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Boulangeries in Paris--the review


boulak
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But first a few notes. I went to Paris with the intention of tasting as much bread as possible in an eight day span. Of course, some pastry and chocolate would be enjoyed, but the focus of the trip was bread; not museums, not shopping, no fancy dinners, no monument ascensions, just bread.

One great thing is that bread prices are regulated in France. A baguette weighing 220 grams after baking is .95 to 1 Euro. Even with a weak dollar, a baguette is more affordable in Paris than it is in most artisanal bakeries in the U.S. I have always felt that bread is more democratic than pastry as almost anyone can plunk down a buck or two and enjoy world class bread. World class pastry is enjoyed by a much smaller percentage of the population. This is part of bread’s appeal. As exciting and titillating as pastry is, only bread and bread making can soothe the soul. Another point of interest is that in France, bread is baked throughout the day as opposed to the overnight baking done in many of the bakeries stateside. One deck of the oven might contain baguettes, another, pain au levain, another, rye or pain Viennois. This cycle is repeated throughout the day. When you request a baguette, the clerk reaches into a basket where baguettes are stored vertically and hands you a warm or even hot baguette. They are not stored warm, they are that fresh. I prefer not to bag hot bread, but when in………….

Armed with "Cherchez le Pain" by Steven Kaplan, an incredible spreadsheet from eGullet member rgural, "Paris Boulangerie Patisserie" by Linda Dannenberg and suggestions from the eGullet community, my wife and I spent the week of Thanksgiving walking through Paris tasting bread. We would make a purchase, take it outside, she would hold one end of the baguette, and I would hold the other. Then we sliced off about 25% of the baguette. The remainder of the baguette was sliced lengthwise to evaluate the crumb or mie and photographed... Then we would smell and taste. If we really liked the baguette we would continue to eat it. If it was rather pedestrian, we gave it to the nearest homeless or needy person. We gave all leftover bread away whenever possible.

Now, the observations. These are the boulangeries I appreciated the most:

It’s incredible, but the first two boulangeries we visited produced baguettes that we enjoyed as much as any. To see if they stood the test of time, we returned to them at the end of the trip to taste again. They were both excellent on the return trip. The shops are:

Jean-Noel Julien 75, rue St. Honore

Philippe Gosselin 125 rue, St. Honore

The baguettes at both of these shops were rather ordinary looking, but the crumb was very open and creamy with a clean chew. The crust was thin and crispy. What a way to start. The flavors of the grain and fermentation were complex and made me swoon. Both boulangeries have won the prestigious ‘best baguette in Paris’ award.

We had high hopes for Au Levain du Marais 32, rue de Tureenne, unfortunately it was closed on Monday. Our advance information indicated that is was only closed on Sunday. I will definitely make it there next trip. They have an excellent reputation among people whose opinions I respect.

We visited Maison Kayser 9 & 14, rue Monge. Yes, that’s correct, two store fronts in the same block with lines out the door and down the block. I visited Kayser in 1999 during Europain was able to spend some time in the back of the house observing production. Although the bread was very good, I enjoyed it more in ’99 than I did this trip, but I think that the Viennoiserie remains excellent. A second visit confirmed our initial evaluation. The shop is nice and the products are displayed well. With all the bakeries available in Paris, a line of patrons out the door is quite an endorsement. Kayser has been at the forefront of the organic bread movement as well as driving the return of great bread in France for a number of years.

Poilane 8, rue du Cherche Midi: Baguettes were the main focus of the trip, but no bread trip to Paris would be complete (or relevant) without visiting Poilane. The bread was even better than I remembered it. I have had it when shipped to the states many times, but nothing compares with purchasing it there. I ate this bread all day, everyday. It was my snack between baguette tastings. I love baguettes, but if I were on a dessert island……………. This is absolutely one of my favorite breads. The shop is small and perfect. None of this bread was discarded. We visited the shop three times.

Le Boulanger Monge 123, rue Monge: Another very nice shop with lines around the corner. Very good baguettes, rye, and pain au levain. We visited this shop twice as well.

In addition, there are a lot of nice market stalls and shops in the neighborhood with excellent cheeses, produce, charcouterie, etc.

Poujauran 20, rue Jean Nicot: This was a bit of a disappointment for me. I had heard so many good things about Poujauran. I made a second and third purchase to be sure that I was not missing something. The products were not bad, just not to my liking. I did get a cool photo of the bakery with the car in front though. I have since read that the ownership has changed hands. The pastry was good.

Du pain et des idees 34, rue Yves Toudic: The bread was not exciting, but good. The shop is an homage to bread with many antiques and artifacts of bread making. Worth visiting for this alone.

Moisan, Le pain au Nauturel 5, place d’Aligre; 7 rue Bouladoue: We were unable to find the first location, but the second location was accessible. There are three other locations. Moisan is producing excellent organic pain au leavain. I enjoyed it very much and did not discard any.

Le Grenier a Pain 52, Avenue Italie: The baguette was very good. They had the large versions (Parisian) as well. The shop is nice and they have a cool bicycle out front.

Le Quatier du Pain 74, rue Saint-Charles: A nice bakery operated by Frederic Lalos M.O.F. The bread was good but not great.

Le Grenier a Pain 64, Avenue Felix Faure: This shop is not affiliated with the one above. I had an excellent baguette in this pleasant shop with very courteous and super friendly staff. The appearance, taste, aroma, and crumb were excellent.

Au Leavain du Marais 48, rue Caulaincourt. The baguette here was excellent. I ate the entire baguette on the street. I returned and tried to speak with the boulanger, but the clerk did not speak English, and apparently I wasn’t speaking French.

La Polka 59, rue d’Orsel: The baguette was good and the multi-grain (pain au cereals) was excellent.

A few more observations:

Retrodor: Various locations. This is a “system” that the boulanger buys. If he follows the system (flour blend, directions, times, etc.) a very nice baguette can be made. I had one excellent Retrodor baguette. The rest were pretty not too bad.

La Flute Gana 226, rue des Pyrenees: This is the original shop owned by Valerie and Isabelle Ganachaud. The shop is beautiful and the staff well trained and responsive. A flute gana is a “system” or licensing arrangement similar to Retrodor. The boulanger purchases a bag of specially milled grains and follows the program. I have had many excellent flutes not only at the original bakery, but at many others. It is a very reliable product. The last visit to the bakery was met with a sub standard flute. I am including this information not to disparage the shop, but to illustrate the fact that anything can happen and that to properly evaluate any shop, more than one visit must be made.

We went to many more boulangeries than I have listed here and many of them were good, they just didn’t make my baker’s dozen. These are merely the highlights. I apologize for not including photos. I have many to share, but I cannot figure out how to post them. If someone can point me in the right direction, I will be glad to post them either inserting them into this thread or creating another one of just photos.

After I catch my breath, I have photos and comments on pastry, especially Pierre Herme’s shop. What an extraordinary experience that was. Until then, eat bread, speak the truth.

Mitch

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Boulak,

That was an excellent post that definitely needs some photos to show your ambition, bread making. I would think that bread, just like any other food or drink item, would be in the hands of the taster, what my liking is not necessarily the liking of someone else. You mentioned lines of people waiting to be served didn't mean that place had the greatest baguette. This week I plan to make some sourdough baguettes to see what the comparison is to the local bakeries. I plan to use Nancy Silverton's recipe and hope for the best, would there be any adjustments I should make when making the baguettes?

Polack

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Polack,

Actually, I was pointing out that long lines can forecast quality. In a city with that many bakery options and a discerning public, long lines are indicative of quality.

I am not familiar with Nancy Silverton's recipe, but typically sourdoughs are best baked in boule or batard shapes as they do not obtain the best rise in a longer form. The majority of the thrust is upward due to the strength of the dough. Of course many bakers are successfully making sourdough baguettes. Depending on how you plan to use the final product, you might want to make the individual units heavier or lighter than traditional baguettes. The question to ask is do you want a sourdough bread or a baguette that is sourdough and go from there. A few bakes will give you the answer.

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Polack,

Actually, I was pointing out that long lines can forecast quality.  In a city with that many bakery options and a discerning public, long lines are indicative of quality.

I am not familiar with Nancy Silverton's recipe, but typically sourdoughs are best baked in boule or batard shapes as they do not obtain the best rise in a longer form.  The majority of the thrust is upward due to the strength of the dough.  Of course many bakers are successfully making sourdough baguettes.  Depending on how you plan to use the final product, you might want to make the individual units heavier or lighter than traditional baguettes.  The question to ask is do you want a sourdough bread or a baguette that is sourdough and go from there.  A few bakes will give you the answer.

She uses her country white bread recipe which is made with her starter, goes through some girations and walla, a good baguette that will rival any local bakery. I could remember being in the Navy back in the early 60's in LeHarve, France, sitting on the beach most of the day and building quite an appetite, on the way back to the ship we got all of our available money, stopped off at a local bakery and got a couple of baguettes, got a couple bottles of wine and started our way back. Little would I know that 40 years later I would be interested in baking bread and of course making that famous baguette. Well I just hope that the outcome will be a success,and of course some smiles from the people that partake.

Polack

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boulak

I just wanted to say thank you for posting all of this wonderful information. My husband and I are going to visit Paris in April, so I've taken copious notes based on your experiences. Please post about the patisseries you went to - we plan on making many, many stops for treats along our way and would love some recommendations!

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Thank you boulak. The baguette a l'ancienne chez Julien is the second best baguette I have ever eaten.

So no word about Meunier?

artisanbaker,

The word about Meunier is that we could not find the street that the shop is on. I plan on returning to Paris in April for Europain and will definitely try to find the shop. Mr. Kaplan rates the shop highly. Which baguette was the one that you rated highest if Julien was second?

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Boulak:

It's a shame you weren't able to find meunier's bakery, it's worth a visit for his signature baguette, his rye bread and vienoisserie. I have two street maps for paris and neither one has his street on it. I stage'd there several years ago and the precision and skill with thich he works is mind blowing. It was also the best organized place I've ever worked in.

A few thoughts on your trip:

I think it's very difficult to evaluate baguettes without either direct comparisons or repeated visits over time. Lord knows in the last three months I've made baguettes

that would rival the good ones I've had in France and a few sad days where if you had the misfortune to visit you would think I was barely competent. On my last trip to Paris I stopped by Gosselin and was somewhat dissapointed, so much so, that I returned a few days later and got a really excellent baguette.

When I worked in Paris a few years ago I found that I favored the straight dough baguettes, so I was surprised that on my most recent visits the two baguettes I liked the most were hybrid's, made with some levain. I imagine on my next trip I'll find that a bakery that was a previous let-down, will be my new favorite. It really makes me hesitate to draw any conclusions from such small sample sizes.

The biggest problem I noticed on my last visit is that most of the bakeries seem to be baking lighter and lighter. This is particularly a problem with the retrodor's which I find without some color taste like raw flour. I was really surprised that even though it was raining I visited good bakery after bakery where I couldn't find any well cooked baguettes.

Roger

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Boulak:

It's a shame you weren't able to find meunier's bakery, it's worth a visit for his signature baguette, his rye bread and vienoisserie.  I have two street maps for paris and neither one has his street on it.  I stage'd there several years ago and the precision and skill with thich he works is mind blowing.  It was also the best organized place I've ever worked in.

A few thoughts on your trip:

I think it's very difficult to evaluate baguettes without either direct comparisons or repeated visits over time.  Lord knows in the last three months I've made baguettes

that would rival the good ones I've had in France and a few sad days where if you had the misfortune to visit you would think I was barely competent.  On my last trip to Paris I stopped by Gosselin and was somewhat dissapointed, so much so, that I returned a few days later and got a really excellent baguette. 

When I worked in Paris a few years ago I found that I favored the straight dough baguettes, so I was surprised that on my most recent visits the two baguettes I liked the most were hybrid's, made with some levain.  I imagine on my next trip I'll find that a bakery that was a previous let-down, will be my new favorite.    It really makes me hesitate to draw any conclusions from such small sample sizes. 

The biggest problem I noticed on my last visit is that most of the bakeries seem to be baking lighter and lighter.  This is particularly a problem with the retrodor's which I find without some color taste like raw flour.  I was really surprised that even though it was raining I visited good bakery after bakery where I couldn't find any well cooked baguettes.

Roger

Roger,

Thanks for the astute reply. I agree with your comments entirely. On any given day or even on just one oven load, the results can vary widely. At any step in the process, any miscalculation or deviation can have a huge impact. That is why I refrained from saying one or the other was the best -- I observed which I enjoyed the most. As to the lighter bake, I did notice not only that factor, but also the "racing stripes" down the sides. I attributed both of these characteristics to the fact that prices are regulated. The boulanger is tempted to put as many baguettes as will fit in a deck and bake for a few minutes less even if it affects the results. Whatever it takes to keep the register ringing..... Sales are a reality for the bakery owner. That's just a guess. At this point, I am still a little torn between straight dough baguettes and baguettes sur poolish. After the master class this summer, I have been making more and more straight dough. My feeling is if the flour is really good, the baguette will benefit from the staight dough method, highlighting the flavor of the grain. With a lesser quality flour, it seems to me that I can coax more flavor (although of a different profile) with the poolish method. Would you care to share your thoughts on this? Your comments and thoughts are greatly appreciated. I would like to add that I could not have pulled this trip off with as much pleasure as I had if it were not for your input and inspiration -- for that I will always be grateful.

Mitch

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I also want to thank you for posting this my family and I are going visit Paris at the end of April. We are on a budget so we are planning to make some meals out of bread and cheese, and maybe some wine :).

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Boulak-

While I agree with your take on Poujouran's baguettes (and your overall comments in general) did you try their croissants? I feel they are the best I've ever had, anywhere.

I want pancakes! God, do you people understand every language except English? Yo quiero pancakes! Donnez moi pancakes! Click click bloody click pancakes!

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Mitch:

The price controls for baguettes were eliminated in 1987, I believe. Nevertheless as a result of the long standing controls people became accustomed to paying a low price for bread. This is why so many, of even the really good bakeries still offer an inferior baguette ordinaire for the sizable clientel who will never pay more than one euro for a baguette. As far as the "racing stripes" I think it's both that bakers are trying to squeeze out as much bread as possible and that most people want really light baguettes. Bear in mind also that in Paris space is at a premium and most bakeries are going to be relatively small, have a smaller oven and as a result the decks are nearly always overcrowded. Of course not all bakeries do this.

As far as straight dough vs. poolish: my preference is for straight dough baguettes, as much for the simplicity of production as anything else.

Roger

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