In Paris they used to say that a baguette, a newspaper, and bottle of milk could all be bought at the same price. Now, depending on what kind of milk you buy (organic? UHT? local?) and what you read, this may or may not still hold true. The newspapers may change, but the price of bread is pleasantly regular. Whether you visit the best baker in Paris, some little neighborhood boulangerie in the 13e, or a big, industrial chain, you can purchase a baguette for about 1,20 euro–that’s less than a metro ticket (and, if you ask me, much kinder to the senses than a trip on Parisian public transport).
When it comes to bread, Paris will spoil you like no other city (although some German towns could give it a run for its money, especially if you–like me–prefer your bread dark and grainy). French government regulations forbid the addition of preservatives; if you want to call your bread baguette, it can only contain flour, water, yeast and salt. It sounds so simple, right? But, of course, from those sparse ingredients come waves of variations, all of which determine the difference between a mediocre lump of dough and that elusive crispy, airy, delicate tradition. Is your baker using a good quality flour? Whole wheat? Sourdough? Sea salt? Industrial salt? Has the dough been overkneaded? How long has it fermented? Has it been baked on a stone deck? Through steam injection? I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore.
I have lived in the United States too long to consider myself a bread snob. Honestly, if the baker downstairs is using subpar flour, I’m not going to burst into tears. After a childhood of Wonderbread, the palate can mistake even the toughest, saltiest Parisian baguette for heavenly manna. However, this doesn’t mean I don’t like to explore my options. Recently I wrote an article about Montmartre boulangeries; I decided to deepen my inquiry and so returned to the rue des Abbesses, this time to check out the well-known bakery Coquelicot.
I have, for a while, been wary of Coquelicot which always seemed too flashy, too cute, too…you know….touristic. Even the name, which means poppy, kind of bothered me. The fact that it’s also a restaurant/cafe doesn’t win any points in my book (my book being suspicious of the baker who wears too many hats). But you can’t ignore the glowing praise the bakery garners–nor the delicious smells which waft out its doors.
The line was long, but the staff were friendly. I know that a smiling boulanger does not a good bread make, yet, especially in Paris, such pleasant reception is a welcome change. I took a look around, dazed and disoriented; choosing one’s bread can be an overwhelming ordeal, and, it didn’t help that standard bread goes by different names at Coquelicot–la piccola, la reine, and la coquelicot. I took the latter, figuring they wouldn’t give their namesake to just any bread. I also asked for a small raisin roll. Pictures were quickly taken, money was exchanged, the crowd pressed in, and I ducked out.
The Parisians are usually scandalized by public eating (you should see the looks I get when I eat an apple in the street), but baguette seems to be the universal exception. You can’t blame them–when bread is warm and fresh, it seems a shame to wait until you’re home. I therefore embraced the ritual of eating my baguette en route: my first bite yielded a mouthful of perfectly golden crust and light, airy interior. The bread crumbs were conspicuous on my black coat. I didn’t care. I took another bite. The interior, or the mie, was unevenly aerated–indicating a long, slow fermentation (that’s a good thing). Like all great baguettes, the coquelicot was elastic without being rubbery, a bit yeasty without being too acidic. I happily noted that it was dusted, but thankfully not splattered, with flour (the latter being a notorious trick played by lesser boulangers, apparently in the hopes of giving a mediocre baguette an artisanal flair). By the time I reached home the baguette was nearly demolished.
Big points for the whole wheat roll too. Less popular than baguette, whole wheat breads are made less frequently and thus are never as fresh. The whole wheat flour to white flour ratio is also up to the baker’s discretion, which means that when you order a whole wheat loaf you may just get a two day old white bread, with a dusty brown finish. But this roll was perfectly moist, rich and dark, the meatiness of the crumb beautifully counterbalancing the sweetness of the raisins. OK tourists, I thought, looking up the hill and shaking my head. You’ve won the bakery game again. But just wait until someone tries to slap a bracelet on your wrist. If you’ve been to the Sacré Coeur, you know what I mean.
© Mary Albanese