Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Award-winning baguettes in Montmartre

It was drizzly and cold as we climbed up the street from the métro station to the rue des Abbesses but we hardly noticed. As part of the bakery tours organized by the Bread Bakers Guild of America, we were on our way to Au Levain d'antan (6, rue des Abbesses), the bakery who won the best baguette in Paris award in 2011, and we were excited. The owner, Monsieur Barillon, was away in Japan but he and his wife had kindly agreed to let les boulangers américains visit the lab and talk to Jean-Luc, the head baker.
The baguette which wins the prestigious award becomes a staple at Palais de l'Élysée (the French equivalent of the White House) for a year. Eating the best bread in Paris everyday, now that's a presidential perk I truly envy! If I lived in France, it might even be enough to make me want to run for office... 
Since the baguette is presidential material, I thought its specs might be a secret d'État (a state secret) but no, Jean-Luc kindly agreed to answer our questions: the baguette is made with T65 flour (the only flour that can be used by law in baguettes Tradition, it contains no additive whatsoever) over a 6-hour period (from start to finish), using .8% of yeast and 74% water. It is autolysed for 45 minutes and mixed for 17 minutes on first speed. It ferments in the mixer for one hour with one fold at the 30-minute mark.
Another fold is done just before taking out of the mixer and divided into several bins. It ferments for another hour in the bins, then it is divided and shaped. Proofing time is an hour. The baguettes you see Jean-Luc dust with flour had been shaped an hour earlier. 
We had a taste before we left (Jean-Luc even gave us a few baguettes to take with us). The crust was delicate and crunchy at the same time and the crumb literally melted in the mouth. I thought the taste was rather bland but then that has been the case with all of the "best baguettes in Paris" we tasted so far during these bakery visits. That's because bread -and especially the baguette which is eaten daily at every meal- is not supposed to be the star. Its job is to accompany a dish or a cheese or any other type of food and showcase its flavor. From that perspective these baguettes are indeed ideal.

9 comments:

  1. Thank you for showing us what you are seeing and doing while at Europain. So exciting. The baguettes look beautiful! I envy you and am so happy for you! Have lots more fun MC and travel safe!

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  2. Thanks, Teresa! I wish you were here as well. Yesterday morning I had an early meeting so I was walking towards the metro station in my neighborhood around 6:30 AM. It was raining. The shops were still closed, including the bakeries. I could see light inside though behind the closed iron curtains and each time I passed a bakery, the most heavenly fragrance wafted into the street. It was like an olfactive aura . Truly magical...

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  3. I am a new reader to your blog but absolutely love it. My passion for bread is still in its infancy, having awoken only a few years ago. But that said, I'm devouring all I can find on the subject, and your blog, particularly these entries about French bakeries, is inspiring! I've never been to France, but as someone who loves bread, I dream of going. These posts are getting me as close as I can at the moment. Thank you so much!

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  4. Que interesante poder visitar y probar el mejor pan Frances del 2011 !! P. Haller

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  5. Great comments. We are fortunate to be renting a place in the 18ieme just 1 block from the 2011 winner and a block and a half from the 2010 winner so our choices are between excellent and heaven but I am not saying which is which

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  6. Yes, you are indeed lucky! All the more because, from what I heard, there are several other bakeries in your area that haven't won any award (yet) but nevertheless make outstanding bread. Let me know which ones you try... I'll be all ears! If you'd like a couple of names to get you started, I could try and get them for you.

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  7. Hi MC, I'm glad to read your evaluation of this baguette as I had come to the same conclusion: wonderfully crispy, plenty of holes and beautiful to look at but the taste, albeit very nice, not amazing.

    I had read as an explanation somewhere that one big problem with winning this prestigious award is that, suddenly, your bakery needs to pump out an insane amount of product it did not have to prior to all the publicity you garnered from the win. With now higher demand and, assuming you were producing what was comfortable before, maxing or more your ability to make that much more bread, you have to take time and space from somewhere so you might throw a few baguettes more on each load or cut back the proofing time a bit.

    Now I'm not saying this is the case here, just that this was a potential explanation as to why the winners may have a product that is not as 'awesome' as one might have expected.

    That said, I did find a truly wonderful baguette that not only looked and sounded lovely but tasted superb as well. It was from a bakery in the 10th called Du Pain et Des Idees on Rue Yves Toudic, just a short walk from the Jacques Bonsergent metro. If you get to Paris again soon, do drop by and give their bread a try. And their Chausson au Pomme, too! The owner, Christophe Vasseur, is greatly dedicated to artisanal principles, local sourcing and traditional methods, albeit not quite as traditional as Co'Pain!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Paul, yes, you are absolutely right. One of the bakers we saw during our visits said he had been literally overwhelmed by the flow of new customers which, albeit welcome, hadn't been that easy to handle. But I also talked to a baker who said really good baguettes should be crusty and with an open crumb but should have a very neutral taste because their roles was to accompany the meal, not to compete with the dishes in your plate. Since I often prefer a good bread to whatever might be on my plate, I am no huge fan of that point of view but it is a rather prevalent one in France, from what I understood.
      Thank you for reminding me of Du pain et des idées. It is definitely on the list for my next visit as I have heard from several sources that his is the best bread in Paris and I can't wait to try it for myself. From what I have read, some bakers are actually a bit aggravated by the hype surrounding Christophe Vasseur but the BBGA members who visited his bakery in March said he was most passionate and interesting... Very welcoming too.

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