Every year since 1993, Paris’ professional organization for bakers and pastry chefs has staged a competition for the city’s best baguette. It’s an award worth plenty to the winning baker. Along with the cash prize of 4,000 euros, or about $5,700, comes the right to supply the president’s Elysée Palace with baguettes for one year. The publicity generated as a result of the win pretty much guarantees a 20 percent increase in sales at the bakery. This year’s laureate, announced May 8, is baker Pascal Barillon of Au Levain d’Antan on rue des Abbesses in the 18th arrondissement, the neighborhood of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge.
The baguette competition and the accompanying media circus could be seen simply as a sign of how seriously the French take their daily bread. It’s true that many Parisians prize their baguettes and will crisscross the city in search of the crispest crust, the finest crumb and the richest flavor. But while French bread is all of a sudden on a roll, with media-savvy Parisian bakers regularly grabbing headlines in France and abroad, the quality of this preeminent symbol of French life has not always been the best.
Best Bakery Breads in Paris
Things began to go downhill during and after the World War II when rationing and a scarcity of qualified bakers took their toll. By the 1960s, dreadful things were being done in French bread’s name. Additives abounded, flour “improvers” did their worst, mechanization was enthusiastically embraced, doughs and breads were frozen raw to be resurrected in bake-off terminals. The results were big blowzy, tasteless white loaves — think bread on steroids — and baguettes bought at breakfast time that were limp by midmorning and stale by lunch.
As quality plummeted, so too did consumption. At the beginning of the 20th century, it averaged around 900 grams of bread per person per day. By the end of the millennium, the figure had dipped to a meager 150 grams (about half a baguette) per head.
By the beginning of the 1990s, mutterings about the dismal state of the French loaf were swelling to a chorus. Millers, bakers, food writers, broadcasters and consumers all agreed that something had to be done to rescue this most emblematic of French foods. And this being France, the government got involved. From 1993, a number of bread decrees came into force, designed to put the soul back in France’s bread, restore pride to the baking profession and — it was hoped — boost flagging sales. Two key provisions stipulated that the terms pain maison (house bread) and boulangerie (bakery) could only be used when dough was raised, shaped, proved and baked on the premises. And a new (though actually old-style) type of bread named pain de tradition française, “bread in the French tradition,” was introduced, containing just four ingredients: flour, salt, water and a leavening agent (yeast and/or sourdough). No additives, no freezing at any stage of the bread making process, just good raw materials, skill, plenty of time and TLC.
By the mid-1990s, the renaissance of French bread was underway, brilliantly chronicled in Steven Kaplan’s seminal book “Good Bread is Back.” Fine bread had always been made by the likes of Lionel Poilâne, but he’d been something of a lone voice in the wilderness. Now he was joined by a new wave of massively talented, entrepreneurial bakers. And they were ready to conquer not just Paris, but the world.
One of the first to put French bread back on the map was Eric Kayser on rue Monge. He’s a passionately committed master baker whose gently kneaded, slow-proofed sourdough loaves are numbered among France’s finest. His 19 boulangeries are dotted around Paris, and there are 80 more around the world, from Dubai to Seoul, Tokyo to Beirut.
At the other end of the rue Monge is Dominique Saibron, whose superbly aromatic organic baguettes (and around 20 other breads) bring customers flocking from all over Paris. A self-taught iconoclast, Saibron once worked for the Carrefour supermarket chain, transforming their bread operation and triumphantly disproving the notion that supermarkets can’t produce decent bread. Now working independently once more, he too has 14 branches in Japan and recently opened a huge flagship bakery in the 14th arrondissement.
The pool of Paris’s talented artisan bakers is impressive and constantly growing: Basil Kamir, Michel Moisan, Philippe Gosselin, Christophe Vasseur, Claire Damon and many more. There’s never been a better time to buy good bread in the city. Book your ticket to Paris and work your way through a week of intensive bread-tasting. Look for the telltale, sharply pointed ends that characterize a proper artisanal baguette with its wonky, anarchical aspect (no two will be identical), fragile crust, creamy golden crumb with huge, uneven holes and almost buttery flavour with hints of toasted hazelnut. By the time you’ve munched through a selection from the bakeries listed below, you’ll be in a position to award your own prize for Paris’ best baguette.
Zester Daily contribuor Sue Style lives in Alsace, close to the border of Baden, Germany. She’s the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October, 2011, is Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture.
Photos from top:
La Maison Kayser in Paris. Credit: Sue Style
Eric Kayser cradling his baguettes. Courtesy of Eric Kayser