Morning in Montmartre
It was the morning after we arrived in Paris and we had booked into a Behind the Scenes look at a local Boulangerie in Montmartre. We pre-purchased online and unable to understand the very strong French accent over the phone I requested our hotel to phone and write the address for our meeting point. As it turned out our hotel, Mercure Paris Montmartre Sacre Coeur was in the same street, Rue Caulaincourt, so we thought we’d enjoy the sunshine and walk. We allowed plenty of time, not being familiar with the area and also because we wanted to get coffee and have something to eat before our tour commenced at 10.00am.
We set off along the beautiful tree lined street, Rue Caulaincourt and over the bridge above the Montmartre cemetery. Having only arrived the day before we kept stopping to see things as they caught our eye, we were still in awe of the fact we were in Paris and took many pictures along the way. The area is magnificent, the beautiful architecture. The old ornate doors of 19th century buildings, leading up to private residences, several stories off the ground. Stunning balconies overlooking beautiful trees and “Mary Poppins” rooftops of the surrounding buildings; where you imagine on the inside doors that don’t quite close because of their age.
Along Rue Caulaincourt in areas we are charmed as it was quiet and serene, passing gorgeous little cobblestone streets, with lovely restaurants on every corner; the good atmosphere of the area makes us feel totally safe. Then we pass lively squares, overflowing with bustling cafes, G20 supermarket, steep stairways leading through to the next street, Metro station and green grocer stores. There are so many shops along the way, boulangeries with mind blowing pastries, we are having sensory overload. We got rather excited at all the delicacies in the window at Arnaud Larher Patisserie Chocolaterie and could not contemplate eating something so beautiful.
Further along, more shops, more boulangeries and cafes, trendy little bistros all in a 30 minute walk. There are wine merchants, cheese shops, flower shops, butchers & charcuterie shops. When we finally arrived we still had time to stop at the nearby Café Francoeur. We sip our coffee and reflect; strolling was a befitting way to get here having been charmed as we walked along such a long, glorious street.
Inside Le Grenier à Pain we meet our guide, Emily, who introduces us to the owner and explains there are two other people who have booked this tour. Emily speaks very good English and when the other two arrive we are asked our names and where we are from. They say it’s a small world, well would you believe the other couple like us, come from Perth, Western Australia. Here we are, on the other side of the world and the only other people to book for today live a few kilometres from us in Perth. So, we are in a bakery and our surname is Baker and the other ladies’ names are Butcher and just next door just happens to be a butcher shop. Emily translates this to the owner and together they chuckle thinking us Aussies have funny names.
We are taken behind the shop front to the bread production room where we meet the Bread Maker. Translating once more, Emily introduces us to Ion and they also have a chuckle about our names. As we watch Ion make the famous French Baguette and demonstrate how the machines work, Emily advises us step by step of the process. Although the dough is made with machines this is far from a factory using industrial methods, but a typical small, independent Parisian production unit. Ion gauges, measures, evaluates the flexibility of the dough and kneads with precision. While we are watching and listening to the demonstration we sample fougasse, stuffed savoury bread with olives and another with sundried tomatoes. After the Baguettes are shaped, Emily explains Ion must make five cuts, called scoring in the top of each Baguette.
Next we are each given the blade called a “lame” to score a loaf. The purpose of scoring is primarily to control the direction in which the bread expands during cooking, intentionally creating a weak spot on the surface of the loaf preventing it from bursting. Emily is very informative and translates our questions, explaining Ion is an artisan, a craftsman with a real passion for every aspect of French baking. The angle and depth of the cuts influences the formation of an “ear”, a raised flap of crust at the edge of the cut which slows the expansion of the loaf. The scoring stroke should be firm, rapid, smooth and decisive and for the beginner it takes practice. Although understanding the function of scoring and the effects on the result helps, there is no substitute for experience. It’s a kind of magic watching Ion choose the right temperature for the oven and proving machine and working in this small authentic area. It is clear to see an automated machine could never replace his main tool, his hands. Emily explains that his hands “understand” and feel the bread dough.
We learn the laws are quite strict for bread making. To be called a Boulangerie they must bake onsite and not between 10pm and 4am, hence only two batches of baguettes are made each day. Baguettes have to be made on the premises from start to finish and must only contain four ingredients, wheat flour, salt, yeast and water to be called “baguette de tradition”. Boulangeries also produce viennoiseries which are baked by someone skilled between a Boulanger and a Patissier. Viennoiseries are typically eaten at breakfast or as snacks and can be croissants, pain au chocolat, pain aux raisin, brioche, baguette viennoise and chausson aux pommes (apple turnover).
While the baguettes are cooking we head down these tiny spiral stairs, slippery from all the flour, into the basement. Here we get to sample some apple cake and chocolate cake as we get a full demonstration of making croissants. We see the buttery, layered pastry being meticulously cut and rolled. Croissants can only be crescent shape if they are made with butter; straight croissants usually are made with margarine. The bakery must gauge how many to make each day, also ensuring enough to last a day, but without wastage. By law the croissant cannot be sold the next day, so any excess is filled with almond cream, glazed, covered in almonds and baked again so they can be sold as Croissant aux amandes. We also get shown the slow melting chocolate sticks used to make pain au chocolat and see a huge mixer making batter for little apple cakes (gateaux aux pomme).
Once we are finished here we carefully go back up the flour covered stairs were we are met with wondrous smell of fresh baked bread as Ion has just taken the golden baguettes from oven. We get to take the loaf we scored with us and a fresh croissant as well.
On the way back we are proudly walking along, Steve with our two baguettes sticking out the top of his backpack. Next minute a man rushes towards him and gestures something is wrong. He quickly takes the baguettes out from the backpack and pokes them under Steve’s arm and instructs him, “this is how we carry a baguette in Paris”. We stop at Fromagerie Lepic and get some stinky cheese to have with the baguette. Now we strut with style, I feel like we need a beret. From now on, we shall be known a Mr & Mrs Boulanger.
Further along another photo opportunity, at Boulangerie du Moulin de la Galette. Again I’m in awe; this quaint Art Nouveau bakery is where Julia Childs’ buys her croissants in the movie Julie and Julia. An amazing and authentic boulangerie with walls covered in blue and white tiles, art painted on the ceiling hosting a chandelier and smells of freshly baked baguettes. Even with no intention of buying we can’t seem to exit without purchasing one (or two) of the irresistible viennoiseries.
Back at the hotel we devour the buttery, flaky croissant, brushing the crumbs from our lap and break open the crunchy baguette to enjoy this astounding bread that we had a hand in making. This capped one of the best experiences we had in Paris, learning how Croissants and Baguettes are made and the unexpected highlight of our stroll along Rue Caulaincourt. Now when we hear someone say “nobody makes baguettes like the French” we know it is not just a cliché.
Have you had a memorable experience such as this? What is your favourite french pastry?
*All opinions and photos are our own and we were not financially compensated for this post.
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