When I first came to Paris in 2010, I embarked upon a mission to eat my way through as many viennoiseries as possible during my stay. Frankly, I had no idea it would be such hard work! The capital is literally heaving with excellent artisan bakers and professional pastry chefs; indeed, if you wanted to sample every croissant the city has to offer, you’d have to be willing to stay a while. Of course, this doesn’t mean they’re always good – I’ve eaten my fair share of stale or greasy imitations. Most artisanal bakers will advertise the fact that their products are made fresh everyday, by their own hand…..so if you want the real deal, look for the sticker on the front door that says “croissants faits maison”.
Most bakers have specialities that they’re particularly proud of – this could be a certain type of bread made with a certain type of flour for example; others might be using the same recipes/techniques as their great-grandparents back in the day when they first opened up shop. I get the impression that many French bakers were born into the business so to speak, but judging by what I see and taste, bread-making in France is still extremely well-respected. It seems to me as though hand-crafted bread is written into the country’s culture in such a way that to be a skilled French baker is to have rock-star status; they’re truly celebrated craftsmen/women.
So I’d like to write about a few of my favourite places…..some accidentally stumbled upon, some recommended to me by friends and work colleagues, and some discovered from reading magazines and fellow blogs. Occasionally you’ll see someone walking down the street with a particularly tasty looking baguette, and unfortunately not all bakers get paper bags printed with their own logo. This is Paris after all; I’d guess that every 10th person I pass in the morning on my way to work is holding a fresh baguette…..and one in three of these early birds has already bitten the end off (this is Adam’s weakness too…..if only we didn’t live on the fourth floor of our building, we might actually get a WHOLE baguette for lunch one day).
Du Pain et Des Idées, 34 Rue Yves Toudic (closest Metro Jacques Bonsergent, Line 5)
Monsieur Christophe Vasseur of Du Pain et Des Idées has quite a following in Paris, and rightly so…..his bakery is what dreams are made of. The smell of burnt sugar and butter-rich dough hits you as you approach the doors/queue…..that’s the smell of his famous escargots. But it’s not just the smell that’s intoxicating…..it’s a magical place. From the chipped white paint and gold-framed mirrors to the patterned clay display plates brimming with golden brown pastries and the sacks of flour piled high in the corner…..it’s everything a slightly old-fashioned Parisian boulangerie should be.
He states on his website (dupainetdesidees.com) that he uses only limited quantities of manufactured yeast to make his products. He makes his bread using a sourdough – a natural leavener – something quite commonly used by artisan bakers because not only does it give bread a distinct flavour, but extra personality too. I think he uses the same sweet dough to make his croissants, escargots and pains au chocolat; incredibly well layered and very buttery, it’s somehow less glutinous than a traditional croissant dough, and flakier, more puff pastry-esque. He obviously cooks them in a very hot oven because the edges are always crunchy and very well caramelised (Adam insists they’re burnt – the truth is, they’re a million miles from the pale, pasty-looking pastries we eat in the UK…..and so to a Brit, yes, they do look burnt). The escargots are the winners in my eye – flavours change with the seasons, but so far I’ve enjoyed pistachio and chocolate, rum and raisin, red berries and cream cheese (wow!), lemon and nougat and pink praline. We’ve also sampled the fresh apple chausson (a pastry pocket stuffed with fresh apple compote), and the galette des rois (traditionally eaten during Epiphany).
Now to the bread…..the most well-known being the ‘pain des amis’. Available by the ‘slab’, it’s a dense bread with a very thick, dark crust and a nutty, almost smoky flavour. I prefer his little rolls or mini ‘pavés’; stone-baked and stuffed with vegetables, cheese and fruit…..try goat’s cheese, smoked bacon and fig or green olive and herb. I’ve seen but not tasted the ‘pain au cacao, noix et airelles’ (cocoa, walnut and cranberry), or the ‘mouna’…..apparently this is a North African recipe for a butter brioche made with orange blossom. But I’ll be going back, no doubt several times before I eventually leave Paris, in order to try everything else…..the trouble is, I get too easily distracted by the shiny escargots as soon as I walk through the door!
Gontran Cherrier, 22 Rue Caulaincourt (closest Metro Lamarck-Caulaincourt, line 12)
Gontran Cherrier’s boutique on rue Caulaincourt is one of the best modern bakeries in Paris, and home to possibly THE nicest croissant in the city. I first read about him in an article in a British magazine, about the new wave of rule-breaking bakers and pastry chefs that’s currently sweeping Paris. Apart from being very young (and rather good-looking), he’s more experimental with his bread, and his boutiques are fresh and modern. He was born into a family of professional bakers (he is in fact no less than the fourth generation), but he’s gone for a more up-to-date image; there’s no gold lettering outside, just his initials in simple white paint to match the clean, white-tiled interior. Not only does he have three boutiques in Paris, but outlets in Singapore and Tokyo.
I’m not going to lie, it’s not easy visiting his bakery…..if you’re anything like me you won’t want to leave without trying EVERYTHING. Luckily his Caulaincourt boutique has a small seating area, so you can slowly sample as much as you like in a comfortable spot. The croissants are unreal – I’m talking crispy, flaky, buttery and soft all in the same mouthful. The kouign amann is exceptional also, even if a little funny-looking. His escargot is much the same – not exactly conventional in appearance, but I think this is what he’s going for…..slightly funky and out-of-the-ordinary, but damn tasty! His pastries ooze personality, and I love them for their imperfections. Adam was thrilled to find scones too – and proper British scones for that matter…..the sort that are so dense and buttery that they stick to the roof of your mouth. Brioche-lovers won’t be disappointed either; I spotted plain and chocolate-covered loaves and rolls, plus ‘petites viennoises’ with white chocolate and cranberries.
His breads are more experimental. The rye bread with miso has a supreme crust on it, and a dense but moist interior. The most eye-catching are the jet black squid ink rolls and baguettes, and the curry loaves which have a slight yellow tint to them.
Anthony Bosson’s ‘L’Essential’, 2 Rue Mouffetard (closest Metro Place Monge, line 7 or Cardinal Lemoine, line 10)
I stumbled across Anthony Bosson’s boulangerie ‘L’Essentiel’ on Rue Mouffetard out of pure luck. Very modern and slightly flashy-looking from the outside, I almost didn’t venture in; a perfect example for why you should never judge a book by it’s cover. The croissants look almost too perfect to eat…..light and crispy on the outside then soft and buttery inside; you can tell the texture’s great from the photo because I managed to cut it in half without turning it into something someone sat on. I couldn’t resist buying a pain au chocolat too, which turned out to be equally as good. This place will definitely be going on my list for one of the BEST croissants in Paris (indeed, Bosson’s creations placed very well in 2013’s “Concours du Meilleur Croissant au Beurre” or “Best Butter Croissant” competition).
Maison Pichard, 88 Rue Cambronne (closest Metro Volontaires, line 12)
One of my favourite things about living in Paris is that no matter where you are or what you might be doing, you’re never too far away from a fresh butter croissant. Occasionally we treat ourselves on a Saturday morning before work, and one of us picks up a bag for the staff. The pastry chef blew everyone away when she presented us with Maison Pichard’s chocolate almond creations. They’re incredibly rich so one’s enough. The chocolate is good, but more importantly, the almond paste is good. The ratio of pastry to filling is perfect; almond croissants tend to be stodgy and eggy, but the balance in this case between chocolate, nut, butter and dough is something special. The best bit’s the base, simply because it’s just so crispy.
The only drawback is that if you fancy one of these beauties, you have to be prepared to get moving…..they sell out fast! I’ve been back twice since my first experience at work; now I realise it could have been my last. The trouble is that I can never get myself up early enough on my days off (I think this is fairly normal when you work upwards of 65 hours a week). I’ve tried their croissant and pain au chocolat too…..they’re both good, but the almond chocolate is what I’d recommend if you’ve got the motivation. Having said that, the team at Pichard won first prize in 2011 for the ‘Meilleur Croissant’ (best croissant) in Paris, and in 2012 for the ‘Meilleur Pain Bio’ (best organic bread).
La Gambette à Pain, 86 Avenue Gambetta (closest Metro Gambetta, line 3 or Pelleport, line 3bis)
I’ve been told that Jean-Paul Mathon of ‘La Gambette à Pain’ used to work with Christophe Vasseur of ‘Du Pain et Des Idées’. This is not, however, the only reason to visit his beautiful neighbourhood bakery, from which he has developed his own reputation as being one of the most respected and best loved bakers in Paris.
He does an excellent array of baguettes and breads, including spelt and rye creations, alongside sandwiches, croissants and escargots; all of which are made using organic bread flours.
He also does an exceptional mouna. It’s so good in fact, that I’m angry with myself for not trying it before. I’ve since done a little more research regarding the roots of mouna bread; it’s certainly a brioche, but with a higher sugar content, and is normally flavoured with orange flower water (as it is at La Gambette). According to some sources it’s Spanish in origin; another argues that it’s a traditional enriched bread of the Algerian Jewish community. Whatever it might be, get your hands on one of Mathon’s super-soft, rich yet super-light chunks of mouna and you’ll want to set up camp outside his boulangerie for good.
The glistening mouna ready to be cut into giant wedges…..
Chocolate escargot from La Gambette (to the left of the picture), alongside a rum-raisin escargot from Du Pain et Des Idées (to the right)…..