up.
Especially the peak seasons; Christmas, Easter & Eid. If you didn’t place an order, then sorry but you wouldn’t have sweets. Now we have a rack oven which makes a hell of a difference.
We still make the same range. Every now and again we introduce something for a short time but we don’t change the menu much.
It is what our customers know.
This street has changed a lot.
It is busier and there are a greater variety of shops.
And we haven’t really been affected by supermarkets and shopping centres.
They don’t sell the things we sell and – if they do – god knows how long they have been on the shelves for.
Our biggest advantage is that all of our sweets are fresh.
We sell a variety of baklava.
What separates good and bad baklava is the quality of ingredients.
For example, the quality of the ghee plays a role. The quality of the nuts plays a role.
So the smallest example; I can’t use a Chinese walnut because it hasn’t got the right taste and texture. We’ve always used a Californian walnut but recently the Australian walnut came on to the market and we’re happy to use it.
Back in the day we could only use Iranian pistachios because American pistachios weren’t good to cook with. Then – years ago – Australian pistachios came onto the market and that’s amazing. It can take heat when you cook it, and the colour is right.
And with the clotted cream pastries we have to experiment with a lot of different milk products before we get the taste, texture and quality that we want.
There was a time where a company stopped producing the milk we were using, so we tested seven or eight types before we found the right one.
Each component has to be of the highest quality.
Different demographics tend to go for different things.
For example, kids love the baklava fingers because of the convenience of holding them.
To be honest – with the exception of the cream pastries which go in the bin if they aren’t sold before 12pm – most of the pastries stay fresh for a month. They don’t really go off but they lose their crunch.
We want our pastries to be crunchy and just sweet enough, so we bake them fresh every day.
That’s how we do it.
A complete mix of people come here.
When we started it was mainly Arabs, but The Age once came and wrote a review about our knefeh. The next day, we had to make heaps because everybody wanted to try it.
At one stage, I was surprised by how many Asians came here. With Italians and Greeks, I was less surprised because we use similar ingredients.
They seem to prefer our Baklava compared to the Turkish variety because it isn’t drenched in liquid syrup.
But when I saw how many people of Chinese and Indian descent came in I thought, “that’s nice.”
“We must be really good.”
Never in my life did I think Balha’s Pastry would become this big.
We started from nothing but – at the moment – we have four chefs working pretty much around the clock.
At the back of the shop it’s full of people.
Hopefully we continue getting busier and busier.
Written by Aron Lewin and all photos by Tatiana C C Scott