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Julia Sherman visits the bakeries (and bakers) redefining the art of French pastry and bread.
IN PARIS, “REVOLUTIONS have started over bread,” said chef and baker Alice Quillet of Ten Belles boulangerie. Until 1789, butter and pâte à choux were tightly held pleasures of the aristocracy, but with the rise of the bourgeoisie, access to the croissant went from indulgence to basic human right. To this day, standards for French baked goods are protected by the state, with a four-year degree required by law for anyone looking to open a bakery. A traditional baguette can only include four ingredients (flour, water, salt, and yeast), its proportions are monitored to the centimeter, and it can only be sold on the premises where it’s made.
Until the 1970s, the French government enforced a cap on the price of bread, but by the mid-twentieth century, French bakers were looking to increase efficiency and their margins. Bakeries and culinary schools adopted the use of commercial yeast and, suddenly, a croissant that took three days to make could be made in a matter of hours, at a fraction of the price. Convenience aside, contemporary bakers point to this moment as the death knell of “levain,” or when many bakers abandoned the traditional sourdough rise and sacrificed much of the natural process that makes wheat more digestible and flavorful. In turn, many talented bakers and pastry chefs lost interest in the more commercially competitive field.
But over the last five years, a wave of once-disillusioned bakers have renewed their faith in the craft, embracing fermentation in all its funky forms. Nearly every one of the 13 bakers I met in Paris was making their triumphant return to the kitchen after a foray into another industry, lured back by the promise of restored integrity to the field. Jerry Dominique, the pharmacist-turned-co-owner of Boulangerie Milligramme noted, “Everyone we hire is on their second act — my partner, Florence, had a lingerie line, our head baker sold her hair salon in Texas to attend Le Cordon Bleu, and our other baker was a TV producer.” Leaving past lives and their industrialized pastry education behind, this cohort of purists are sourcing ancient grains from paysanne farmers in every corner of France and staking their claim on just how slow the process can be. They are on a mission to restore integrity and to innovate on the French classics, be it the challah croque monsieur at Babka Zana or the pain au chocolat embedded with seeds at Petite Île boulangerie.
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Le Bricheton is the old French slang word for a hunk of bread, most often associated with soldiers’ rations. For baker Max Bussy, it is a reference to bread as the most essential stuff of life. Bussy tells me, “I wanted to make bread like the wine I drink.” An apprenticeship with a baker in the south of France led to a reconnaissance mission in pursuit of ancient grains. “I want to improve the French agricultural system by making an impact on the supply chain. If I can create a demand for this special wheat, then more farmers will grow it.” In pursuit of that goal, Bussy brought the seeds collected on his travels to farmers located just 30 minutes from his Paris bakery. Seven years later, the grain is being made into flour using centuries-old wind-powered mills, and comprises 60% of the wheat used at Le Bricheton. While this bakery might be slightly out of the way in the decidedly non-touristy Charonne neighborhood, it is a pilgrimage worth taking for any bread purist looking to acquire some boulangerie street cred. Grab a loaf along with cheese, natural wine, and locally made jams, then walk to the nearby Père LaChaise Cemetery for the picnic of a lifetime.
For ChihYa Wang and Po-Hsuan Chuang, opening a bakery in Paris was the ultimate test. “If we could make it in Paris, then we could make it anywhere,” says Wang. Designers by trade, Wang and Chuang left their native Taiwan for Paris so Wang could attend culinary school. But before opening Petite Île, a reference to the small island of Taiwan, they transformed their home kitchen into a laboratory. “I experimented with over 30 croissant recipes, and every bread we have took a year to develop,” Wang says. While the sourdough breads are made with precise French techniques that render stunning results, it really gets exciting when a taste of their heritage comes through. The utterly unique Taiwanese-style pain de mie au miel is filled with crème brûlée and sautéed apple, topped with sweet potato purée, and the crusty sourdough surprises and delights with a confetti of imported dried lychees. Their gluten-free matcha cookies were just the right amount of sweet and had the distinct grassy flavor of superior matcha, packaged for take-away so you can keep the party going.
Walking into Chapel bakery on its quiet residential street feels like walking into Max and Charles Carré’s private living room. On any given day, the brothers, 28 and 25 years old, can be found fermenting pickles, tweaking recipes for tarts and cookies, or drawing cartoons onto each and every paper box for take-away. They are nerds in the most admirable sense of the word, geeking out on everything from clove-spiked, lacto-fermented black radish to anaerobically fermented Dutch coffee beans. When they opened in 2021, they used their solid bread program as a launching pad while Max developed his voice as a pastry chef. “Now, pastry is definitely the cornerstone of the business,” says Charles, with dedicated customers returning for the playful take on the sourdough madeleines spiked with cinnamon and raisin, or the sables rolled like mini croissants filled with black sesame paste and carob molasses.
Ten Belles boulangerie furnishes over 70 restaurants, from the local cafe to those crowned with Michelin stars. We have them to thank for the significant upgrade in the gratis bread basket from commercially made baguettes to their thick slices of 1-kilo loaves made from ancient grains grown by artisanal female farmers or millers. “The sourdough tang makes you salivate, so you eat and drink more and it works out for everyone,” chef Alice Quillet explains. Beyond bread, the bakery offers coffee roasted by Quillet’s partner in life and work, Anselme Blayney, and pastries dreamt up by Anna Trattles. “France is still behind on the idea of using whole grains in pastry, so we sneak them in as much as possible,” the chef says. What appears to be a classic hand-held lemon meringue tart reveals itself to be an einkorn tart shell dressed with peppery bergamot compote, lemon curd, and Italian meringue. The pastry for the croissant dough is a blend of wheat, Oberkulmer spelt, and heirloom Schlager rye, a move that does nothing to compromise its light-as-air texture, but bolsters every paper-thin layer with immense flavor.
Le Petit Grain is a gem located on a small pedestrian street named Rue Denoyez in the quickly gentrifying Belleville. In 2017, Edouard Lax opened his restaurant, Le Grand Bain, and started to bake bread on-site. When the space across the street became vacant, he opened Le Petit Grain, offering their naturally leavened bread to locals and restaurants around Paris. With their bread recipes down to a science, their sous chef started making cinnamon rolls. A pastry program soon followed, including what Lax boasts might be the best chocolate croissant in town (and rightfully so). “It is a three-day process that involves almost all natural yeast, which is really hard to do for a croissant,” he says. Beyond the croissant, I recommend the sprouted buckwheat whole grain bread, a dense and lightly sweet loaf that was so moist it lasted a week and withstood the trip back to Los Angeles in my suitcase. Lax will be adding a third jewel to his crown with a bar called Le Café des Délices on the same street this spring.
Valentin Orgeas of Fermentation Generale is proud to call himself a disciple of Max Bussy of Le Bricheton. Like Bussy, Orgeas draws the connection between sourdough and the expanded world of fermentation, from his homemade butternut squash kimchi and natural wine, to the kombucha and miso he sources locally for his shop.
When I arrive, four men are hard at work in the closet-sized storefront, attending to every step of the laborious processes required to produce their daily treats. I watch as orange-infused butter is poured over a Provencal cake called a pompette, Orgeas’ grandfather’s recipe that he bakes daily. Another gentleman pries swollen loaves of einkorn wheat sourdough from patinated pans, its crumb so rich in carotenoids, it’s yellow. And then there is my personal favorite, a dense chocolate cake finished with coarse salt, lovingly named, “Choko Tchuka,” made with the most precious Vraq chocolate and the sticky fresh paste of fresh vanilla pods. (Proceeds from this masterpiece are allocated toward a vacation fund for Orgeas and his girlfriend, Tchuka, a local cause célèbre.) Unlike most bakeries, they use the better part of the day for production and open to the public at 4 p.m., so check their hours before you go (though Orgeas is known to take pity on crestfallen customers who traveled just for a taste of his Tunisian fruit and nut bread).
“The Maillard reaction is our life,” Cécile Khayat and Victoria Effantin tell me, speaking of the scientific name for the crusty brown caramelization every baker is destined to chase. I can tell they aren’t joking as they watch me break into a flute with butter, chocolate, and salt, a miracle of competing textures — shiny and almost crystalline on the exterior yet elastic inside. Mamiche is a neighborhood boulangerie that covers all the classics at affordable prices (their traditional baguette is 1 euro), but with a maniacal focus on quality and a commitment to long fermentation. “100% Fait a Maison” is scribbled on the antiqued silver mirror inside, a reminder to the customer and a mantra for the staff. They make loaves of bread the size of a New York City pizza, and locals line up to have them cut and weighed to order, purchasing as much as they need for a single day.
Parisians are used to going to one place for their croissant, another for their pastries, and yet one more for their bread. So when Erwan Blanche and Sebastien Bruno decided to open Utopie, they were breaking the mold with a one-stop shop for all three. Beyond their basic viennoiseries, they leave ample space for experimentation. “Every weekend there’s a new bread, pastry, and viennoiserie. By Monday, it disappears,” says Bruno. Upon my visit, there was a bread that summoned the essence of genmaicha: bright green with sencha tea and topped with toasted, crispy brown rice. I could not ignore their daring take on the baguette, black throughout with the addition of charcoal. If you love brioche, theirs is studded with everything from chocolate to praline rose.
Husband and wife Emmanuel and Sarah Murat wanted to bring the culture of Levantine bakeries to Paris, a city that has long incorporated North African cuisine into restaurant life. Their world spiraled out from the babka. They subbed rich, naturally yeasted brioche dough made from 50% butter and cream for a dough that, as Emmanuel admits, “can be quite sad.” With the backbone of their babka in place, their fillings would know no bounds. Each month they create a new flavor to sit alongside the classic, indispensable chocolate variety — Iranian pistachio, rose petal, chocolate-hazelnut, halva, and an Indonesian cinnamon that smells like burnt sugar. Upon my visit, the special was a twisted take on a carrot cake finished with a sweetened homemade labneh, an upgrade to cream cheese frosting. You can rest assured, these babkas are blessed by Sarah herself, a seasoned cookbook author who approves each and every recipe before it hits the shelves. Babka Zana has two locations and a counter at the Galerie Lafayette Gourmet food hall.
Bertrand Grébaut and Théophile Pourriat have made Rue de Charonne synonymous with laid-back Parisian dining with their new French classics: Septime, Septime La Cave, and the more casual seafood restaurant Clamato a stone’s throw away. The final chip is Tapisserie, a jewel box of a patisserie with a window where you can order the most delicate creations: a mixed citrus tartlet studded with flecks of pink finger lime, a minimalist apple tart with gently roasted rosy fruit perched on a lacquered shell just one centimeter thick, and an understated choux filled with the most luscious crème infused with flouve, a sweet vernal grass that, when roasted, imparts aromatic notes of tonka, caramel, and honey. Beyond pastry, you can pick up packaged chocolate, homemade granola, marmalades, and poached seasonal fruit in charming glass containers.
Boulangerie Milligramme has a more varied perspective than some of their counterparts, as owners Jerry Dominique and Florence Abelin cultivate a uniquely collaborative spirit amongst their team. The offering is extensive for a neighborhood bakery, from the traditional baguette and the Japanese seed-encrusted pan de mie to the viennoiseries and more fanciful sweets, like the cream-filled Italian maritozzi and the “Rolls Rolls,” a circular croissant with decadent embellishments, such as a diplomat cream filling and generous drizzle of caramel, studded with popcorn (its name is a clever spin on “Rolls Royce”). Beyond pastries, their signature line of jams and marmalades make a lovely gift, packaged in white glass with fanciful flavors like Jasmine Cassis and Rosé Champagne.
Julia Sherman runs Salad for President, an evolving publishing project that draws a meaningful connection between food, art, and everyday obsessions. Sherman, and her writing and photography, have been featured in Vogue, the New York Times, T Mag, Domino, Art in America, Food & Wine, and Bon Appétit, among others. She is the author of two cookbooks, “Salad for President: A Cookbook Inspired by Artists” and “Arty Parties: An Entertaining Cookbook.” Sherman is the founder and creator of Jus Jus Verjus and she lives in Los Angeles.
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