The 10 Closest Boulangeries

photo: harvester, boullay-les-troux

Imagine - Paris' bread comes from here; near Boullay-les-Holes.

For Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

Paris:- Wednesday, 28. July 1999:- Reader Scott McBride wrote yesterday to say his hotel in the Rue des Ecoles had one of the "ten best boulangeries-pastisseries across the street," and he and his wife Elizabeth would enjoy 'buttery' croissants from it every morning of their two week stay.

This was in response to my mention last week, of walking slightly more or less than a block to get my lifetime-first warm croissants for breakfast.

In a flash of over-ambition, I wrote back to Scott to ask if he cared to suggest a 'ten best' list. He replied that it might be an idea, but by then it had occurred to me it would be an impossible task.

I suppose some city license department knows how manyphoto: le pain au naturel bakeries there are in Paris, and the baker's association probably knows how many of them have their own ovens - but I know neither of these figures.

The business of the ovens is important. Only bakeries with them, where bread is baked on the premises, are allowed to be called 'artisan boulangeries.' Other places that may look like boulangeries, are merely shops that sell bread made elsewhere. My croissants last week, were made in the bakery behind the shopfront.

I'm sure bakers give themselves prizes, somewhat like some guidebooks rate restaurants and wine tasters give a Paris wine bar the annual 'Meilleur Pot' award, which is then proudly displayed prominently forever afterwards.

But for bread and for pastries, I think word-of-mouth does the actual broadcasting, so it doesn't matter that my library is still in disarray. It's not something I can look up and I doubt any bread 'rating' is in it.

Given all these unknowns, I decide instead just to walk around my own new 'quartier' to see how many bakeries there are. Some of their photos are here - but these four are merelyphoto: le moule a gateau the closest. If I take in the two blocks to the south, there are probably four or five more; not including shops with patisseries exclusively.

This makes something like nine or ten bakeries located around the closest three whole city blocks. This will give you an idea of the difficulty of 'testing' them all within a week. I don't know how to 'test' bread anyway.

Mind you, it is said that some bread fanciers will travel to a bakery on the other side of town to get a loaf that is slightly shorter and slightly fatter, or slightly better. When it comes to bread, only the best is good enough!

For those who have not visited France or Paris, I must add that shops and supermarkets also have various forms of industrial white, doughy, 'Wonderbread,' with all sorts of vitamins and other obscure ingredients added to keep them from turning green with mold within 48 hours. If you like this type of bread; just so you know, it's here too.

A fairly new trend is packaged 'sandwich' bread that has been made with stouter forms of flour. It is just as crustless as the 'white' variety though. You can buy this 'wholemeal' variant by the unitphoto: le fournil de pierre in many places, sold as packaged sandwiches, for about 18 to 25 francs.

I mention this doughy bread because real French bread has real, crispy crusts. For this you need stout teeth. Not everybody has these; if you haven't, then you'll have to pass on the real French bread experience.

All is not lost if this is the case. As Marie Antoinette said, 'you can eat brioche instead' - which is usually mistranslated as 'cake.' At one time, 'white' bread was only affordable by the well-off; now this is what is inside every baguette.

When Marie was around giving household hints during a basic shortage of wheat in Paris, ordinary Parisians were being poormouthed about not having - not be able to afford because of grain speculators - dark bread types such as 'tourte d'Auvergne,' or the 'natte ordinaire,' the 'natte au cummin' or the 'natte aux Pavots.'

Most bread ovens are no longer fueled with wood or charcoal, but with gas or electricity. You can't tell if this is the reason bread doesn't taste the same as 'in the old days' or whether it is due to your own changing tastes.

If a bakery has a strong smell of bread it is more than possible it is made on the spot. You can get your croissants for breakfast, for breakfast right away. Baguettes are for right away too - don't expectphoto: l'epi d'or boulanger baguettes to 'keep' until tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day for which you need new bread - not yesterday's.

With the baguette in hand, seek a handy cheese shop and get some real butter and your favorite sort of Camembert, 'Brie de Meaux' or Roquefort cheese, and have yourself a taste sensation.

If there's any bread left over, then it can be used for dessert. You beat up some eggs and pour it on the bread and bake it a bit. When it's ready you pour honey or maple syrup over it. It is called 'French toast.'

In other countries this is eaten for breakfast, but in France it is a dessert because new bread is usually on the table for the beginning of the new day.

The day after I do the tour of my five closest boulangeries, I pay a visit to the Cadillac Ranch down in Boullay-les-Holes. It is a fine place, but more polluted by noise than usual - the most immediate being made by a harvester in the adjacent wheat field.

It is gathering in the grain for my thrice-daily bread.

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