Dec 3rd, 2017, 08:05 PM

Reflections on Breadmaking

By Alex Bilodeau
Image Credit: Unsplash/ Anh Tran
Part Two: Finding "Real" Bread in Paris

As I mentioned in my last article, it isn't as easy as you might think to find real sourdough, or pain de campagne, in Paris.

For one, it is not commonly made and sold, so it is just downright hard to find. For another, its not an easy or advisable task to question a French baker about the authenticity of their bread. If you have the rapport or the courage, you might try to ask the person behind the boulangerie counter for pain avec levain naturel. But don't be surprised if you receive a dirty or confused look in response, or if they say "oui, oui" and give you a loaf of "pain de campagne," which (if you know what you're looking for) you'll recognize instantly as anything but the real deal.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Clark Young

Perhaps you can gauge the potential seriousness of authenticity by my own amateur passion for bread. To question a baker about the authenticity of their bread  is to question their integrity and legitimacy as craftsmen. It may be a point of pride, or perhaps secret shame, the quality of their product, and it is certainly a sensitive subject for inquiry. The reality is, despite the French notion of terroir and the cultural appreciation for good and real food, the demand for bread in Paris is too high for bakers to be able to produce enough bread using traditional methods.

I've heard that, although it's been difficult to verify, many boulangeries buy frozen dough  from warehouses, where it is commercially produced and shipped out ready to be baked and sold on site. While this is still many levels above the strange edible sponge we've come to know as American white-bread or Wonderbread, you can imagine how this might not be a favorite or outspoken topic of conversation for the French. Nevertheless, I'd wager that more than half, possibly much more than half, of the bread you find in Paris is made using added yeast and other ingredients besides flour, water, and salt.

"La baguette de tradition bio Au levain naturel et façonnée à la main" Image Credit: Facebook/Boulangerie Laurent B 

All this said, I haven't actually gotten to a point of "gained access" with a baker, a point where I have developed a relationship and understanding with someone who would be willing to share the "trade secrets" with me, so my perspective on this subject is incomplete. It seems to me that bread authenticity in Paris is but another litmus test for the state food culture and consumption on a global level. If  bread in France isn't "real," then what on earth is?! And why? But to understand why bread is produced the way it is in Paris requires the perspective of bakers more than anything else, and this is something I cannot yet offer you, my dear reader. Perhaps in the next year or so I'll be able to.

For now, here is the good news. No baker who is going to the trouble to grow a starter, ferment the dough, and bake real pain de campagne is going to be shy about sharing it. So if you look out, you will find it! If you see signs that say "fermenter" or "bio" or "levain naturel", you may just be in luck. 

Boulangerie Poilaine. Image Credit: WikimediaCommons/THOR

In my quest for sourdough, I've been disappointed with my own neighborhood in the 17th, but I have found a couple of boulangeries in the 7th arrondissement with delicious grands, petites and flutes de campagne. Those boulangeries are Boulangerie PariSeven and Boulangerie Laurent B to name a few. I've been recommended Boulangerie Poilaine, and am making may way through this delicious looking list of Great Breads In Paris from Bon Appétit Magazine.

I'm not sure when and if part three of this bread endeavor will make its way onto the Plume, but if it ever does, it will have more explanations and more recommendations about finding authentic bread in Paris. What I hope to have left you with in the meantime is a new idea about what bread is and what it has the potential to be, how its significance goes beyond its crackly golden crust, wafts further than its warm, sweet smell, and lingers longer than the taste which is nostalgic and universal.