Even more than le vin (wine), le pain (bread) is the basis of French gastronomy. People swear by certain bakers and each Parisian has his or her favourite boulangerie. Can there be a more affordable or delicious way to get into the French psyche while you’re here?
Of the 1,200 boulangeries in the city, 174 entered the 18th Grand Prix de la Baguette de Tradition Française de la Ville de Paris – the annual competition to find the best baguette in town – run by the city council (Mairie de Paris) last week.
The baguettes being judged were not just any baguettes, but baguettes de tradition, bread that, according to a 1993 French law, must be mixed, kneaded, leavened, and baked on premises, without ever being frozen. The loaves must be additive-free and can contain only four ingredients: wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast. So, the first time you buy a baguette in Paris, make sure it’s a baguette de tradition.
After that, you can begin to experiment with the other products of the French baker’s art (all governed by law, with size and weight strictly regulated): ordinary baguettes (usually a few centimes cheaper), a ficelle (literally “string” bread and much thinner), and baguettes made with different flour or with added poppy or sesame seeds. Find your nearest boulangerie on the clickable map on the bakers’ official website.
And don’t feel guilty when you reach again for the bread basket in the restaurant. According to French nutrionist Dr Hervé Robert, it’s not the bread that makes you fat, it’s what you put on it, especially butter. “Obese people are rarely great eaters of bread,” he says, recommending a daily adult dose of one baguette a day. He recommends the baguette de tradition as being the best nutritionally, even more than whole wheat bread (le pain complet).
The competition winner was Pascal Barillon who has been baking at Au Levain d’Antan in Montmartre since 1988. (See below for details of his and the other winning bakeries.) Like almost every other boulangerie in Paris, his is a small family business and tenaciously traditional. The name of his bakery could be loosely translated as “the bread of yesteryear”. He will now have the honour of providing bread to the President of France at the Elysée Palace for the whole year.
Nor are the celebrations over. This week is the 11th national Fête du pain (festival of bread), and from Thursday (12 May) to the end of the week (16 May), there will be events on the square in front of Nôtre-Dame cathedral (Le parvis Nôtre-Dame), especially on Saturday.
Top 10 boulangeries in Paris, 2011
1. Au Levain d’Antan, 6, rue des Abbesses, 75018
2. Gaétan Romp, 14 rue de la Michodière, 75002
3. Les Saveurs du 20ème (Pascal Jamin), 120 rue de Bagnolet, 75020
4. Gontran Cherrier, 22 rue Caulaincourt, 75018
5. Le Fournil du Village (M. Risser), 12 place JB Clément, 75018
6. Les Gourmandises d’Eiffel (Gilles Levaslot), 187 rue de Grenelle, 75007
7. Julien, 75 Rue Saint-Honoré, 75001
8. Philippe Marache, 92 av de la République, 75011
9. Philippe Bogner, 204 rue des Pyrénées, 75020
10. Le Grenier à Pain Saint-Amand, 64 Avenue Félix Faure, 75015
(List thanks to Paris by Mouth, where you can find details of past winners and lots more.)