Bread has long been a staple of society. Yet it is much more than a means of sustenance. In its various forms, we now view bread as a means to define certain cultures. There’s pita in Middle Eastern cuisine, naan accompanies Indian curry, and a basic baguette in France.
As my usual low-carb eating self spent two weeks in Paris having rolls pushed on me for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I wondered whether the French really ate this much bread. Or was I simply expected to indulge in croissants, pain au chocolat and baguettes all day as a reflection on how the French view Americans in general and how the French think the Americans view the French culture?
Sure, we have placed an over-exaggerated importance on the role of bread (good or bad), with books telling us that French women can eat all they want and don’t get fat. But what do the French really think about bread these days?
Watching the French as they walked down the streets, chatted with friends, dined in restaurants and shopped in the markets, I realized that there is some truth behind these myths and bread continues to be a critical part of the culture — from the masses to the upper class.
Everywhere I ate, bread came with my meal. Be it a local brasserie, an neighborhood bistro or a Michelin-starred restaurant. In most places butter wasn’t served — a testament to how good the bread should be.
Supermarkets sold baguettes in bulk.
But bread in Paris was rarely available at street markets, except for ones that cater to Americans.
Instead, most Parisians I saw carrying baguettes were never far from a local boulangerie — and I could usually smell the shop even before I could see it. I concluded that in Paris where one purchased bread an important part of the culture.
As I went into the shops, I watched the customers converse with the sellers and each other. Many seemed to be regulars. This was a social occasion. Not just about procuring some bread.
Outside the city, where many now shop at large grocery stores, the interaction was less a part of the process. Customers bought what was cheapest and most convenient.
But what also struck me, was that wasn’t the women that were carrying the baguettes.
Had the role of bringing home the bread (figuratively and literally) fallen to the men?
And since there were usually multiple loaves, how much did they really eat in one night and where did all the stale bread go?
As part of my “research” and because I had access, I was able to explore bread at its source with a “tour” of boulangeries that represented the old and the new bread of Paris. I even visited a mill in Normandy where the flour was processed (more on that in another post).
My first bread stop was the historic and world renowned Poilâne. Located on a block that was had functioned as a convent during the French Revolution, the original Paris location has been serving in the capacity of a bakery since 1791.
Poilâne — and its gerund sea salt sourdough starter — has operated here since 1932. Now there are 3 shops in Paris, 2 in London and, if you’re within a 24 hour flight away, you can have their bread overnighted to you. All bread is made from this same starter and same recipe, which ensures that the bread you buy in London tastes the same as the one in Paris. To meet the demand (they sell thousands a day), at end of the 1970s, Poilâne built a manufacturing plant with 24 wood fired ovens. The building is round – just like the bread.
As I descended into the cellar (sorry, no photos permitted), I felt the warmth of the 60 year old wood-fired oven that can hold 17 loaves of sourdough. Watching the apprentice baker carefully turn the apple tarts and sourdough rounds, the smell of bread reached all my senses. (Like many other blue collar jobs in France and throughout Europe, the apprentice process is a part of job training. Here, the trainee apprentice is taught by the master baker over the course of 9 months.)
I wanted to taste that sourdough whose starter yeast had survived wars and infatuated Salvador Dali so much that he had furniture designed from it. Can you imagine a bed made of bread? To commemorate Dali and the friendship he had with the bakery, a bread chandelier hangs in Poilâne’s backroom.
While I loved the story of Poilâne, I wasn’t as enthralled by the taste of their bread, although many others are huge fans. Bread is, after all, a personal choice – another concept I had learned.
Next on my list was Du Pain et Des Ideés in the 10th arrondissement.
Our group dubbed it the “bacon” bread because of its smoky quality, even though it’s actually meatless. This was my favorite so far. Their actual bread with pancetta, unfortunately, was a little under-cooked and not nearly as tasty. Thus, as I also seemed to conclude, the recent French fascination with savory and other American-style breads (bagels are everywhere) needs more work.
The collective is run by bakers fed up with traditional employment (one baker had been a graphic designer for 10 yrs). They were kind enough to give us a tour of their facilities, much different from those of Poilâne, and explained their philosophy of bread and life.
Their passion for bread can be tasted in their impeccable sourdough – which was perfectly sour!
By this point, I had begun to view bread differently. I had a greater understanding of the importance of bread in the French culture, even if I still had a ton of questions that couldn’t be answered without some serious research, including entering some French home. But at least I was able to form an opinion on what, for me, was good bread and I now had some favorites. I even bought a bag to hold the bread that I’d purchase!
As a fitting conclusion to my bread research, on my last morning in Paris, I trekked across the city to buy a half portion of the Pain des Amis at Du Pain et Des Ideés. (It’s never a bad idea to have some bread and cheese as a snack on the plane.) But as I smelled the bread and recalled the taste, I couldn’t resist tearing a few pieces off as I walked around the city, just as I had seen so many others do during my two weeks. I couldn’t help but feel like I was a little bit more of a Parisian now. If only I could get bread like this at home….