T he French are renowned - or reviled - for having the most relaxed working hours in Europe. But someone must have forgotten to tell the slavishly hardworking Eric Rousseau, baker, patissier and chocolatier at north London’s Belle Époque. He puts the ’work’ into ’work ethic’.

"I get up at midnight and I finish at 3.30pm," he says, with a battle-worn expression. "On a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I’ll start at 10pm the night before and finish around 4-5pm the next day. Sometimes I don’t even sleep on a weekend. I just work through the day and through the night. And people want to work 35-hour weeks in France..."

Everything is made by hand on-site, including the 1,300 croissants sold on a Saturday alone. This is one of Belle Époque’s ’calling card’ products, where the price is kept down, along with the baguette, the pain de campagne and the organic bread. Rousseau swears by using French Moul-bie flours and Beurre d’Isigny (butter).

holding the french card

Sporting a beret and an outrageously thick French accent, Rousseau admits the French card plays a big part in the success of the business, which has gone from two employees to 13, plus a £500,000 turnover, in five years. "But you don’t see French flags outside my shop," he notes. "At the end of the day, it’s the product that matters."

Set in residential Newington Green, Belle Époque - literally ’beautiful time’ - is part of the Ronde des Pains ’Artisan Boulanger’ group. But Rousseau’s skills are stamped all over the impressive offering. His eponymous cake, Belle Époque, made with 70% cocoa Cuban chocolate, an orange crème brûlée centre using Grand Marnier, Florentines, and decorated with a marble-effect icing, is a best-seller. Croquembouche - French wedding cakes made with choux profiteroles, nougatine, caramel, almonds and blown sugar - are a cash cow in the wedding season.

Rousseau learned these skills at a number of Parisian patissiers, including chocolatier Monsieur Valadon, and has since taken the ’travelling baker’ concept to heart, working in Miami, Jamaica, Namibia, South Africa and, for the last eight years, the UK. Following a period as a pastry chef, including a stint at Gallic celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli’s Clerkenwell restaurant, feeling "fed up", he opened his own bakery.

It cost £80,000 to gut the place and rebuild the ex-betting shop. "In France, it would have cost me £200,000," he says. "It took me two years to find the right site, put my money together and sort out my business plan. In the end, it paid off."

The bakery supplies 40% wholesale to local delis and restaurants and incorporates its own deli plus seating for 150 covers. "It’s not a restaurant, it’s a café-patisserie. We call it salon de thé in France," he says. Salads du jour, quiches made using seasonal ingredients, and sandwiches on speciality bread, such as a Campaillou sourdough with baby spinach, pears and Brie, are in demand with the mixed local clientele. "From the minute we open the door on a Saturday we have people pouring in. We have not one minute to rest," he says. The plan is to open a second bakery nearby. n

l Visit Belle Époque, 37 Newington Green, London N16 9PR