How to buy a baguette in Paris
There are thousands of boulangeries (bakeries) that sell baguettes in Paris. There’s one on every block. When we got to our apartment on Rue de Bièvre, we only had to walk a few minutes down to Blvd. St. Germain, and there was one right on the corner. We were happy. We used our tourist French to order baguettes and pastries and everything was fine. Or so we thought…
On the Sunday at the end of our first week, we had arranged for a food tour with Wendy Lyn of Paris Kitchen. When we met she asked where we had been buying our bread, and how we liked it. We pointed to the bakery, and what could we say? It was fine, it was great, it was perfect with brie or jam, it was sunny and spring time in our courtyard in Paris and the bakery would sell us baguettes and not laugh too loudly at how we mangled our words – how much better does it get?
Now the lesson began. Unbeknownst to us, just 50 feet up Rue Monge from our corner was one of the most respected bakers in Paris, Eric Kayser, a true certified artisan boulanger. Wendy would take us in for a visit but first we needed to know how to order in a boulangerie. Then we’d find out what made Eric Kayser’s baguettes different from many.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many other great bakers in Paris, but like everything else, even in Paris there are ways to cut corners, and if you’re not discerning, well, you could get an average loaf when you could have a really great one for the same price. And since you’re buying at least one baguette every day, as you would in Paris, you might as well have the best.
The first thing to know when you’re going in, is to figure out what you want before you get in the line-up down the middle of the store. You can walk around and look at what’s in the cases, but only line up when you know your order. No hemming and hawing when it’s your turn. Have your money ready before you get to the counter. Then start with the obligatory, “Bonjour mademoiselle” before you order, pay and leave with a friendly “au revoir” or “bonne journée”. Those are the simple unspoken rules. If you know them, you get friendly service. If you don’t, you’ll wonder what went wrong.
The other thing to know is that there are a few kinds of baguettes. We went with the “baguette natur”, ordered two of them along with an apricot pistachio cake. Why two baguettes? Easy. One for eating on the way home, or in our case, on our walking tour.
So what makes Mr. Kayser’s baguettes so special? They’re made from fresh dough to exacting standards. Apparently he’s a bit of a taskmaster, and everything must be perfect. Behind this unassuming storefront and in a space behind a store two doors down are a total of 27 ovens going full time. Wow!
After we made our purchase, we met on the sidewalk. Wendy tore the end off a baguette and pointed out the big air bubbles inside and the crispy crust outside. That was a sign of a baguette made fresh from dough in an oven set to high temperatures. So, I’m wondering what other way is there? Well, there are “factory baguettes” that are made from frozen dough and baked in the boulangerie. And of course many bakeries don’t have their own ovens at all, they just resell goods made elsewhere. You can see the difference – baguettes from frozen dough have small even air holes, more like regular bread. They’re mass produced and cheaper.
So, a tip from those who know – if you’re walking by a bistro with a patio, before you go in, have a look at the bread basket on someone’s table. Small holes or big bubbles? The Parisian thinking is, if they scrimp on the bread, what about the rest of the meal? Why would you eat there if the bread wasn’t the best?
Does it seem like a big deal over something small? Does a fresh Kayser baguette taste that much different from one made on the outskirts of Paris and brought into the city in the early morning hours? You can decide for yourself, but that’s the beauty of Paris – they care about all the details and are proud that they know the difference.
As we stood on the sidewalk chewing our baguette, we noticed cars pulling up, guys jumping out and in a minute returning with big brown bags, each with a couple dozen baguettes. They were picking up for restaurants. Hence the need for 27 ovens. Apparently this small storefront supplies a sizable percentage of the restaurants in the area.
Over the last few years, Kayser has opened more locations to the point where he has about a dozen now in Paris. Some of the other bakers have taken to calling him McKayser. Ha! Success breeds envy.
Next: snubbed in a cheese shop until we learn yet another set of shopping rules.