In America, most bakeries sell both bread and pastries. But in France, the two specialties aren’t always combined. Pastries are sold at pastry shops or patisseries, and bread is sold at bakeries or boulangeries.
Breadmaking is truly an art form here and much attention is paid to the yeast, levain, fermentation time and temperature, etc. Many of France’s best bakers are fourth or fifth generation, and baking is a well-respected craft in France. In fact, the French government confers a special designation – Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) – on the most skilled practitioners.
The test for this honor is a grueling three-day affair, and many choose not to apply. So if you see the MOF sign in the window of a boulangerie, you know the baker is serious about his craft.
Most boulangeries specialize in a certain kind of bread, and it’s helpful to know what it is. If you’re not sure, just ask “Quelle est la specialite de la maison?” to find out.
Without a doubt, the most revered bakery in Paris is Poilane. Established in 1932 by Pierre Poilane, they still use a wood-burning oven that dates from 1789. Pierre’s son Lionel inherited the business, and today, Lionel’s daughter Apollonia oversees it. Best known for their sourdough miche, rye boule, and the butter cookies called Punitions, Poilane now has two locations in Paris, and one in London. Raisin and walnut breads are also available. Inside, note the bread chandelier designed by Salvador Dali.
Moulin de la Vierge was established 30 years ago by Basile Kamir, who believed in making bread the old-fashioned way. He uses organic, stone-ground flour and shapes the loaves by hand, a tradition continued in all four Moulin de la Vierge locations. The loaves are baked in a wood-fired oven and are crusty and golden. In addition to sourdough and country-style bread, they also sell Viennoiseries, which is the French term for breakfast pastries. Try the custard-filled Pain au Raisin. The turn-of-the-century interiors are worth popping in to see.
Former fashion-industry executive Christophe Vasseur decided that baking was his true vocation, so he apprenticed to learn the trade, found one of the last-remaining original bakeries in Paris, and opened Du Pain et des Idees in 2002. It takes him seven hours to make a baguette. And the proof’s in the pudding — he won the Gault Millau prize for Best Boulangerie in Paris in 2008. Specialties here include croissants, Boules aux Graines et Cereales, and Mini Paves which have savory fillings that change daily, like spinach and goat cheese or apricots and bleu cheese.
Chewy and tart, the organic sourdough boules at Le Boulanger de Monge are some of the best in town. But baker Dominique Saibron provides his 2,000 daily customers with plenty of choices. Traditional baguettes, ciabata with walnuts or olives, ficelle with poppy seeds or sesame seeds, and small loaves with bacon and Comte cheese. And that’s just the bread. There’s also chocolate tarts, fruit tarts, croissants, buches, and galettes.
Philippe Gosselin in the 1st is the place to go for baguettes. In fact, they have won the Best Baguette in Paris Grand Prix. Monsieur Gosselin is a fourth-generation baker, married to a baker’s daughter. He kneads his baguette dough on low speed for twelve minutes, and then lets it rest for two hours. He adds salt and yeast, kneads again, then lets the dough rest for up to three hours before shaping the loaves by hand. If you’re feeling peckish, order one of the delicious sandwiches. In addition to scrumptious breads, there are cakes, tarts, and macarons.
Eric Kayser is a Paris institution, with locations all over the world and 16 shops in Paris. He combines traditional technique with the latest technology to create more than 60 kinds of bread, 50 cakes, and 25 pastries each day. Made using natural leaven and a machine called a Fermentolevain they create truly original combinations like parmesan shortbreads, and ground pepper cakes. His croissants are superb. Grab one of the sandwiches to go and have a picnic in the park.
Not far from the Eiffel Tower, Thierry Dubois’s Pain d’Epis makes baguettes, ficelles, and loaves using a dough made of several kinds of flour. He calls the mixture Royale. His Pain au Raisin is packed with fruit, and his Croissant aux Amandes is light as air. Another specialty here is fougasse, a Provencal flatbread that’s filled with cheeses, vegetables, or fruits.