As you can probably tell from the above photo, Pâtisserie Boulangerie Liberté isn’t your typical Parisian bakery. You guess as much as you walk up rue de Ménilmontant in the twentieth arrondissement of Paris and get your first glimpse of the black-framed wall of glass that reflects the buildings across the street.
Here, no window display of shiny éclairs, airy meringues, elegant Opéra cakes, skinny tartlets or evanescent mille-feuilles, no romantic frontispiece picturing golden harvests, bakers loading hungry ovens or apprentices shouldering paunchy bags of flour down basement steps. No, at Liberté, what you see is what you get and it doesn’t leave much to the imagination because you practically see everything including, before you even walk through the door, pillow-shaped loaves of Pain du coin, their signature bread (and in case you are wondering, yes, there is a stunning -albeit limited- display of pastries but it is inside the store, in front of the bread, not in the window).
More than the lovely pastries – and Benoît Castel, the owner, being a star in the Paris pâtisserie firmament, the pastries are indeed spectacular (sorry, I was so mesmerized by the bread I forgot to photograph them but if you google the place, you should be able to see some pictures), even more than the bread in fact, what attracted me to Liberté was the open lab concept I had heard about and the notion of the boulangerie as a neighborhood hub.
I was there at 9:30 morning (the only time Benoît Castel could see me). The flow of early birds seeking baguettes and croissants was slowly ebbing. The shop was hushed but, behind the stack of firewood, Didier Marchand, the baker, could be seen hard at work on gigantic granola loaves.
In the open kitchen, two assistants were getting ready to assemble sandwiches. Chef Castel emerged from the back (or the basement, I couldn’t tell) and watched them for a minute or so. Then he moved trays around and re-arranged boxes. “You need to get organized. It makes no sense to walk across the lab every two minutes to fetch the same ingredient. Do your mise en place properly and your work will be much easier.” There was a tired note to Castel’s voice. I had the distinct feeling he had made the speech before. Utensils clattered. The young women resumed their work, looking sheepish and, was it only my imagination? a tad sulky.
Castel came out of the lab towards me (we had made an appointment the night before) and extended his hand for a firm handshake. He didn’t have much time as he was expected in central Paris within the hour and had to stop at one of his other bakeries on the way. So we talked fast. I had looked him up a bit beforehand. I knew he had learned his trade in his native Brittany, gotten his brevet de maîtrise Pâtissier at a young age and, for years, only ever worked with and for the best: Jean-Claude Vergne, Jean-Luc Valentin, Hélène Darroze, Christophe Felder. I knew that in the fall of 2012, he had opened Joséphine Bakery, a small pâtisserie boulangerie at 46 rue Jacob in the affluent sixth arrondissement of Paris. I had had a sandwich made with fougasse aux olives from his Liberté-Lafayette bakery (opened in September 2014 as part of the new and jaw-dropping Lafayette Maison et Gourmet)…
…and last but not last, I had bought a baguette Tradition, a chunk of Pain du coin and a couple of pastries, including a marvelous tarte au citron at his first Liberté pâtisserie boulangerie (opened in late 2013), 39 rue des Vinaigriers in the très bobo Canal St-Martin neighborhood. So, even though the sampling had been limited, I had some familiarity with Liberté’s offerings.
From what I understand, the main difference between Liberté Vinaigriers and Liberté Ménilmontant lies in the size of the premises and in the magnificent Llopis wood-fired oven. Other than that, the idea is the same: there are no walls, the customer can see the product in the making, check out the ingredients, observe the techniques, even watch the dishes being washed. The name of the boulangerie is well chosen: for the baker and pastry chef, liberty to innovate, invent and be playful with his or her creation – the bobo-au-rhum (I love the name) is a case in point; for the customer, liberty to sit down and enjoy tea, bread, cookies, pastries or sandwiches right on the premises, breathing in the fragrances and taking in the life of the neighborhood.
“Liberté et partage (freedom and sharing), that’s what this is all about,” says Benoît Castel who remembers vividly how lovely it had felt to be greeted like an old friend by his Josephine Bakery customers when he came back from his first summer vacation as the owner of a commerce de proximité (a local shop). The feeling of belonging triggered a reflexion on the role of the boulangerie-pâtisserie as an essential hub in the life of a neighborhood: after all, most Parisians get fresh bread everyday of their lives, sometimes two or three times a day, and often buy pastries as well.
Castel found he wanted to open other and more spacious pâtisseries boulangeries where people would feel welcome to stay a while and maybe chat with other customers. Rue des Vinaigriers came first: the premises had housed a bakery before. The first floor had featured both the shop and living space for the owner; as is often the case in Paris, the basement had held the lab. Castel knocked down walls and opened up the whole first floor; he installed a huge marble counter, visible from everywhere; he renovated the painted glass ceilings, re-used existing materials whenever possible, had shelves installed all around, including against some of the windows. Past and present were artfully knit together and the effect was strikingly effective, more Brooklyn or Soho than Paris. The social media went beserk.
Ménilmontant was even more of a find: the premises had housed the famous boulangerie Ganachaud. It was larger and it came complete with a 1974 wood-fired oven. “Les fours à bois, c’est très compliqué à Paris!” Wood-fired ovens are very complicated in Paris.You can’t just install a new one whenever and wherever you want.
First and foremost a pastry chef (as evidenced by the fact that Liberté is a pâtisserie boulangerie, not a boulangerie pâtisserie as is customary), Benoît Castel doesn’t pretend to be a bread baker: “Je suis très sensible à la maîtrise des techniques mais je ne suis pas sensible au niveau pâte (Mastering the techniques is hugely important to me but I don’t have a feel for bread dough),” and he favors bakers who are also pastry chefs: “Their approach is different. They are more technique-oriented.” But the place of bread in the urban fabric fascinates him and on a personal level, he is on a never-ending quest for new tastes and flavors. The story of pain du coin is a good example. The name of the bread is a pun: in colloquial French to be du coin means to be a local but a coing (pronounced exactly the same way as coin because the final g is mute) is a quince. As it happens, the levain used to leaven this bread was originally quince-based. The double-entendre remains even though, as Benoît Castel readily admits, nowadays one would be hard-put to distinguish the aroma of quince. Castel sent me home with a chunk, saying “I know you already tasted it but try this one, it was baked in our wood-fired oven and you’ll see, the flavor will be very different.” Actually both the flavor and the texture were. Truth be told, I can wax as romantic as the next bread head about the poetry of wood-fired ovens but if you had asked me before this Paris trip if I could truly taste the difference between a bread baked in a wood-fired oven and a bread baked in a regular oven, in all honesty, I would have had to say that I couldn’t. Well, now I can. Pain du coin Ménilmontant is definitely a better bread than pain du Coin Vinaigriers (I haven’t tried the Joséphine Bakery’s or Liberté Lafayette’s versions. That could be on the agenda for another trip.)
The fact is that the crust was tastier and the crumb lighter. Were it not for the slightly smoky taste, it was the very bread I like to imagine my ancestors eating a hundred years ago…
I asked Castel about the smokiness (which I had detected in the chunk previously bought at Vinaigriers) and he said that he had been looking for a way to decrease the percentage of salt (in line with the European Union recommendations that salt be reduced to 18 g per kilo of flour by the end of this year) without compromising flavor. Through a friend who owns an épicerie fine (gourmet grocery store), he had discovered Salish salt, an alderwood-smoked salt from Washington State and fallen in love with it. Castel explained it took him and his bakers eight months to develop the recipe to the point where he felt comfortable going to production with it: besides Salish salt, the bread calls for regular salt, levain, rye flour, farine de meule (stone-ground wheat flour) and miel des forêts (forest honey).
Since I hadn’t been entirely persuaded by the chunk of pain du coin bought at Vinaigriers, I wasn’t expecting an epiphany this time around either. But in fact the thick and crunchy crust added a whole new level of subtlety to the crumb and to my utter astonishment, not only was the bread better but it improved as days went by. The hint of smokiness progressively disappeared and all that was left was a glorious, old-fashioned tasting loaf. Definitely rustic, definitely traditional despite the imported salt. A time-travel bread. One that paired magnificently with a thick layer of good salted butter. It became our breakfast fare for as long as the big chunk lasted. Not a crumb went to waste.
Liberté has another cult bread that I was curious about: la Tradition chocolat. Based on the same dough as the bakery’s airy baguette Tradition…
…it becomes a completely different bread with the addition of dark cocoa powder (64% cocoa) and drops of white and dark chocolate. There is no shaping: after dividing and scaling, the pâtons (chunks of dough) are left to proof undisturbed. They are egg-washed before going into the oven and washed again with a syrup when they come out. I have heard grown men choke up at the mere mention of this bread. Castel had one tip for me: “Buy the best cocoa you can find. We use Bari.”
The way Castel sees it, creativity is the rule of the game. “This job is so much fun. I love it.” And of course timing is everything. In France as in the United States, everyone seems to be obsessed with food nowadays, cooking shows have never been more popular, cookbooks fly off the shelves. Benoît Castel can smell the breeze coming from across the Ocean and he finds deeply invigorating: “I am more and more interested in what’s being done in the United States: I love bagels for instance. I love working with a code and changing things around. I visit New York regularly and each time my dream of opening a pâtisserie boulangerie in the city becomes a little more vivid. It might yet happen!” I hope it does. I’d love to see what Benoît Castel could do on an American theme and with American ingredients other than Salish salt.