Liberté, Égalité, Boulangerie


by Nidra Poller (August 2010)

Le grand prix de la baguette de tradition française de la ville de Paris was awarded on March 27th to Michel Galloyer, proprietor of Le Grenier à Pain, a network of 25 boulangeries in France, soon to be extended to Japan in partnership with Nihon Gastronomie Kenkyujo. The Grenier à Pain, which will be purveyor of baguettes to the presidential palace for one year, is in fact made up of small local bakeries, and the winning baguette was crafted in the Montmartre shop by Djibril Bodian a master baker of Senegalese origin. “La baguette tradition” is a richer, tastier, heartier, more elastic version of the ordinary baguette, which ranges from horrible to middling. La tradition, as its name indicates, is good old fashioned genuine bread. And whatever you say for or against France, you’ve got to admit that our bread is phenomenal.

According to reliable sources, French people consumed over 3 million tons of bread in 2007, 65% of it baked on the premises in small boulangeries using traditional recipes and hands-on techniques. As the red wine paradox goes in and out of fashion, consider bread as the secret of hearty French appetite and slim figures. Americans make a religion of excluding bread & butter from their—questionable—diets. Wrong! Bread is not fattening filler, it is real food, rich in complex carbohydrates, vitamins B1, B3, B5, B6, and E, a source of vital energy and lasting satisfaction that reduces hunger for between-meal snacks.

The corner bakery is the heart of the neighborhood, beating to the steady rhythm of customers filing in and coming out with the royal scepter shaped in bread. The routine never loses its freshness. Day in day out the staple satisfaction is renewed. There’s a touch of wonder at the survival of something essential, real bread, in a world of high speed change. Rich or poor, high or lowbrow, young and old we all enjoy the inalienable right to receive, in exchange for a pittance (one euro for une baguette tradition), bread fit for a king.

The corner bakery is more than a shop; it’s vital, social, maternal. You might drop into any boulangerie on your way home from a rendez-vous, or go out of your way to sample the wares of a renowned baker, but you have to have your own boulangerie. Take Le Moulin de Rosa at 32 rue de Turenne in the heart of the Marais, for example. The traditional paint-on-glass ceiling classified as a national heritage testifies to a century of continuity. The nondescript bakery that had lingered on when the Marais was gentrified in the late 70s was finally replaced by the high style Levain du Marais that did a thriving business. Its severe somewhat British décor and sturdy sourdough bread was interwoven into the life of the quartier. A permanent fixture.

That’s why customers were shocked to discover one day in the spring of 2009 a perfect stranger behind that familiar counter. The “Levain” had vanished overnight after 15 years of intimacy… without even saying goodbye! No handwritten message on the plate glass door. No secret plans shared in a whisper to a few special customers. They vanished!

The new proprietor, Laurent Watrin, was greeted with chilly suspicion by habitués. What a nerve! He had usurped “their” bakery, the “boule au levain” didn’t have the same taste or consistency, and his mild manner and intellectual eyeglasses didn’t match the décor… The Rabineau couple had operated with the traditional division of labor–monsieur at the oven and madame in the shop. You couldn’t even imagine the new baker, if that’s what he was, dressed in a sleeveless undershirt and white apron.

It took a while, but business picked up. Laurent—he’s a first name kind of person– replaced the severe elegance of his predecessors with a pastel décor that picks up the colors of the decorated ceiling—suddenly revealing its delicate beauty– that fills the shop with Mediterranean light. A new harmony was composed, encompassing the personality of the management and the palette of delights, smoothly integrated into the relaxed refinement of the Marais.

Laurent Watrin is a new kind of entrepreneur perpetuating traditional French savoir-faire on the small scale that makes it so precious. Our conversation on a park bench in the Place des Vosges on a mild April day was not limited to the concerns of a small shopkeeper! His outlook is international, his enlightened observations about French society, economy, and labor relations are as refined and tasty as the bread and pastries he serves with a warm smile. Born in Ardèche, raised in the east of France, Laurent came to Paris with a university degree in literature, an open mind, and an industrious spirit. He worked at a variety of jobs, then started an advertising agency and later opened a boutique specialized in French arts and crafts on rue du Cherche Midi. He was drawn into the bakery business by chance, invited by a colleague who had a boulangerie in the neighborhood. In fact, they went into the rue de Turenne affair together but the partnership fell apart almost immediately. Later, Laurent discovered that he has an uncle who has worked for thirty years as a professional baker.   

His secret of success is twofold: the finest ingredients for his products and the best conditions for his employees who benefit from a 35-hour week and salaries on the high end of the scale for their category. “It took them a few months to believe that I was sincerely friendly… that it wasn’t a trick.” He deplores the climate of mistrust in French labor relations, dominated by overpowering unions that disregard the greater good and willfully ignore the realities of globalization. Systematic abuse of the welfare state, he says, discourages enterprise and undermines the French economy.

In an economy dominated by the public sector where grumpy civil servants are constantly on strike or on vacation and factory workers threaten to set fire to toxic chemicals if they don’t get their way, the corner bakery is a tight, efficient operation. Le Moulin de Rosa provides a living wage for the owner and his nine employees in a total floor space of 80 square meters for the shop and workshops. Everything is prepared and baked on the premises. Bread-baking starts at 4 AM and continues throughout the day. Bread is sold within a few hours of coming out of the oven and pastries are never more than a day old.

The perfume of fresh baked bread raises le quotidien to a higher value in France. Children bond with the corner bakery from birth. Babes in arms, carried into the bakery on the daily ritual, bask in the perfume of fresh-baked bread; toddlers in strollers are already munching on a delicious morsel before they are wheeled out of the shop; school children delight in choosing their goûter (afternoon snack) of flaky viennoiseries—pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, croissant or a Moulin de Rosa specialty, the chocolate-pistachio braid. The first independent errand of youngsters is “chercher le pain.” Sweethearts buy fresh croissants for a romantic late morning breakfast. Fancier pastries are reserved for weekends or special occasions. Le Moulin de Rosa strikes a delicious balance between sweetness and lightness, with no false notes and no chi-chi overkill. My favorite is the Mistral with layers of genoise cake, apricots, sliced almonds, topped with pistachio mousse and a sprinkle of chocolate.

The mystery of bread is a daily wonder. How is it possible to create such bounty with the simplest ingredients—flour, water, salt, yeast, sourdough—and why is every baguette or miche or boule marked with the je ne sais quoi of a unique individual baker? Bread captures the light, the air, the warmth of its surroundings, reflects the heart and mind of the baker, demands time and patience to rise and bake to perfection.

Though “Pain Poilaine” has revived, gentrified, and multinationalized the big round heavy loaves of dark sourdough bread that were the staple of the common people, it can never have the same impact as bread baked right under your nose! The corner bakery is a small-scale business model that can’t be industrialized, can’t save the sluggish French economy, can’t fill the huge deficit of the social welfare system, tip the trade balance, or outdo China in a competitive global competition.

French bread is an exception, a precious local commodity in a global world where all the socks are made in China, you can skype to the ends of the earth, and order anything from anywhere online. A warm crusty “baguette tradition,” its fragrant elastic heart aerated with the breath of life, may never get rated on the stock market, but it is the best thing a euro can buy, a daily joy, and a saving grace.



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