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.
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)...
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.
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.
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.