What is left when everything has gone south? The pleasures of Paris are closed up once again, in compliance with the latest lockdown orders. I needed a quest to save my sanity, a way to still enjoy the best of France, a direction to aim my days devoted to walking around. Behold! the baguette, the new candidate for UNESCO world heritage status to the rescue.
Along with its fellow cliches: berets, mimes, and the Eiffel tower, the baguette is an undisputed symbol of France around the world and it is an undisputed pleasure of daily life here. The history of the baguette however is disputed. One explanation I’ve seen is it was a result of a law passed in 1920, forbidding bakers from working between 10pm and 4am, which meant the traditional round loaves couldn’t be made in time for the customer’s breakfast, thus the skinny, quick-cooking baguette. This explanation makes sense, until you consider that the baguette first made its appearance much earlier, in the mid 1800s. Back then the baguette was much longer, as long as 6-8 feet! Some say it started as an edict of Napoleon’s, who wanted a pocket-sized bread, others that the foremen supervising the digging of the new metro tunnels wanted to eliminate the knives that the workmen carried to cut their big round loaves of bread at lunch. Whatever the explanation may be, it is as much a part of the culture here as art, wine, and plenty of vacation time.
I admit, we’d gotten boring with our baguettes, though they were excellent, taking them for granted. Upon arriving in any town we’re staying in for any length of time, one of the first tasks is to to assess the boulangeries, taste a few baguettes and quickly decide on the best one or two, and then stay loyal. It’s an easy way to become settled in a neighborhood and feel like a local. I think that’s pretty typical. And why not? Yes, there are bad baguettes, but in a neighborhood spoiled for choice as we are in the 11th, once you hit a certain standard of excellence, there’s only subtle differences between one baguette de tradition and another. No one I know chases across town to the boulangerie that won the best baguette of the year (yes, that’s a thing) for their daily bread.
Some definitions: The baguette ordinaire. It can only have 4 ingredients: wheat flour, baker’s yeast, water, salt. The baguette de tradition might have other grains, or a more flavorful yeast. There are lots of other baguettes with differing grains and flavors, too many to mention. Another definition: Boulangerie. Boulangerie means bakery, but not every place selling bread is a boulangerie. They not only have to bake the bread on premises to qualify for that title, but make the dough and ferment it on site as well. They are becoming somewhat of a threatened species in France; industrial bread production is taking over, much as everywhere else. Most boulangeries also sell pastries, more specifically, pastries that involve leavened dough. Think brioche, croissants, pain au chocolat. Then there are the pâtisseries, which specialize in custards, cakes, tarts, chocolates, and other desserts. To be called a pâtisserie there has to be a trained pastry chef on premises. Even artisanal boulangeries might have industrial pastries for sale to round out their business. How to tell if you’re getting the real deal? For the bread, easy. Hit up a boulangerie. While you’re there, eye up the croissants, the lemon tarts. Are they perfect and evenly formed? They might have been made in a factory and frozen. Are the cases stocked all day, nothing sold out? That’s because they have an infinite supply in the back room.
I’d like to tell you that this quest is somehow systematic, alas, no. That sounds suspiciously like a job. This is mostly random and at whim. Sometimes we go off searching for beautiful, historic boulangeries, other times we stumble on indifferent-looking ones that have long lines in front. Sometimes we’re just out walking and feeling peckish, start snooping around and see what appeals. Other times we’re looking for a great baguette, or we’re in the mood for one for those traditional loaves from long ago, a round, usually brown bread called a miche de pain.
Let’s start with the most beautiful boulangeries, those that are classified as historic monuments. Pâtisserie Stohrer is the oldest pastry shop in France. No, they don’t bake bread or at least they don’t anymore, so it’s something of an anomaly for the quest. But I need no excuse to eat pastries, so we went. My quest, my rules. Pâtisserie Stohrer was founded in 1730 by Louis XV’s pastry chef, Nicholas Stohrer.
Monsieur Stohrer invented the Baba au Rhum. Not my favorite french pastry, but when in Rome, or in Paris at any rate…
Au Petit Versailles du Marais dates from 1860 and is currently headed by Christian Vabret who holds the title of Meilleur Ouvrier, which translates to Master Craftsman. This means he won a masterwork competition. It is a high honor, and there are Meilleurs Ouvriers in all manner of crafts.
The interior is as fancy as the exterior
Which is not to say you won’t find the occasional horror
One of our favorite neighborhood boulangeries is Maison Landemaine, now a small chain. Everything from the bread to the pastries to the sandwiches are made in-house and are excellent. We usually get the baguette aux graines. They recently bought one of the oldest boulangeries, at 28 boulevard Beaumarchais.
I’m plotting when I can get back to Boulangerie Bo in the 12th arrondissement. Their walnut bread might be the best I’ve ever had.
The window illustrations depict the harvest
Du Pain et des Idées is one of our all-time favorites, though it’s a bit out of our normal path. The facade dates from 1900 and gets a special mention on the list of historic monuments, though it didn’t quite make the cut.
Le Moulin de la Vierge in the 7th is one of the oldest, though it had an older sister boulangerie in the 14th which has since closed. We weren’t in the mood for bread that day so we tried the financiers, an old-school almond flour cake. We’re big fans of these unassuming looking treats and these were the best ever.
This is our current favorite baguette, from Maison Marache in the 11th. I’m sure you can see why. The best part of the baguette is the crusty end, called the quignon. The quignon rarely makes the trip home from the boulangerie intact. This one has plenty to spare and to share.
Whew! And I haven’t even gotten around to telling you about all of the non-traditional boulangeries that are my new favorites. Lots of places are returning to the older, miche de pain style bread with ancient grains and long fermentations. The quest continues, as least as long as the confinement does.
Bon appétit everyone!