Decades ago, as her friends were splashing the summer away at the local pool, little Geri Peacock was fool-proofing her cookie recipe in a hot kitchen. At 10 years old, she was creating and analyzing test batches of baked goods in her free time, staring down at the batter and wondering which steps she could take to make it better.
It’s no surprise that as an adult, Peacock is a baker by trade; she just opened the second location of her Columbus, Ohio-based Cherbourg Bakery here on Race Street, adjacent to Findlay Market.
In its seven years in existence, the Columbus Cherbourg has become a worth-the-drive cultish destination for locals on the hunt for allergy-friendly pastries — everything Cherbourg makes is both gluten-free and nut-free. The Cincinnati bakery is no different, except for the name.
OTR’s Cherbourg Cyprus is inspired by the blue-collar grit of Cherbourg, a seaside town in France, and the warmth and hospitality of the people of Cyprus, a Mediterranean island. And Peacock has family ties to Cherbourg: her grandfather helped liberate the town during World War II.
The name also applies to the menu. The internationally-inspired OTR shop features not only French- and Mediterranean-style pastries — brioche, loukoumades, Cherbourg’s famous double lemon bars, muffins, cookies and cake — but also savory eggy deliciousness, like inventive stratas, quiches and individual skillet servings of shakshuka (eggs baked in a rich tomato sauce with a dollop of ricotta and a hefty sprinkle of fresh herbs).
“I sat down and ate it right out of the skillet the other day — it’s just so good,” Peacock says of the shakshuka.
Everything in the bakery case must have a “wow factor” or it doesn’t make the cut. Peacock’s standards for quality, flavor, texture and presentation are high, which sets her apart from those baking gluten-free goods simply to fuel the fad.
“If you’re doing gluten-free for the sake of doing gluten-free, you’re doing the bare minimum,” she says. “The reality of it is that it’s very hard work. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Peacock embarked on her gluten-free baking pilgrimage after being diagnosed with celiac disease in 2009. The main treatment for celiac is a gluten-free diet, and because baked goods are full of gluten, many living with the condition eliminate sweets — or get accustomed to those that are a sub-par facsimile of the real thing. (Many people also eliminate gluten from their diets for health and weight loss reasons, not just because of the intolerance that comes with celiac.)
Peacock missed cookies and assumed others who couldn’t eat gluten did too, so she started baking allergy-friendly sweets not only for herself, but also the outside community. There was a need for a to-die-for gluten-free bakery in the Columbus area, so she grabbed her whisk, flipped on the oven and started baking.
Kids that attended a celiac support group at a children’s hospital were her first taste testers.
“I knew that kids would tell me if they suck or (not),” Peacock says of her first pastries. “I want my food to have kid appeal as much as I want it to be foodie oriented for those who have a sophisticated palate, but also for those who just want a chocolate chip cookie.”
Peacock successfully moved from farmers markets to a pastry case at a Columbus natural foods market before opening Cherbourg Bakery in 2011.
Using a unique combination of rice and tapioca flour as a flour replacement and Ohio’s Hartzler Dairy, the small-batch baked goods are free of gums, fillers and dyes. The composition and flavor profile are equal to any excellent artisan bakery, and the lack of gluten is imperceptible. All items are also safe for those with nut allergies, which frequently goes hand in hand with celiac disease.
Cherbourg became such a success that Cincinnatians who were sick of making the drive up to Columbus started asking Peacock to open a second location here.
“We had a ton of people from Cincy driving up to Columbus every weekend to get something,” confirms Leslie, a baker at Cherbourg. “So a handful of regulars talked us into (opening a store) down here. We couldn’t pass it up. We were sick of our customers having to make that drive.”
Regardless of Cincy’s openness to tasting new things, some people still have an aversion to gluten-free goodies. Peacock says sometimes when a guest hears the bakery is all gluten-free, “that’s the second people decide they don’t want to try it…and walk right out the door.”
But Leslie recounts an opposite story — where those with severe allergies can come and enjoy Cherbourg’s baked goods without fear.
“This kid (with a severe nut allergy) came in recently and he was so nervous because he didn’t know what he could eat here and his mom said, ‘Everything,’” she says. “His eyes lit up and...I watched him sit and eat his first donut. I was thinking, ‘This is kind of life-changing right now.’”
And what about the everyday bakery customer who is astonished to find out what they just ate was gluten-free and tasted that good? “Those are the moments where I’m incredibly proud,” Peacock says.
Cherbourg Cyprus is located at 1804 Race St., Over-the-Rhine. More info at cherbourgcyprus.com.