May 15, 2007

Hello Everyone!

I can’t believe this trip is almost over! This is my last post as I am flying back to New York tomorrow. It has been an amazing two weeks – I will never forget the people I met and the things I learned. What bread I have tasted. And this luminous unbelievably crazy beautiful city. I can’t wait to come back.

(I am close to my megabyte limit on wordpress, so this final post doesn’t have as many photos as I would like – but of course check out flickr for more.)

So, the highlights of yesterday (Monday, May 14th) – I indulged in the first of my two big meals in Paris. I should preface this by saying that my eating habits have been primarily limited to bread, cheese, bread, crepes, bread, tarts and fruit. Of course I’ve had the best of each of these – but I generally did not go out for meals at night. After walking all day and carrying these huge bags of fantastic bread, at night I would usually write, catalog my photos and graze on the things I picked up over the day.

So it is without any regret that I indulged in two fabulous meals prepared by two very famous chefs. The first was lunch yesterday at Yannick Alleno’s Le Meurice in the first arrondissment. It’s about a thirty minute walk from my hotel over the Seine and through the Place de la Concorde – a delightful walk. When I arrived at the hotel where the restaurant was located, at first I was a little taken aback. This is luxury old school – very opulent and grand in a traditional french style. I am not used to dining in these kinds of surroundings, and usually I find it a little cold. But I have to say I immediately melted into the experience. The staff of the restaurant was very warm and professional, and they took great care of me.

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I don’t know much about the chef other than he just received his third michelin star and is a big deal in Paris. His food really measured up – nothing disappointed. My first amuse bouche was a variaiton of red radish – gelee, foam and pickled – and it was a lovely beginning. It tasted like spring. I was then sent two mousses – a black olive and tomato with melba crisps. This was awesome – both were light as air but had so much flavor. I loved this. My next amuse arrived on a bed of sea salt and it was two cockles with pickled onion and muscavado foam. With this came a tiny paper cone containing six perfect pieces of tiny frites. Lovely. By now I was completely submissive – I guess I’m easy but hey – this chef is good.

I was served an assortment of very sexy looking bread made by Frederic Lalos – the baker I visited last week (if you remember from a previous post). I tried his pain cereales, pain algue and chestnut bread. I am proud to report that his breads were fantastic. Each one was unique in shape, taste and texture but did not conflict with any other course I had – it was a perfect compliment to the chef’s cuisine. (At the end of my meal I overheard the couple next to me who was also finishing speak to the maitre’d. They loved the food but wanted to know who made the bread. They said it was the best they ever had. The maitre’d told them about Lalos and where his shop was and that he was the best baker in France. Nice.)

My first course was a variation on vegetable ravioli. There were two preparations – one was very tiny fried ravs with an almond mousse, the second was on a clear bowl that had five different veg in a clear gelee. This also had tomato foam. When I was finished, the waiter removed the clear bowl finished the course with a veg consumme and spring vegetables.

The second course was a steamed sole with stuffed mushroom and a layer of mussel juice that had gelatinized on top. It was served with oysters and shrimp and spinach. I am not doing it justice – this course was beautifully executed.

The dessert was a panna cotta surrounded by raspberries and strawberries with caramelized sugar and orange sorbet. The orange sorbet didn’t taste like orange – it tasted like rose water and was probably my least favorite component of the whole meal. The petit fours were gorgeous – they consisted of a little glass of lime sorbet with little strawberries and meringue, passionfruit coconut macaroon and pistachio financier. What a fantastic meal. I loved it. A great way to end the trip.

I only wish I had pictures to show you but I couldn’t summon the nerve – it seemed so crass to be clicking away. (Check out http://www.meuricehotel.fr for photos and information on this restaurant.)

After my fabulous lunch I met my new Parisian friend Gwen – the General Manager of BE and her mom Michelle. Gwen had offered to take me to the “Kitchen Arts and Letters of Paris”, the bookstore Librarie Gourmand. This store is a booklover’s paradise. Here I found some great resources to take back home, including Lalos’ Le Pain l’envers du decor (I know Jennilee has this but I want my own copy), Pains Gourmands by Richard Bertinet, Tours de main, Pains speciaux by Christian Vabret. (Peter, I think you have Bertinet?) Gwen bought a copy of Eric Kayser’s 100% Pain and gave it to me as a gift to remember my time in Paris. This woman is a true gem. I went to tea with Gwen and her mom and we talked about the food scene and restaurant industry in Paris among many other things. Her mom teaches international kids both she and Gwen said how they really love to take care of people who travel to France. They think its important to reach out and give people a personal connection. I was really lucky to have found them – they were a very special part of my trip.

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After tea I set out with my very heavy bag of books to find two remaining boulangeries I still wanted to try. Right about now is when it started to downpour, so the love and goodwill I felt from a fabulous meal and book shopping with friends faded pretty fast. My cheapy black umbrella was broken in about five different directions – a wind storm a couple of days ago had demolished it. (I hate broken umbrellas.) But I soldiered on to Herve Malineau’s boulangerie in the Marais District.

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Malineau is known for having some of the best bread in Paris. For his traditional baguette – the Pain Paulette, he uses clean flour, a small amount of yeast, gentle kneading which does not oxidize the dough and a long pointage of twelve hours. He does not use a deferred fermentation and let the dough get cold. (Information provided by Kaplan’s Good Bread is Back).

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Honestly, I was disappointed by the baguette. I hate to write a negative critique – I know that bread can change a lot from day to day and one really needs to give a place several passes before you can make a final call. But the one I tried just didn’t measure up to what I had tried elsewhere. The problem for me was that it lacked flavor and aroma, and the interior was very dense with no large cavities. It’s hard to believe that this was the same baguette that people rave about. Ah well.

Onward to A Moulin de la Vierge, a boulangerie that has five or six outposts in Paris. I had already been to two and this one was a third in the Montparnasse district on the Left Bank. Owned by the famous Basil Kamir, his bakery chain has a pretty good reputation in Paris. However, I always seem to arrive when there is very little to try. I’ve been morning, early afternoon and late afternoons. I don’t get it. Bad luck I guess?

So now today (Tuesday, May 15) – my last full day in Paris. And my second big blowout meal – this one was lunch at Pierre Gagnaire. This chef is one of the most acclaimed in the world, and the restaurant has three michelin stars. Also located in a hotel – (although this one not quite on the scale of Hotel Meurice and currently under construction) – the interior has a more subdued elegance. I was the first to arrive for lunch – actually I was the first to arrive yesterday – maybe I’m a little too enthusiastic. But the staff was very professional and immediately made me feel welcome.

I can’t write the same detail about this meal as Le Meurice – the food was less accessible to me because there were more things to try in smaller quantities and I had trouble understanding the maitre’d. I have a copy of both menus and will try to recreate it as much as possible for you back at home. But the highlights were the plat principal – sea bream with a beurre blanc with hazelnuts and tomato, accompanied by gnocchi with tomato, parmesan and spinach – beautifully presented and wonderful flavors. And then of course the desserts – five in total with petit fours and chocolate service. Five desserts! By the end of my meal I really thought I was going down. I mentioned that I loved the chocolate dessert and the maitre’d asked me if I would like another one. I thought he was insane.

The rest of my day – of course in the rain with my absolutely infuriating cheapy broken umbrella – was spent running around Paris finding my greatest hits list of bread to take back to the folks at work. If all goes as planned, we will have a bread tasting party Thursday morning. All are invited. I really hope this bread survives. I am not telling you what I have – its a surprise. And if it doesn’t make it through customs then you won’t be disappointed. But hopefully I will be able to give you a dose of the fantastic bread Paris has to offer. (I will tell you some of it is a very generous donation from Gwen at BE – thanks a million Gwen!)

The Final Chapter -

Originally when I applied for this scholarship, I had intended to try and get a work visa and intern at Poilane or another bakery that would take me on for a couple of weeks. I quickly learned that it was not going to be easy, French labor laws are really strict and many bakeries do not want take on the hassle of arranging an internship unless you pay them a significant amount of money. So the managers and chefs and I reworked the proposal, and they agreed to let me come to Paris to tour and visit boulangeries and learn from master bakers through spending time tasting, talking and observing. I think I really lucked out – because I ended up spending time and learning from several of the top bread bakers in France today. I can never think about bread production the same way again – this trip has completely opened my eyes to what is possible. Not only did I learn about various methodologies and techniques, I also learned about the politics and history of French bread baking. I saw many different business models and economies of scale. I think I got a wide and far-reaching look into the artisanal bread scene today in Paris. And it blew me away.

When I spoke with Professor Kaplan this evening to thank him for all of his help, he told me in parting that the most important thing a baker can do is “always place oneself into question”. Bread is alive and capricious and one must always be searching for how to improve the quality, texture, taste, aroma. He said the worst thing a baker can do is fall into a blind routine, for that is when you start to get complacent, and its easy to think that what you are doing is acceptable, but in the end it becomes just ordinary, and often bad. When I look back on the best bakers whom I have met in on this trip, it is exactly that quality of searching and exploration that comes through.

Thanks to everyone who gave me this great opportunity to learn and explore – the managers and chefs at Per Se and Bouchon – especially Chef Keller and Chef Benno. I have so much respect for the fact that they provide these kinds of professional opportunities to their staff. Thanks to Professor Steven Kaplan for all his really generous time and help, thanks to Dan Leader of Bread Alone for hooking me up to Poilane, thanks to all the bakers in Paris I’ve met and spent time with, thanks to Peter Endriss (the head baker at Per Se/Bouchon) for all his assistance with this trip and being a great teacher, thanks to the gang on my bread team (Stephane, Rhonda, Akemi, Jennilee) for covering for me and being fun to work with, thanks to – this is starting to sound like an Oscar speech. Mom and Dad and Jenn – thanks for being a fabulous support. And Scott and Parker and Nike – I love you guys – see you tomorrow night! Don’t forget to pick me up at the airport!

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May 12, 2007

Bonjour!

On Satuday, I had a terrific meeting with Luc Boulet, the general manager of the Eric Kayser empire. We met at the Eric Kayser boulangerie located in the 13th arrondissment. I visited this store last week – if you recall from my post, it was the store along the Seine where I bought the pain de algue, and at that time I couldn’t take any pictures of the interior. Today, however, I had full access, and so I’m delighted to show you around one of the more interesting and successful boulangeries in Paris.

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Eric Kesyer is the wonderkid of the French bakery world. Now at the helm of over 5o stores in locations as diverse as Japan, Dubai, Moscow, Lebonon, Antigua, and Los Angeles – not to mention the 17 in Paris – he has created a career on the cutting edge of bread baking. (As of right now, there are no locations in New York.) A kind of upscale “fast gourmet”, it serves a beautiful yet simple assortment of pastries, viennisories, prepared sandwiches, and salads. But the heart and soul of the operation is the bread.

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Kayser was born in 1964 into a “family dynasty of bakers”. At a very early age he started working with his father in the family owned bakery. He earned his CAP, joined the military, and then joined the work fraternity called the Compagnons du Devoir – “Journeymen of the Duty”. These associations have a long history in the bread baking profession in France. It was kind of an illegal union designed to protect bakers from the tyranny of their bosses until the late 19th century. Eric used this opportunity to travel around France and explore the vast bread baking techniques of his countrymen. The association then offered him travel opportunities around the world – an experience that both grounded him in his own traditions and yet opened him up to vast possibilities. (Info courtesy of Steven Kaplan’s book Good Bread is Back)

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It is this sprirt of exploration, Kayser is pushing the boundaries of bread making by looking at how technological advances can assist in larger scale production and still retain the quality and integrity of traditional methods. Luc told me today that they are working with recipes that were used two centuries ago, but also developing cutting edge equipment to achieve that end.

The most important step in the bread baking process for the Kesyer team is the pre-ferment and the mixing. Luc described this as the first note a piece of music – if you don’t get it right then the whole song is off. This first note is created in a machine that I had never seen before – a “Fermentolevain” – a giant machine that refreshes, mixes and controls the temperature of the liquid levain. Eric helped create this model in 1994. Actually, a version of this machine had been in operation in Germany for several years, but without the option to control the temperature. The “Fermentolevain” basically frees the baker to attend to other duties, but allows maximum control of the levain depending on the organization of production. This makes for a more efficient and manageable process.

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Luc told me that the machine allows for less acid than a normal liquid levain, creating a mellow flavor that doesn’t overwhelm the bread. It is entirely a natural levain – no commercial yeast is added. All of the breads EK offers are made with some of this levain – at least 15-20%. He believes that using one pre-ferment offers a consistency and unity in the product. Where experimentation comes into play is in the shaping and addition of other ingredients.

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After mixing, the dough receives a pointage (first ferment) of one hour. The dough is turned to enhance strength, and then scaled into larger pieces. These pieces are put into a fermentation chamber and allowed to proof slowly at a temperature between 2-7 degrees celcius. When the dough is ready to go, the team uses another piece of cutting edge equipment. This machine basically takes a huge piece of dough and cuts it into the baguette shape with a little bit of shaping. Within a minute, one has twenty pieces of baguette. EK believes that a dough receives more benefit from as a little shaping as possible.

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The baguette has a beautiful exterior with square-shaped ends – a trend I see more and more in Paris. The interior of the baguette is gorgeous with a mellow but pleasing aroma. I could not stop eating it when I had mine later in the day. There is the slightest hint of sour, but it does not overwhelm the bread at all. I loved it.

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The team is looking for ways to apply their non-shaping techniques to their other breads. One such product is their rye boule, a very sexy looking bread. One of the variables in their recipe is the use of very warm water when mixing, this splits the dough and helps to create its very rustic looking interior. Their technique also gives the bread a longer shelf life. Two hundred years ago, this bread was made is Central France on Wednesday, to be served on Sunday. It needed several days to really develop its taste. Luc said this version has a shelf life of about 8 days.

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Luc was very generous with his time today. We spent a lot of time discussing the state of the profession both in France and abroad. His work is clearly a labor of love, and he struggles everyday with the direction of the company. Its success on the global scene has raised hard questions about where the company should go and why. The most important part of the equation, however, is how to maintain its soul and vitality without sacrificing its quality and standards. The sheer task of training bakers, service and patissiers in new countries to learn and adapt to EK’s methods methods, and in turn stay open and adapt to a culturally different workforce and client base is daunting at best. Will the customer in Dubai have the same tastes as in Moscow and Japan? But Luc is a true professional and very open and excited about the future of EK.  He also has a depth, curiosity and willingness to engage in tough questions about the future of the company as well as the artisanal bread movement, and I really appreciate him sharing his insights.

(Check out flickr for more photos – their desserts are gorgeous.)

May 10, 2007

Hello Everyone! (I’m playing a little catch up)

The highlight of my day (Thursday, May 10) was my morning spent with Frederic Lalos, a gregarious and generous baker with a great sense of humor. His boulangerie is called A Quartier du Pain, is located in the 15th arrondissment, and is an inviting and very charming store with an open fournil.

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Frederic was born in 1970 and not into a family of bakers. He nonetheless started his career early – he got his CAP at seventeen, spent three years working for Lenotre (a prestigious patissier), spent a year of military service as a pastry chef at the prime minister’s residence, and then joined the research division of the Grands Moulins de Paris. It was here that he really got to know flour – he got to know the properties of flour and observed the impact of various additives on dough. (Information courtesy of Steven Kaplan).

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Hanging prominently on the wall of his bakery is a certificate for MOF, an award he received at the very young age of twenty-six. When I asked him about the training for this competition, he told me it was the hardest thing he has ever done. The MOF is held every four years, and is kind of like the Olympics of bread-baking in France. Frederic trained non-stop for years – he slept on flour sacks for two of those years – working at a constant and furious pace to master various breads. Part of the examination requires ingenuity and creativity and he experimented with everything, including coca-cola, orange juice, (his friend Fabian suggested other illegal substances).

The competition includes an oral examination in front of MOF award winners and professors. The next day involves twelve hours of practical tests. Frederic told me that if you overbake something by one minute – its over. Everything must be perfect. The competition is based on a series of points, and there can be several winners or none depending on how people do. He passed on his first try with flying colors. This man is clearly motivated, and his enthusiasm and love for what he does is infectious.

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Lalos opened his bakery with the intent of creating a neighborhood spot that drew people in and gave them a connection to the bread-baking process. He took me across the street for a coffee at a brasserie owned by his longtime friend Fabian. They both told me about the things they do together to bring life into the area. There is a street fair where Lalos will produce his pain de algue and Fabian will supply the oysters – pairing a delicious treat for locals.

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Lalos is very proud of the farine that he uses – a special flour produced in the Auvergne region – a mountainous area that produces some of the best cheeses, beef and wheat in France. He described his relationship with his miller with pride – he is in a position where he can be very demanding about the quality and helps control the process.

He walked me through the kitchen and explained the rigorous standards and methodologies. Eighty percent of his dough is made the day before – he believes in a slow fermentation process. He uses different pre-ferments for different doughs because he wants to provide a variety of tastes. He uses a machine to shape his baguettes and hand shapes every other piece of dough – an important part of his methodology.

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His traditional baguette is made with poolish and a small amount of yeast and develops over 12 hours which encourages lactic fermentation. The baguette a l’ancienne benefits from twelve hours of bulk pointage at 8-12 degrees celcius and uses pre-fermented dough, ideally separated out the evening before and developed for twelve hours, favoring an acetic fermentation. Lalos says he wants people to enjoy the baguette a l’alscienne with ham and cheese as it has a more robust flavor. The traditional baguette should be enjoyed in the morning with coffee and milk, its a softer slower taste and more mellow.

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He produces over forty-five breads for four shops and bakes 4000 pieces of bread a day, he employs over 40 people and serves a number of restaurants including Guy Savoy and Yannick Alleno’s restaurant Le Meurice. (I am dining there for lunch on Monday – I can’t wait – thanks again Celia!) He also offers an array of simple desserts, sandwiches, quiches and pizzas. Everything looks delicious.

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I really enjoyed my time here and love his bread. He packed me up a bag filled with breads to try – a pain cereales, pain de levain and a tourte auvergnate. They were fantastic and I want to get more before I leave Paris so you can try them when I get back to NY.

On both Thursday afternoon and Friday morning I hit BE, or Boulangepicier, the “fast-gourmet” outpost of Alain Ducasse. This business was originally a partnership between Ducasse and Eric Kayser (more on him on my May 12 post). I didn’t realize that their partnership had dissolved and its now run by Ducasse. I met the general manager, Gwen Merlier, a generous and all-around-super-nice guide to the business. Unfortuntately, the company policy is no photos – so I can’t give you all the visual info I would like.

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The store is a very modern, sleek space with lots of artisanal products developed by Ducasse, as well as a display case with beautiful looking breads, salads, sandwiches, simple desserts, and pizzas. I can’t tell you how appetizing everything looked. Gwen treated me to a terrific lunch – a sandwich made with a foccacia roll and proscuitto, baby greens, artichokes and parmesan. It was delicious – and what I really like about the bread was that it wasn’t too overwhelming – the perfect amount in the mouth. I also tried their rice pudding with orange compote – a simple but perfectly executed dessert.

Gwen gave me sac filled with breads to try and I have photos of them. They include rolls made with olives and tomatoes, comte and pain cereales. (check out flickr)

Thursday afternoon I also hit some boulangeries in the 18th district – otherwise known as Montmartre. This area of Paris holds the famous Sacre Couer – a gorgeous church set on top of an impossible hill. With my eleven bags of bread I made the trek – in retrospect a really big mistake. But the views were great.

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I schlepped all over the district looking for the more interesting boulangeries. I found another Au Levain du Marais, a store I visited in the 4th district as well. The clerks wouldn’t let me talk with the owner – a very talented Theirry Rabineau, so my information on his bread comes from Professor Kaplan.

Rabineau makes two different kinds of dough to support a variety of breads. His white dough uses little yeast, kneads at ten minutes at a medium speed, autolyses for thirty minutes, and then is given a bulk pointage for and hour and a half. It then slow ferments at 10 degrees celcius.

I bought a tradtional baguette and it was excellent – it reminded me of the one I bought from Poujaran. Very mellow- the crust did not overwhelm the crumb.

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It was a long trek home – sorry for the delay in the update (Mom)! More to come – check out flickr for more photos!

May 9, 2007

Greetings everyone!

Yesterday I did not post – it was kind a wash. I woke to a rainy morning in Paris – I noticed that the streets were really quiet but I assumed people just didn’t like being out in the bad weather. After my usual breakfast of crepe and cafe au lait I set out to the 1st arrondissment, an area of the city on the right bank that holds some great boulangeries. I wasn’t having any luck because the first three I hit were closed. I still wasn’t thinking clearly because some where along the way I dropped my brand new red parasol and was too upset to figure out that it was a national holiday. The day honors the victory of the French during WWII. Unlike American holidays, most businesses in France are closed. I thought I’d try one more and see what the fates held. I searched for Max Poilane’s boulangerie – the brother of Lionel Poilane – he had his own business and was supposed to produce excellent bread. Alas, his business was nowhere to be found. When I asked a waiter in a nearby cafe if he knew where it was, he informed me that Max had tragically died in a helicopter crash about a year ago and his business is now defunct. So I did what any self-respecting American in Paris would do, I bought a tart and strolled over to the museum I knew would be open – the Musee D’Orsay – a great collection of 19th century impressionist paintings. I had a good time, but alas, no bread.

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When in Paris – a few don’ts. Do not under any circumstances use a flash in a museum. Mine was accidentally on when I took a picture in the Musee D’Orsay, and a very angry Frenchwoman let me have it. (I suppose rightfully so.) Always ask permission to use a camera in a business – it’s considered very rude to just start clicking away. Never bring bread from another business into a new one unless it’s discreetly concealed – also very rude.

Today (Wednesday) I had some great success. I started the day again in the 1st arrondissment with two bakeries that are located on the same street – rue Saint-Honore. This saint happens to be the patron saint of bread bakers – or at least one of them. The first boulangerie was called Gosselin, named after a baker who really has his roots in the baking profession. Philippe is a fourth generation baker, and his wife is a baker’s daughter – so I guess he has baking encrypted in his DNA. He originally apprenticed as a baker but trained to be a patissier – training he insists is very important for a baker because it teaches one to be meticulous when scaling ingredients. (There is are a lot of philosophical and professional differences between bakers who first train as patissiers and bakers who follow the old school ways).

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Gosselin is especially known for his traditional baguette – he won the the contest for best baguette in Paris about ten years ago. His traditional baguette is made by kneading the dough for twelve minutes at low speed, then letting this autolyse (rest) for up to two hours. He adds salt and a moderate amount of yeast, then shifts to second speed for five minutes. He leaves it in a vat for up half an hour, then weighs it and allows it to rise for up to three hours. He shapes by hand and bakes within the hour. (A very similar practice we use at Bouchon Bakery).

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I tried it and it was delicious. The crust was beautifully formed – but it wasn’t as well done as other baguettes I have tried. I really liked the way the crust did not overwhelm the interior – which was really creamy and had a yellowish color.

While I have been trying to get an interview with Msr. Gosselin – I haven’t had a lot of luck. Steven Kaplan’s book Good Bread is Back was a great resource for information on his career and bread baking practices.

Next on the list was a boulangerie owned by Jean-Noel Julien – about two blocks away from Gosselin’s site. I guess the two are rivals but in a friendly way. Julien has a completely different background from Gosselin – he did not train in pastry – he still maintains that consistency is his goal. His traditional baguette – his most popular product – is also made with the direct method and a small amount of yeast. He kneads at low speed, lets the dough proof for three hours, and bakes in a gas-fired oven. He does not shape his baguettes by hand because he feels that too much damage is done to the dough. He thinks that if his bakers shaped by hand there would be too much inconsistency with the product.

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His traditional baguette also won the prestigious prize of best baguette in Paris in the late 1990′s. The baguette is definitely different from Gosselin’s bread – the crust was much more well-done – probably the most well-done I’ve tasted to date in Paris. I visited his other shop in the 7th arrondissement last week, and that shop was definitely more fun because of the open fournil.

Another highlight was visiting the flagship of Paul – on this site, the bakery produces all of the bread for the rest of its stores. The shopkeepers are pretty strict about letting people take pictures inside, but I ran around the side of the business and befriended a baker who let me take some pictures of the oven. It was a wood-fired rotating oven (only the second I’ve seen next to Poilane.) The bakers were jovial and relaxed and were happy to answer some of my questions. Here are some photos:

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I visited a number of boulangeries in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th arrondissements today, and another highlight was Au Levain du Marais. This bakery is known for its use of natural pre-ferments, as well as its young owner – Theirry Rabineau – one of the youngest bakers ever to earn a MOF. I tried the pain de compagne and it was fabulous. Here are some pictures:

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The real highlight came at the end of my day with a scheduled appointment with Dominique Saibon. (Courtesy of Steven Kaplan – my patron saint of this trip.) The name of his business is Boulanger de Monge, and its located on the rue du Monge in the 5th arrondissment. Dominique was rated in both Kaplan and Le Guide des Boulangeries as having the best bread in Paris, and it did not disappoint. His background is pretty interesting – when he started he was a complete outsider in the baking community. I’ve learned that having family connections in this profession is really important to getting your start. Dominique, however, is mostly self-taught. He had one week internship with Lenotre – a prestigious patissierie – that’s it. He originally worked as a patissier, and so he supervises both the pastry and bread baking operations in his shop – which I think is highly unusual. For several years of his career, he worked for a company called Carrefour, which produced large quantities of mediocre bread, until Saibon completely changed it around. He implemented the standards of what is today legislated as the traditional baguette. His influence on baking in France has been tremendous.

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Today, he owns his own store which is fully devoted to his methodologies. His is the first baguette I’ve tried here made with both mixture of poolish and hard levain. After the dough is mixed he lets ferment for two hours before dividing in a machine, a minimal amount of shaping (his baguettes have a very distinct shape), and then the dough sits in couches for 3-4 hours. His bakers make the baguette dough four times daily.

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His levain is natural and he refreshes every twelve hours – its smells of honey, cinnamon, and cloves. His sourdoughs as well as his specialty breads get a fermentation time of 10-12 hours.

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I tried the traditional baguette and pain au levain and they were fantastic. I plan to go back to try several more – maybe I’ll get to bring some of his bread home for you to try!

May 7, 2007

Hello Everyone!

I just had the most remarkable experience. I had a appointment today with a boulanger on the outskirts of Paris in a little suburb called Sceaux, a charming little town with small shops and gardens. The boulanger was Frank Dubois and I can say without hesitation his was the most fantastic bread I think I’ve ever tasted. I got a little lost trying to find the place, but when I was close I knew – there was a line of customers outside his shop and it stayed as busy until the moment I left.

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Frank is a true master – calm and unassuming – he exudes a a charm and knowledge that speaks volumes about his business. His english is not great, but he was able to communicate his philosophies and methodologies. He let me try a number of his breads, and every single one was a revelation. His rye baguette – made from a farine T-130 was incredible as was his buche de sceaux – a rye with hints of buckwheat.

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His grande sourdough boule has a fermentation of close to 20 hours. It is made from farine T-80, and was a perfect balance of sour. His breads are never too acidic nor sweet. And the aroma had a richness and complexity that was very powerful.

The baguette uses a natural poolish of flour, water, salt and yeast. After the dough is mixed, it autolyses for 10 minutes, then proofs for an hour. He then practices a deferred fermentation of 3-7 hours in a proofing chamber. When the dough is ready, the baker divides the dough in a machine that completely forms it. With very little handling, the dough is placed in a couche for 10 minutes. It then goes in the oven is ready for the client in 20 minutes.

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It was a perfect baguette – creamy with a crackling crust and perfect interior.

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The brioche was second to none. He uses a natural levain of yeast, flour and milk, and lets that proof for four hours. He then mixes flour, salt and eggs, and finishes mixing with butter and cream. Not sweet, perfect hydration, creamy and soft – it was simply fabulous. Everything about his brioche was perfectly balanced. Equilibrium was a term he kept using to describe his bread.

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I tried a Pain Chataigne, which was a bread filled with chestnuts. He uses combination of 30% chataigne flour – one that I am not famiiar with and want to learn more about. Dense and chewy it was also suberb.

The last bread I tried was an olive oil bread with roasted tomatoes and chevre. I can not get over how good this was. The dough requires 1 day of fermentation, and when divided he slabs huge chunks of chevre on the top and bakes for 20 minutes. He gave me a huge roll (as well as three bags with more bread), and after I left I ran over to the park and ravaged this in one sitting.

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Frank stressed to me over and over how important it was to him to provide a singular experience for his clients. He believes in an open fournil (oven room) so that his clients can see and smell the baking process – and feel connected to it. He wants his bakers and clients to interact and get to know each other. His business goals are not that of expansion, but rather providing the best quality and service in a small location.

In addition to his fantastic bread, he also has a beautiful display of pastries made by an MOF patisserier.  An MOF is a very prestigious award bestowed on people who have mastery over their profession – it can be a chef, baker or patissier. Here is some of his work: (check out flickr for more photos of the pastry kitchen)

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I can’t thank him enough for letting me spend time with him and his bakers. His business and everyone involved had such a great energy. He is really a superstar. And thanks to Steven Kaplan for setting me up with him. It’s interesting that on my first day another shopkeeper (a chocolatier) also recommended that I stop there – she said his bread was phenomenal.

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Its probably time to pack my bags and head back because I think this is it – the end of the line. Who can possibly top this?

May 5, 2007

Bonjour!

My day started with a coffee date with Steven Kaplan, a renowned historian with a specialty in the history of french bread. For those of you not familiar with his work, he is a scholar at Cornell and teaches one term a year at the University of Versailles. His latest book, Good Bread is Back, is a very thorough examination of the history of french bread and illuminating look at the contemporary scene of French bread making. I reached out to him before my trip, and he has been extraordinarily generous with his time. Not only has he set up interviews with some of the best bakers in Paris, he has given me numerous insights into the history and culture of french bread baking.

I met him this morning at a cafe in Montparnasse, a district in the south of Paris. We discussed his work as a consultant to a consortium of 3,000 artisanal bakers, and the issues facing boulangers today. He probably knows more about french bread than anyone on the planet. Witty and erudite, he gave me numerous examples of the trends and trajectories of artisanal baking. He is also an a very strong advocate of the feminization of the profession, an issue I take particularly to heart since I have been introduced to the culture of french boulangers. It really is interesting to see how few women participate in the profession. With very few exceptions, the bakers are men and women are shopkeepers. When I tell people I am a baker I am typically met with giggles and sly looks. Prof. Kaplan thinks I might be better off telling people I am a tourist – and he might be right. This community – if you could call it that – is very different from the bread baking community in the states. Boulangers and especially shopkeepers tend to be vary wary – especially when I explain that I want to take pictures and ask some questions about the bread. I should qualify this by saying that I have also met very kind and generous people as well who have been very helpful and eager to share.

After coffee, Steven and I walked to two boulangeries that have peaked his interest but he had never tried. I should add that Steven has also written a guide to the best boulangeries in Paris – a treasure I discovered a couple of weeks before I left for Paris and has been absolutely indispensable. Unfortunately for me it is not translated into english, but it has still been a great resource. In it, he methodically describes a system for tasting and understanding the french baguette. He encouraged me to try a baguette traditional in every place I visit so I can get a reference point for rating the bread. (A suggestion I have tried to follow, but I am still tempted to try everything else but.) Our first stop was a called Aux Delicies de Sevres. We tried a baguette called “essential” and is made with a farine (flour) of T110 – a dark flour with a high ash content. It was fantastic – the aroma was intoxicating and the taste – wow. Nutty and caramel with a crackling crust.

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I took some other photos of the products in the shop – it was a pretty impressive display.

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I should note that the bread/boulangeries that I have been focusing on is artisanal in the sense that these breads are not enhanced by additives nor preservatives, nor are they subject to parbaking – a method which freezes the dough and stops fermentation before it fully develops. These practices are common to most boulangeries and companies that produce a high volume of bread.

The second shop we visited was Des Gateaux and du Pain, a new concept shop emerging in Paris. It really is almost a boutique – very modern, chic, and devoted to the theater of the final product. Prof. Kaplan is not a fan of this model – he advocates an open fournil (oven room) where customers can view the baking of the bread and really make a connection to what they are eating and the process through which it was made. The baguette traditonal was very good, but did not compare to the last one. Here are some pictures:

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Prof. Kaplan is a founder of an event called the fete du pain – an annual event that organizes and displays the art of french bread baking. It also is a site for a major baguette baking competition of which he is a judge. The good news for me is that it starts before I leave – so I am really looking forward to spending some time at it.

After my meeting I walked over to my first open marche(market) – I have really been looking forward to it after reading about them and what they have to offer. It was located on the rue de Saxe and has a fantastic view of the Eiffel Tower (below). It did not disappoint – the display of beautiful produce and cheese and fish and olives and charcuturie and flowers was staggering. The only drawback was that there was only one bread vendor – but it still was delightful. Here are some photos – check out flickr for more. I bought myself the fixings for a fabulous lunch.

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After the market I explored boulangeries in the 15th arrondissement, a district south of where I am staying. Boulangerie Dossemont is a popular spot. It actually wasn’t on my list but as I was standing on a street corner I noticed people a lot walking with a baguette. I found this bakery about 20 yards away. The owner, a businesswoman, was in and was incredibly gracious. She showed me around the kitchen and we tried to communicate in broken english and french. (Some pictures below.)

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I visited a number of other bakeries – check out flickr for more photos – there are too many to get into here. But the best highlight was Pain au Naturale, a boulangerie owned by Michel Moison. This bread is completely organic – and only uses natural levain or poolish as the pre-ferment. I went for two breads – a pain au levain baguette and a pain seiegle baguette. The pain au levain uses T-65 flour, a natural levain, salt, water and moulue a la meule. It was really sour with a fantastic sour aroma and very strong aftertaste. The crust and scoring were lovely. (below)

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But it was the second bread – the pain de seigle that blew me away.

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The ingredients included a farine de ble T150 – which means the wheat flour is stone-ground but preserves more of the cellulose and envelope of the kernel so it is very very wheaty and much more nutritious. It was very dense and nutty with an abundance of wheat flecks, but also sour because of the natural levain. It was one of the best breads I’ve had to date. I tasted it on the street (more sly looks) and actually ran back in the shop to express my amazement. After I raved in broken french for half a minute the shopkeeper looked at me coolly and said in perfect english, “Okay – goodbye”. Ahh the french.

May 4, 2007

Hello Everyone!

My day (Friday) started at the crack of dawn – feels like home! I spent part of the morning with Theirry Dubois at his business Pain D’Epi. A boulanger who refuses to lower the quality of his product, Dubois makes his bread without any additives or preservatives, nor does he freeze his dough. This is the standard of an artisanal baker as legislated by the government. When I arrived this morning he was in a full out baking frenzy for the opening at 7:30. It is just him, one other baker and a pastry chef. He does all the bread production in full view of his store, so customers can really get a sense of the operation. (His pastry chef works downstairs).

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He starts the baguette dough a full twenty hours before he bakes it. He doesn’t use poolish, but old dough from the previous bake. The dough stays in a proofer at 8-10 degrees celcius – a method called deferred fermentation that he believes provides better flavor by extending the second fermentation process (appret) . He shapes and bakes the following morning. He and his team bake all day long depending on the demand. His method allows him to adjust for demand by controlling the temperature of the dough.

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Theirry has thirty breads in his rotation, including pain complet, pain seigle, pain cereales, pain de bois, pain mie and viennoise.

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Another highlight today was my first visit to Eric Kesyer – a very famous boulanger who has several locations in Paris and is expanding to the US. He is really respected in the french baking community – a guy who is constantly creating and pushing the envelope. The site I visited today was in the 13th arrondissment, which is located in the west section of the city in a largely business district. I had to walk for about and hour along the Seine to get there – (a fantastic view of the museums and river on flickr). At this site, all of the baking is down for his other bakeries. It is a very modern storefront and kitchen. He is on the forefront of bread baking technology because he is using a machine designed by Bongard that actually completely shapes large amounts of dough thus reducing damage to the dough by human hands but also increasing the productivity of the baker. It literally takes the baker’s hands off the dough – which some might say is not the most desirable way forward. It’s really questionable to me whether a baker can maintain his level of knowledge about dough if he isn’t handling it.

The salesperson who showed me around did not allow me take pictures either inside the store or the bakery – truly frustrating. I have an appointment with his manger next week (courtesy of Steven Kaplan – thank you!), and its possible I will be able to get some pictures and maybe a meeting with Eric Kayser himself.
All of his breads use a natural levain, and he uses a lot of interesting ingredients and flavor combinations. I bought a pain de algue – a bread we have been working on at Per Se. It was excellent – tasted like the sea but not in a disconcerting way. He doesn’t use dried seaweed -and the salt is just right – not too overwhelming.

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At last the venerable Poilane! Genevieve, Appolonia Poliane’s assistant gave me over an hour of her time and talked with me about the history of the company as well as the methodology behind the bread. The store is very small – and it has remained unchanged since 1932 when Pierre Poilane first opened it. (For those of you not familiar with the company, Poilane is generally regarded as the one of the most famous boulangeries if not the one – its sourdough miche is renowned for its flavor and its baked in wood-fired ovens – an increasing rarity in France today.)

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Set in a former convent, Pierre discovered a wood-fired oven that he determined was first built around 1789, and he was determined to resurrect it. The company is really focused on preserving tradition. On the walls where I met Genevieve were paintings given to Pierre in exchange for bread during WWII.paintings-at-poilanejpg.jpg

Another feature was this dead dough chandelier made by Poilane but designed by Salvador Dali. Every two years a baker remakes this – pretty neat.

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The storefront is as simple as their product. They only produce a sourdough miche, a rye boule and they use the miche and rye doughs for two other variations with nuts and dried fruit. They also produce a brioche pan loaf, sable cookies, apple tarts and croissants – that’s pretty much it. Everything is baked in the wood fired oven, so the product has a very rustic quality. Nothing is perfect in the sense that everything is uniformly baked – but everything looks great. And the bread is made exactly as Pierre made it in 1932 – nothing has changed. At the larger site in the 15th arr. where there are 16 working wood-fired ovens, it is the same methodology. Everything is shaped by hand. The ingredients have not changed either – stone-ground flour, guerade (?) salt, dough from the previous day, water.

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Now for the best part – the oven -

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I was blown away by this. I couldn’t get over how deep it was. The baker has a real mastery over the oven- being able to control the temperature in both the front and the back. One boule takes about an hour, but the ones loaded first will be the last to come out, so the back of the oven needs to stay cooler than the front. Talk about stressful!  Pierre (the baker in the photos) is a real pro.  He has been with the company for years.

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I asked about training in the company and it was clear that there is a real culture to the company. They do not take professional bakers – they want people who are willing to learn what they do and how they do it and commit to mastering it because theirs is a very unique way of baking bread. It usually takes years for a baker to man the oven alone.

I really enjoyed this tour – and I am looking forward to possibly seeing the Poilane site in the 15th.

Tomorrow – coffee and touring with Steven Kaplan, Professor of French Studies at Cornell and University of Versailles and expert on the history of french bread , (and who has been a fabulous help with this trip), and then boulangeries in the 15th district. See you!