An almond is not a nut. Botanically, it is the seed of a drupe. The drupe’s outer flesh swaddles its inner seed (the almond) in a sheath like hardened cork. Peaches and plums are drupes but with colorful flesh wrapping seeds more rock-like than the almond and its thin, cork-like coating. When eating the pastries of Nathas Kraus, almonds veer as far from nuts as imaginable. In his hands, almonds are so intense they taste like berries.
That might be because Kraus makes his almond paste from scratch. That might be because he works alone and laboriously, often getting his hands floured long before sunrise. That might be because his care suffuses his French-Swiss baked goods like that carefully layered almond paste itself, the chewy heart of an almond croissant so stupefyingly good that despite whatever promises you make to yourself, you will eat the whole thing in one standing.
And the croissant isn’t even his best almond pastry.
Nathas Kraus runs La Belle Vie Bakery — a bakery without a bakery, or, a bakery with just one baker. Kraus sells at farmers markets two days a week (Gilbert on Saturday, Uptown on Wednesday). His lines curl down the central lane between the vendor canopies. He has built such a cult following since starting in March 2018 that he often sells out of favorite items, like chocolate croissants, by 10 a.m.
In all, Kraus bakes some 600 pastries a week, all in his home oven. This Swiss-French baker who was a finance professional in Geneva in 2014 is now making, without any help, some of the best bread, doughy sweets, and viennoiseries in the Valley.
Kraus was born in France to a Swiss-German father and a French mother. After a business school program that brought him to a new European country each year, he opened skate shops in Brittany, France. Later, not long after the millennium turned, he moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and changed careers. In 2014, following his son’s diagnosis with a rare eye disorder and his own burnout, he and his wife packed up and moved to her native Arizona.
“I was just feeling the empty life of a Geneva banker,” he says. Kraus was done with capital markets. In Arizona, he didn’t know his next life step, but he did know, immediately, that he craved cheese. Good cheese. Like home.
In time, he found cheese he "could live with.” But there was another food he couldn’t live without.
“I went to find a baguette,” he said. “I went everywhere in town. Some would look the same, but it was not the same. So I started to do my own bread. I started to knead, and I got hooked.”
A few years later, he might be the most promising emerging baker in the Valley.
Kraus makes baguettes in the Parisian style. Long and thin. Twisted and seamed along the top ridge. Crusty shell. An inside soft and porous like a sea sponge. A slight tang of levain, French-style sourdough.
Kraus makes three traditional croissants using butter for shortening. The first is plain, with laminations giving birth to thin, cascading layers that crunch, one at a time, into a rolling roar as you bite in. His second croissant is a flawless pain au chocolat. His third: the stellar almond variation.
When baking Swiss and regional French pastries, Kraus doesn’t always follow tradition. A fourth croissant is original to his mind and testament to the creative spirit that, come Sunday when the week’s baking begins, often moves him.
His “rhino” croissant is shaped like a bulbous cone, all sugared flaky crust. This shape capably holds sweet fillings that Kraus pipes in. The filling within the pocket of croissant dough varies, and has been, recently, strawberry, triple berry, lemon-basil, and Irish coffee (for this past St. Patrick’s Day weekend).
“I call it the rhino croissant because it looks like a horn,” Kraus says of his invention. Easy enough.
If you want to dig deeper into the catalog of this baker — who mastered the ancient ways of flour, yeast, butter, and water in a still-twanging rush of obsession that first surged to life about five years ago, swallowing his day job — look to some of the more esoteric pastries he makes. Many are scarce in the Valley.
In the category of viennoiseries — flour pastries made from laminated, yeast-risen dough — Kraus makes kouign-amann. Looking like muffins with kinky, cratered tops, these pastries hail from Brittany. They are so saturated with butter that it glistens on their heat-darkened sides even at room temperature. “The bread dough is basically there to hold the butter and sugar,” Kraus says.
All obviously have caught on.
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“I always try to bring more than I can sell,” Kraus says of his selection. “But lately, I sell out around 10:30.”
And so on Wednesday and Saturday, people line up at his stand when the markets open. Some buy 10 croquinettes with syrupy, faintly crisp dough. Some buy 10 cannelés de Bordeaux, dark as sugarcane and sugar-shellacked, vanilla-scented, rum-soaked. Some get a single plain croissant, which Kraus says is his most difficult pastry of all.
Some get what Kraus calls Le Petit Basque: macarons basques — cookies made from almond flour and almond paste. These (wheat) flourless cookies are not only the best gluten-free cookie I’ve ever had, they might be the best cookie of any kind. They look dry and milquetoast, like something you’d fish out of plastic on an airplane. But they have a soft and intense chew that gets chewier and headier with almond paste near the center.
And then some come late — after the line has broken, the strawberry filling has been lapped up, the budding master’s flaky creations are no more, the spell of almond has retired until another day — and get nothing.