My dad use to drive a truck and one of his more famous and anticipated stops was the local Amoroso bakery in Philly (a legendary bakery for rolls). He would deliver boxes and in return the guys on the loading dock would give him bags of just out of the oven rolls. He would then come home and my sister and I would slather butter on the warm bread to the dismay of my mom who was cooking dinner. She knew that trying to feed us after we’ve ingested our body weight in bread was a no starter, so much of her hard work was relegated to the Tupperware container for leftovers the next day. So my bread addiction started early and it wasn’t until I was old enough to travel that I discovered all the wonderful varieties of bread and pastries that the world had to offer. While I wish I had my Mom’s willpower and thin figure, I was always going to identify more with the Pillsbury Doughboy (yum, crescent rolls…..) and need to go to the gym a lot in the hopes of negating the bad (yummy) carbs.
The first time I visited Paris in the 90’s, I was overwhelmed by the choices – croissants, pain au chocolate and baguettes everywhere. People walked to the neighborhood boulangerie daily for their breads and pastries. Fresh baked bread was a wonderful discovery back then (sorry Strohmann, Wonder, Pillsbury and all the other breads of my youth). My bread addiction was elevated after that visit and bread would begin to seduce me around the world (along with wine too!) as I searched out the local bakery in every new city and port.
So visiting Paris with my niece, I wanted to go behind the scenes of the Parisian boulangerie and see the magic being made in person. Using Viator, we met the same Meeting the French guide from the macaron tour of Gerard Mulot (Viator is like Open Table for tour companies). This time we were a group of five not eighteen and the cost was similar (under $35 per person for the one hour tour). Located in a residential area, we allowed an hour travel time and unfortunately got lost as our hotel gave us the wrong metro line (there were two options with the same name on two lines – one closest to the bakery and the other a bit of a walk). We walked around the main street, asked the local bus driver who gave us directions to follow the bus route up the hill and around. Had we taken the right metro line, the bakery was two minutes away from Le Grenier a Pain (don’t click link if you are hungry).
Walking into the shop, the breads and pastries are the stars on display. Unlike the day before, we did not need to don protective clothing. We walked into the very small area in back to meet the baker and watch his process. The room was compact to say the least and felt like it was enveloped in flour. Baskets of bread sat on the floor taunting me throughout the demonstration. The baker was young and spoke only French which was translated by our guide. He explained each of the steps with the dough as it went through the process from dough to portions to rolled out baguettes ready to go in the oven. The oven to cook the baguettes is set at two different temperatures – a bottom temperature and a steam surround temperature – this gives it the crunchy bottom and the softer middle with a slight crunch on top.
We would learn the French take their baguettes quite seriously as there are baguettes laws! A baguette can only be made with wheat flour, water, salt, yeast and must weight 250 grams (8.8 ounces). The number of slits on top is up to the baker – here he does five when he makes the traditional baguette.
We were each allowed to use the razor to put slits in the dough (a bit harder than it looks) for our baguettes. We would let the bread bake and proceed to the basement pastry kitchen. The older building has a very narrow circular stairway that leads you to the work space of the three pastry chefs. We met the head pastry chef as he was working on pain au chocolat and croissants but not before passing the butter at one station!
He also spoke French that was easily translated for us. After explaining how the dough is made for croissants, he was rolling out the dough and cutting to specific strips for chocolate croissants and placing a stick of bakers chocolate inside each.
Moving along, he then rolled out the croissants. He makes 150 croissants each day which is a lot when you figure there are so many bakeries in the neighborhoods and everyone sells essentially the same products albeit each with a different taste. I waited for the important fact that I had read about croissants and bingo! The guide must have read my mind when she translated the chef “Croissants made with butter are straight, while croissants made with margarine are curved”. You can taste the difference and see the consistency change when a croissant is butter vs one made with margarine.
We then spoke with the pastry chef working on the cakes, she was an artist with each creation. We learned that the four corners cake she was working on is 25% sugar, 25% egg, 25% flour and 25% butter (and you can add fruit if you want). We were given samples of two cakes she was working on. The smaller four corners cake was simple and tasty!
The finished creations in the pastry kitchen, only a portion of what wonderful creations were in the front store for sale. I’m already a bread and dessert addict and being on this tour fed my addiction quite nicely.
With our visit downstairs complete, we ascended the stairs to retrieve our baguettes (the ones that we put slits in). Fresh from the oven, we were each presented with the gift of bread and also given a croissant. Wanting to dig right in, the guide said to wait a while as hot bread will cause a “tummy ache”. So my niece and I left the boulangerie with our baguettes and croissants and headed to the metro happy with carbs in hand. My dad may no longer be with us, but am sure he was smiling that the bread gene in our family continues with my niece.