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.
I took some other photos of the products in the shop – it was a pretty impressive display.
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:
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.
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.)
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)
But it was the second bread – the pain de seigle that blew me away.
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.