Today we had two BBGA-sponsored bakery visits on the agenda before heading out to Europain to cheer the US team during the presentation of its handiwork to the judges. The first visit was to Basile Kamir’s famous Moulin de la Vierge (105 rue Vercingétorix). Le Moulin de la Vierge (literally the Virgin’s Mill) is located in a historic building and its painted ceilings and ornate display counters are truly a throwback to another time. As is often the case in a Paris bakery, the lab is in the cellar, accessible through a very steep staircase (almost a ladder). It is rather larger than a regular Paris lab but that may be because it is really out there on the outskirts of the city.
Basile Kamir started working on the premises in the late 70’s, albeit not as a baker: he was actually selling records for Richard Branson, his childhood friend and founder of a record mail-order company that would evolve into Virgin Records. The bakery (which dates back to 1907) had been abandoned for five years and the cellar was mostly a favorite hangout for spiders and mice. However the city of Paris had been demolishing the old buildings in the neighborhood to build new housing and soon threatened to take down the bakery as well (Kamir told us of countless power outings because excavators were tearing out underground power cables all around them). The only way to preserve the building was to make it an operational bakery again, which automatically made it off-limits to the wreckers. So he hired a baker with whom he apprenticed and the rest is history (you will find more details here).
M. Kamir showed us his LeFort wood-fired oven (you can read more on that oven in Dan Leader’s Bread Alone), describing how he discovered it behind thick curtains of cobwebs all these years ago and didn’t even know it was in working order until he had it checked by a descendant of the artisan who had originally put it in. He also showed us his levain (which had just been fed and wasn’t as aromatic as it would presumably be later in the day). We didn’t see any bread making as production happens in the afternoon but he told us how he came upon the name Moulin de la Vierge and I thought it too poetic not to pass it on: it so happened that at the time he had a Swedish girlfriend who was originally from Öland Island. He went there on vacation and fell under the spell both of the island and of the hundreds of windmills which dotted its rolling hills. That’s for the “moulin” part. As for “vierge” (which means “virgin”), it is a tribute to the early days when the bakery was a storage and mail-order center for Virgin Records. The fact that there is an eponymous street somewhere in the neighborhood is a mere coincidence.
The other bakery on our list for the morning was Boulangerie Voiriot (61, rue de la Glacière). We were not supposed to meet Monsieur Voiriot himself as he was going to be at Europain that morning but his son, who normally does the morning shift and was going to show us around, had injured his back and couldn’t make it to work. I was of course very sorry to hear about the son’s medical problem and wish him a speedy recovery but I am delighted to have met with M. Voiriot himself. I didn’t take any pictures of him but if you click here, you’ll be able to meet him and his wife.
Christian Voiriot is passionate about his profession which he tirelessly advocates in baking schools, professional organizations and, as a judge, in national or international competitions. He says that he sometimes works from 3 AM to 10 PM and still wakes up happy the next day: “J’adore mon métier” (I love my job).
He keeps a liquid levain which he uses for his country bread. He has had that levain for many many years. Since the bakery is open year-round (just closed on weekends), he has never had to think about what to do with his levain during vacation-time but he says some of his fellow bakers successfully freeze theirs for three or four weeks with no adverse consequences. Any frozen levain would have to be brought back to room temperature and refreshed once a day for at least three days before showing any sign of activity. It should be usable again after a week.
As was the case in the first two bakeries I visited in Paris, I was struck by the diminutive size of the lab (55 sq. meters, i.e. less than 600 sq. feet). Throw in another 20 sq. meters (215 sq. feet) for the store and you’ll have the full dimensions of the premises. I didn’t take any notes (I was too busy translating back and forth) but I remember M. Voiriot saying that he had once been told he had the highest output rate per square meter for any bakery in Paris. Ten people share this space (three in the store, saven in the back) and they churn out picture-perfect breads, cakes, viennoiseries, sandwiches, etc. An amazing feat!
We were in a rush to get to Europain before the competition was over for the day and since we were not heading home, we didn’t buy any bread but Boulangerie Voiriot is definitely one I am keeping on my list for further visits.