When Paris’s alarm clocks go off every morning, some of its most important workers have already been hard at work for hours. These are Paris’s bakers, the boulangers who start working when it is still dark outside to supply the city with fresh bread, as they have for centuries.
The French government takes their bread very seriously, following the storming of Versailles by a crowd of angry Parisians demanding bread, and various other bloodthirsty events (in 1789, a very hungry mob, peeved at a bread shortage, strung baker Denis François up from a lamppost). Until last year, the 1,200 bakers in Paris were legally obliged to take their summer holiday in turns, so that no Parisian neighbourhood was ever without bread. Despite the English media’s gleeful speculations about bread shortages following the repeal of the law, the summer passed smoothly, with enough bread for all, and no reports of bakers on lampposts.
In a world of trendy, ever-more complex gluten mutations, of proissants, cretzels and bronuts, the Gallic devotion to simple bread may seem outmoded. But despite its reputation for mean portions and fussy food, French cuisine really rests on simply-constituted meals, accompanied by the trinity of wine, cheese and bread; thus le pain is a cornerstone, a basic but necessary pleasure. The Observatoire du Pain, the French bakers’ lobby, calculates that the country buys over 10 billion baguettes each year; add to this the annual consumption of pains de mie, miches, fougasses, croissants and pains aux chocolats and you have a very, very gluten-tolerant nation.
This ubiquity does not always signify quality, though. During the food shortages of both World Wars, French bread was often adulterated with potatoes, peel or sawdust. After the war, bakers began to skip the long fermentation process with the traditional sourdough levain starter, in favour of quick commercial yeast, which has much less flavour. Intensive mechanical kneaders and additives made for ever-whiter, more industrial bread, which had none of the essential tang and character of French pain.
Thankfully, bakers like Lionel Poîlane (known for crafting a round sourdough country bread referred to as a miche or pain Poilâne ) fought hard in the 1970s to bring back the roots of French pain, reviving the levain and making toasty-brown, irregular breads popular again. Today, French bakeries usually offer several types of baguettes: the cheaper baguette ordinaire as well as more elaborate baguettes de tradition. The latter usually use better flour, are fermented longer, and by law, can only contain four ingredients: water, flour, yeast, salt. No preservatives, additives or colours are permitted, which is why their shelf life is only about half a day.
The bakeries of Paris compete each year in the Meilleure Baguette de Paris contest; the winner of the Best Baguette title gains the privilege of supplying the Palais de l’Élysée — the official residence of the French President — with bread for the year, as well as a whole host of new customers and Instagram tags. (Incidentally, the French lost the Baking World Cup to South Korea this year, a snub that cannot but rankle).
Bakeries display their ranks on their windows for years after, and each neighbourhood takes a possessive pride in their accomplishments. My quartier, the 18th, has won several times, most recently last year, when Djibril Bodian of Le Grenier à Pain took home the floury prize, though he was dethroned this year by a bakery in the more swish 6th arrondissement. But on my street, we remain loyal to the bright-red Boulangerie Raphaëlle (“2nd prize in 2013”, says the window proudly) and their nutty, malty breads. If you go in when a new batch is baking, you can feel the air warming up, the breakfasty smell of fresh bread suffusing everything, like the best advertisement ever.
French bread never smells or tastes quite the same in any other country. I’m told that this has to do with the carefully-nurtured levains, the starters, which takes on a specific flavour based on the bacteria in the air of each neighbourhood, differs not only from city to city, but bakery to bakery, giving each bread its own distinctive taste. French pains are mainly wheat-based (unlike the dark ryes of Germany), and their beauty lies in the contrast between the chewy, craggy golden crust, scored with a knife, and the yielding inside, all springy and soft.
There are all kinds of breads: sweet ones and savoury, hoary old favourites like the small autumnal chestnut breads to black squid-ink baguettes, and my own favourites: Boulangerie Raphaëlle’s hazelnut baguette, Gontran Cherrier’s croissants, the pillowy challah bread from the Jewish Boulangerie Murciano, petits pains with bacon bits and melted Comté cheese from the bakery at the rue Monge, and the fig bread from the many Eric Kayser bakeries around town.
And then there is the baguette; although at only about 300 years old, it is a fairly new addition to the boulanger’s repertoire, and easily the most popular. That burnished crust, the springy crumb studded with the air pockets formed by the hardworking levain, and the slight sour tang of a good baguette tradition are hard to turn down.
Bread bookends the day here; it’s something to start the morning with, and later in the evening, it’s something to soak up the day with. And in summer, it is an essential part of a Parisian summer ritual: le pique-nique. People picnic on the riverbank, along the canal, in parks or in their own gardens, bringing wine, a couple of baguettes, and whatever provisions they please: cheese, pâté, salted butter, baby radishes, grilled artichokes, cherry tomatoes, cold cuts or fruit.
But when you go to buy the bread for your pique-nique, you may find yourself taking part in another Paris tradition: sneaking your hand into the paper bag as soon as you leave the bakery, twisting off the quignon, the warm floury heel of the baguette, and tearing into it, unable to wait another minute. That tell-tale dab of flour on your cheek will mark you out as an honorary Parisian.
Naintara Maya Oberoi is a Paris-based food writer