Saturday, March 3, 2012

In Paris with bread on my mind...

Having arrived in Paris a couple of days ago for Europain, I had the great pleasure and honor of leading my first bakery tour yesterday on behalf of the Bread Bakers' Guild of America. Being the appointed guide and interpreter, I couldn't really take many pictures or any notes but I'll share what I have.
We visited Boulangerie Julien (75 rue Saint-Honoré) and Maison Cohier  (270-272 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré). "Les boulangers américains" (the American bakers) couldn't have asked for a warmer and more gracious welcome. We were shown and explained everything and all our questions (of which there were many) were answered. Both Jean-Noël Julien and Jean-Pierre Cohier have received awards for their baguettes: Julien for best baguette in Paris in 1995 and Cohier for best baguette Tradition in Paris in 2006. Monsieur Cohier - who supplied the Elysée Palace with baguettes for three years and catered in the process to two successive presidents, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy - shared with us that Jacques Chirac liked his baguettes "bien cuites" (baked to a crusty brown) whereas the prevailing taste in today's France is, sadly, for the opposite (a much blonder baguette).
Both bakers churn out an impressive amount of breads, cakes, viennoiseries, salads, sandwiches, etc. in a space that's barely larger than the kitchen in many American homes (having no flour storage space at all, Monsieur Cohier gets his flour delivered every two or three days). As is often the case in Paris, the labs are located under the store in the cellar. Neither is air-conditioned, by choice. Monsieur Julien actually had the air-conditioning system dismantled because the workers kept getting sick. Room temperature was in the 20-22°C/68-72°F during our visit but I imagine it climbs way higher in the summer.
Both master bakers make their famous baguette tradition the same way: with no poolish or levain or any other kind of preferment. They use .6 % of yeast and go for a very short and gentle mixing (with three folds at 20 minutes' intervals) then a long cold fermentation for 20 to 24 hours (Monsieur Cohier told us that on weekends the fermentation goes on for 48 hours and the resulting baguette has incomparable flavor). Then the baguettes get scaled and shaped (here the techniques differ: Julien uses a divider and a shaper whereas Cohier does everything by hand), they rest 45 minutes and they go into the oven.  In both cases, the ovens are electric and a different temperature is used for the sole and for the top.
Having bins of baguette dough fermenting at all times enables both bakeries to churn out loaves as needed all day long. Boulangerie Julien actually closes only two hours a day (in the late evening): the rest of the day and night it is bustling with activity. We visited on a Saturday morning and a large order of mini-viennoiseries (1500 pieces) had just gone out. They had been mixed and shaped the day before, frozen overnight (for ease of storage) and baked at dawn.
We asked Julien and Cohier whether they ever use levain: Cohier doesn't. Julien uses a rye liquid levain in certain types of bread other than the baguettes but he doesn't make or keep it himself. He buys it and gets it delivered. I had heard about German bakers subscribing to a levain delivery service but I didn't know it was also done in France. Julien said that the logistics of keeping a firm levain would be mind-boggling with so many bakers working in shifts as fermentation would tend to get out of hand. The liquid levain was easier to handle.

6 comments:

  1. Oh, I love this post! What a great task, to be the interpreter in such a tour! I would looooove to do that, but I guess having an accent in both languages would prevent me from getting the job! How sad! ;-)

    I am shocked that the taste nowadays is for a blond baguette - give me a bien cuit any day, in fact, I usually had to go through some phase of suffering until my mouth got used to biting and chewing the hard crust. Love it!

    Also surprised that they don't keep a starter going, but it is true the logistics of it might make it too hard, and if they have delivery service... lucky for them!

    great post, thanks so much for sharing!

    I miss Paris.... It's been exactly 2 years this week since we've been there

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    1. Hi Sally, are you kidding? BBGA would love to have you along as a bakery tour guide/interpreter (if they had minded the accent in English, they would never had had me!). Next time (five years from now, sadly) we'll have to make it happen... The taste for the blonder baguette has been emerging for quite a while unfortunately. Years ago already, whenever I visited my parents and went to get bread, I always found myself the only one requesting a "baguette bien cuite" and usually had no trouble getting it as it was rejected by a majority of customers. A sad state of affairs! But I can see the trend emerging in my own flesh and blood: half of my grand-children dislike the crust and set it on the side of their plates whenever they think they can get away with it... I guess the love of crusty bread isn't governed by DNA!

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  2. you have no idea right now how much I envy you.
    It's been years since I last stepped into a French Bakery. We used to stop in France for a day or two every time we visit my family back in Romania. Now, with a weel little one we fly straight. Maybe next year, since we won't be carrying a stroller around :)
    Anyhow, I can close my eyes and smell the fresh baked banquette. Heavenly

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    1. Hi Roxana and thanks for visiting. I can see many many baguettes in your future, in fact as soon as the little one can sink his or her teeth in that crackling crust! Meanwhile I'll do my best to keep the fragrance coming...

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  3. This is amazing!! To be in Paris for the Europain as an interpreter wow!! Congrats. Thanks for sharing your great experience!!

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  4. Hello MC,
    It looks like it was a busy and enjoyable day, visiting these award-winning boulangeries.
    How grateful everyone must have been for your talents as an interpreter.
    Thank you for these photos and for writing about your visit - so appreciated (really wish I could have been there!).
    :^) breadsong

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