Sunday, February 5, 2012

COLD! And, The Pursuit of Excellence

It's been cold in Paris; at night, it's dropping into the teens, and today it snowed. The streets are glazed with ice; the wind whips down the Haussmannian avenues; and all the piles of dog poop have frozen semi-solid on the sidewalks, which is about as good as you get. Our little space heater runs night and day, and we have taken to wearing long underwear all the time, and for a few days La Potiche had nothing to write for you, because she was busy rereading Dune to keep warm. Even les Français are looking cold: they're wearing two scarves at the same time over their noses, and occasionally covering their glossy hair with HATS. The little dogs are wearing coats but still playing the flâneur, wandering unleashed up and down the sidewalks, browsing shop windows, and completely disregarding their so-called owners who stand shivering thirty meters away, shouting, "Vigo! VIGO!"

On the first day of the cold snap, when the mid-afternoon high was predicted to reach 21, we decided to go for a nearly six-mile walk, the first half all uphill, to a bakery in Montmartre.

Why? Because Pascal Barillon, of the bakery Au Levain d'Antan (which means, roughly, the Sourdough of Yesteryear, which may or may not be a pun on Yesterday's Bread?), won the Grand prix 2011 de la meilleure baguette parisienne (2011 Grand Prize for the Best Parisian Baguette). Jeffrey Steingarten wrote a thrilling account of the first such baguette competition in the '90s, an effort to revive and popularize the traditional baguette, which was being edged out by non-sourdough, machine-made loaves. Last spring, 136 baguettes were entered in the competition, after 38 were eliminated on technical grounds, and Barillon won and will hold the title till next spring.

The best baguette in Paris! Wow! And now you're wondering, how does it compare to lesser baguettes in Paris, such as the worst baguette?

We have seen the worst baguette. It is lurking in the ready-bake stay-puft ziploc bag at the local crap supermarket that smells of rot. As for lesser baguettes, on our first afternoon in Paris, we visited the nearest bakery, one block away, which won the competition the first year and just happened to come in seventh in last year's competition. We took la baguette traditionnelle home and tore it open and put cheese and tomatoes on it (le Prof), and butter and plum jam on it (la Potiche), and devoured it, moaning all the while. It tore apart as easily as Wonder Bread, but was crunchy and flaky and gapped with giant bubbly holes; despite the crunch of the crust, it was feathery inside, but not mushy, not spongy, not insubstantial. And it was TASTY. It was good enough to eat by itself but even better with other delicious things all over it. We ate the whole baguette for lunch, even though La Potiche's throat was raw and the crust made her throat rawer going down, because it was so delicious, so much better than anything we'd called a baguette in the U.S., and it completely validated our sometimes exasperating and exhausting decision to move here.

We've bought many more baguettes from that bakery. They are still good the next day. La Potiche think that they're even better toasted. (Maybe toasting a baguette is a travesty, but if you can make a delicious thing more delicious with a little heat and browning so that it feels like it just popped out of the oven (though sometimes when we get them, they are still warm from the oven!) and it hasn't yet been banned by l'Académie Française.... Now that I've said that, maybe I've branded myself as one of Those People, the ones who prefer red sauce, the ones who like sugar in their coffee.... And now that I've said that, maybe I'd better stop giving up all my claims to having a palate....) We visited another bakery, the 1996 winner and who-knows-what placer in 2011, and agreed that their baguette, while delicious, was not quite as perfect. And we bought some country bread at Poilâne, famous for their country bread, and some more baguettes, and blah blah blah.... Not a day has gone by without its chunks of bread.

Then, last week, when we were foiled in our attempt to visit a street market and were forced to shop for lunch at the gourmet stores along Rue Montorgeuil instead, we dropped into the Maison Kayser, ten minutes away from our apartment, to buy the Baguette Malesherbes.

Ohhhhh la la. We knew it was special even before we'd tasted it, because its crust crackled in a way that was positively electric. As we carried it home, we were afraid of handling it too much and impairing its FORCE FIELD. And then we were home, tearing into it. The Baguette Malesherbes' crust shattered crisply, delicately, into flakes that were almost as light as those old-fashioned Czech glass Christmas ornaments that crumple if you look at them funny.
Its crumb, or mie, had the tenderness of SKIN, as though it were a living animal. It seemed to want to be rubbed against our cheeks (one of us did, and got covered with flour). Its bubbles, stretched thinner than Czech glass, were IRIDESCENT. It seemed to be made of a magic ingredient apart from microbes, flour, and salt. It tasted the way flour is supposed to taste when you're having one of those Amber waves of grain moments, imagining the sunshine and rainwater being absorbed by the wheat and rye stalks. It tasted winily of exhalations of gas and alcohol from the hungry little yeasts, and explosions of sea salt, and the caramel of the sugars in the flour. There are no photos of real baguettes here, because what makes a baguette good cannot be photographed.

(Full disclosure: La Potiche samples a fresh bite of every Kayser baguette, but then she toasts her own portion. The Kayser baguette, toasted, is like falling in love. Kayser baguettes may very well be why the French invented toaster ovens. For that matter, lots of other things we've found here in Paris are totally awesome. Like Le Dustbuster? What a FANtastic idea! La Potiche is going to make her fortune selling the invention to Americans!)

The Kayser baguette was so good that it relegated our neighborhood bakery's heretofore Perfect But Only #7 baguette to "Tasty and completely acceptable when we can't get a Kayser baguette." (Why can't we get a Kayser baguette every day, when Maison Kayser is only ten minutes' walk away? Because sometimes, often, we are coming back from a five-mile march in the opposite direction and are so tired from looking at Art that we cannot force ourselves to take the extra ten blocks out of our way, even for the Kayser baguette.) It was so good that, the other day, La Potiche ordered two baguettes for lunch, and succeeded in eating slightly more than a whole one all by herself. And this got us (her) thinking that we didn't know how Kayser placed in the competition. He may not have entered it; he may have gotten disqualified because his baguettes don't conform to weight and size standards. We knew his baguette was better than #7. We knew it might even be better than the competition winner. But there remained the disquieting possibility that six other baguettes, most especially #1, were better, and we wouldn't know till we'd tasted them.

Hence, the trek to Montmartre, in weather well below freezing, dodging some very slow-moving, gelid crowds, because the Real Reason we came to Paris was the pursuit of excellence. We found the bakery, bought two baguettes, stuffed them awkwardly into La Potiche's bag, because it was so cold that we'd forgotten to bring the roomy shopping bag, climbed a couple hundred stairs to swing by Sacré-Coeur and feel ambivalent about it, and then started heading home, because La Potiche couldn't feel her toes anymore and was afraid of falling down the stairs. Here she is, with a red, windburned face. She is not the Kwisatz Haderach.

But before we'd gone too far, we dropped into a chocolate shop, L'Étoile d'Or (Gold Star), where our friends Rebecca and Rudy once bought us some beautiful chocolate bars stuffed with pistachio paste, because we were still In Pursuit of Excellence.
It was cold in the shop, as in all the other stores we've visited. By the time we'd looked at all the lovely things, and selected a bunch of handmade chocolates, and a tin of prune-stuffed prunes (I do not want to hear your negative opinions about prunes, which add nothing to the conversation), and a chocolate bar made of a brown-sugar cookie covered in layers of salted caramel and chocolate, La Potiche's hands were so stiff that she couldn't handle her money. Luckily, Le Prof still had the use of his hands. Then we marched three miles home, but it was downhill this time.

When we got home, we sat down to eat our lunch of Grand Prix Baguette. It was very good. It was as good as the Kayser. It was exactly as good as the Kayser, apart from being ice cold. And beyond that, we cannot rank it. Because, despite our Pursuit of Excellence, it is simply too early in the game for us. We can tell the difference between a #7 and a #1 baguette, but not between two Top Sixes, or, perhaps, two equally good #1s, as a true connaisseur would. But this impasse is not a dreadful one. We simply have not eaten enough Really Good Baguettes, and we have five more months to educate ourselves. Even if we never actually learn to make those fine, fine distinctions, because our palates will simply not become refined enough--we won't know what to look for, fragrances and flavors will escape us, and our teeth won't sense the tiny differences in crunch and give--it is not a bad thing for excellence, or in this case ignorance, to abound. We can have SEVEN number one boulangeries and live happily, never the wiser.

Here is a picture of one of the candies we bought at L'Étoile d'Or: it is a mandarin pâte de fruit, or fruit jelly, filled with orange liqueur. Reflected in the mirror, La Potiche is having a fit. It came about because Le Prof told her to back away from the candy. His intention was to include her in the photograph. But La Potiche misinterpreted his request as an attempt to keep her from sniffing the candy as closely she would have liked to do at that moment, so she did back off, but then immediately flung herself into a Dance of Rage, which Le Prof captured on his camera. This, friends, is what it's really like here. The Pursuit of Excellence does not extend to Excellence of Character.

And here is my favorite song ever. Like this blog post, it is about excellence and bread. La Potiche likes to dance around the apartment, singing, "Bread! You know that it's...BREAD!" and Le Prof says, "That's not how the words go." But for La Potiche, rearranging song lyrics to suit herself is like toasting: why NOT gild the lily?

And finally, did any of you notice the candy labeled "Pruneski"? It is a dab of sweet prune paste, stuffed inside a date that is dipped into a caramel bath and hardened into golden, sparkling rock sugar crystals...and then dipped in dark chocolate. It is possibly the most delicious candy that has ever been made. If I were a St. Petersburg matron in an unhappy marriage, I would totally fall for a dashing bald officer named Pruneski. But what is a Pruneski? The innerwebs are strangely silent on the subject. We will have to return to the store to find out where these glorious things come from, and how we can get them in New York.


  1. I *LOVE* the Kayser boulangeries. You have to try his croissant. They are the Best croissants ever! At least in my humble opinion -- but perhaps I've never had an award-winning croissant.

  2. I love the Kayser also! Did you get a baguette monge? I ate at least a gigagram of those things when I was there. Pruneski sounds amazing.

  3. Wait wait wait wait. Prunes + dates + caramel + chocolate? Why don't I eat those every day for breakfast?

  4. Dr V: Yes! We bought two Kayser croissants for lunch today, and they were delicious! So delicious that I tipped the bag into my mouth to gobble all the crumbs. We're more than happy to take personal recommendations, especially because none of the food bloggers from whom I compiled our grocery shopping itinerary have done recent croissant tastings. We're also looking for more restaurant recs, in case we ever go out to eat, because our restaurant list is much shorter than the bakery list.

    Rebecca: We've only gotten the Malesherbes, but we bought the Monge today, in your honor, for supper, along with our first raw milk camembert. And I'm doing my internetting now (4:08pm), because I expect dinner to reduce me to a stuporous puddle of delight.

    Sara: I don't know why *I'm* not eating them every day for breakfast. I've been eating oatmeal. There's something wrong with me.