Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The pain of being French


Before you worry, this isn't existential blog about being or a treatise to masochism, but instead is a much happier pean to the French love of baking following my recent trip to Paris. I mean, you could self-flagellate with a baguette, but think of the crumbs...

As we were staying up in the dizzy heights of Montmartre, it meant a daily morning stroll through the cemetery to  Gontran Cherrier's Rue Caulaincourt bakery for a spot of petit dejeuner.

Known for his fusion of East and West, here you'll find baguettes flavoured with squid ink (encre de seiche!- TE) - very nice with goats cheese and fig jam - quiche with kimchi and bread flavoured with red miso and curry and scones with bitter matcha and nuggets of white chocolate.

Thankfully there are also all the classics, including these beautiful Croissants aux amandes. While procuring an almond croissant back across the Channel is often a hard ask - I still remember being envious of a friend whose mum used to buy him one every week from Waitrose, the only place you could find them, when we were growing up - and finding a good one is nigh on impossible.

Sadly for me, given my love for frangipane-stuffed flaky dough, after being spoilt by these almost perfect specimens (see my attempt at *nearly* symmetry breakfast, the lure of a warm buttery pastry being just too strong) the task is now going to be even more difficult.

Another Gallic classic is the custard slice, or as the French more evocatively call it mille-feuille, due to the layers of puff pastry that should resemble a 'thousand leaves'. Although I will make no apologies for secretly enjoying the brick-like version you find in english bakers; the biscuit-y pastry sandwiching a wedge of cornflour thickened bright yellow 'creme anglais'; but I was also looking forward to trying something a little more refined.

And there are reportedly none better than those made by Jaques Genin in his bakery in the Marais. So keen is he to preserve perfection, he will no longer make individual patisserie to go (sharing pastries can still be made to order), lest the fragile puds should shatter in transit. 

I can't say I blame him, there aren't many things sadder than a squashed cake. Thankfully our example was both crisp and creamy and quite magnifique. The chocolat chaud, served in a huge coffee pot and accompanied by a plate of chocolate truffles, was also exceptional. Get one to share, even the Ewing was feeling like Augustus Gloop by the second cup. 

 We also ordered the pate fruits, of the selection of nine different flavours they bought to the table, which the Ewing carefully cut in half with the skills of a surgeon, I most enjoyed the pineapple and kiwi (of which I should have probably refrained, being as I'm allergic it made my throat itch alarmingly for a few minutes after eating it - such a drama queen- TE) while the lychee was as unpleasant as the real life fruit but had the advantage of not having a texture of an eyeball.

I'm going to say something controversial now; I didn't really like the pate fruits. Yes, they looked wonderful, glittering like jellied jewels, but I found them too sweet and missing the zing of fresh fruit. I may be a heathen, but give me a box of black and green fruit pastilles, preferably the ones shaped like little pieces of fruit, and I'd be very happy.

His lauded butter caramels were far more to my taste, but at 110 Euros a kilogram (the bag above was nearly 12 Euros, making them a Euro a piece) they should have been good.

For me, these were candied perfection; the fruit flavours (raspberry and blackcurrant) were gloriously intense, the gingerbread sweet and spicy and the chocolate bitter with smoky undertones. None, however, could beat the simplicity of the natural caramel. A buttery lozenge of burnt sugar joy.

After arriving a little early for our lunch reservation at a nearby bistro it seemed like as good an opportunity as any to pick up a pink praline brioche and a noisette (the French macchiato) to go from Maison Kayser (Paris by Mouth rate also their baguettes as number one in the city, but even we had to stop eating breakfast at some point so we had time to fit in lunch, so just stuck with the one bun).

The feted brioche with pink praline - small sugar coated almonds from Lyon - looked pretty innocuous compared to all the other elaborate cakes and pastries; kinda like a bread roll sprinkled with a bit of fancy sugar. Thankfully looks can be deceptive, with the sweet buttery dough giving way to a centre studded with nutty nuggets of praline that had melted into a syrupy deliciousness. 

Possibly the most French moment of a trip that included eating steak frites in a bistros with red checked tablecloths, and dodging dog shit on Parisian pavements, was seeing the queue for baguettes at Le Grenier a Pain on Sunday morning. 

And with good reason, the baguettes from their Rue Abbesses - seen at the top of the blog - have won baker Djibril Bodian First Prize in the 2015 Grand Prix de la Baguette, awarded for the best baguette in Paris, for the second time in five years and allowing the holder the honour of baking for the president.

Thanks to the government, proving (see what I did there) the state can have a hand in good things, the 1993 “French bread law” states that “baguettes de tradition” must be mixed, kneaded, leavened and baked on premises, without ever being frozen. and must only include wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. One of the reasons that the humble french stick is often so good, although, having been spoilt with the best, it made the other loaves we tried seem a bit ordinary in comparison.

Our trip was also remarkable as it was the first time the Ewing had tried (or even heard of) the kouign amann, a Breton cake that found fame in last year's Great British Bake off after appearing in the technical round and now seems to regularly fill my Twitter feed.

Problems with the pronunciation aside this yeasted cake (more like a flatter danish here), crisp on top and soaked in syrup beneath,  became possibly her favourite bake of the whole trip. The croissant I chose was also pretty great, even if I did manage to sit on it on the Metro ride to the Bastille Market.

It would be terribly remiss to have a post on French fancies and not to mention the macaron. The last time I came here, on our honeymoon, they were all the rage and I manage to write a whole blog post about them, consumed in a cloud of love and refined carbs.

Sad to say, I haven't eaten many since, so I was pretty happy to find Pierre Hermes Rue Cambon store open on a Sunday afternoon (especially as pretty much nothing else in the vicinity was and, after hours of traipsing about, sugar levels were getting low... 

I'd forgotten just how wonderful these are; the quintessential flavour of Paris. Even the woman appearing and attempting the famous wedding ring scam while we were waiting outside couldn't take away from the transcendental majesty of these little delicate discs of joy.

The favourites from my bijou selection were the milk chocolate ganache with passionfruit puree and the matcha and sesame. The liquorice and blackcurrant looked suitably menacing but lacked the bold flavour to match. They also offer giant macaron, a steal at five Euros, of which the creme brulee flavour found favour with the Ewing.

Another regular contender for the best baguettes in Paris is Arnaud Delmontel, whose Rue des Martyrs branch we conveniently passed (COMPLETELY PLANNED - TE) on our walk own the hill into the city centre.

Winner of the best French stick in 2007, he also makes an array of different bread, viennoiserie and cakes. Even though it was breakfast time, the Ewing couldn't resist the lure of a glossy eclair, choosing coffee over chocolate to try and justify it as suitable morning fare.

Understanding the importance of my five a day, I chose the pain aux raisin, a childhood classic I haven't had for many years - well not the 'proper' sort with a flaky croissant dough. This was quite wonderful; crisp layers of pastry layered with a sweet vanilla custard and flecked with dried fruit.

It's difficult to visit Paris without making time for their famous Brest, and I had heard some of the best were to be found at La Pâtisserie des Rêves. Meaning as the 'pastries of dreams' (although their website offers a more worrying translation as the 'taste of children') it was founded by pastry chef Philippe Conticini, to use baking to bring back Proust-like, the memories of youth.

Growing up in England, my memories centre around prosaic (although no less tasty) things such as bread pudding and iced buns, but here in France, home of fine patisserie, des Rêves reinvent far more glamorous classics such as the Saint-Honoré, the Mont Blanc, and the Paris Brest, named for the famous cycle race between the two cities and shaped rather like a bicycle wheel.

Comprising a ring of choux stuffed with hazelnut praline cream, the PB could be one of my favourite flavour combinations and here it is a masterful marriage of ethereal pastry, buttery rich cream and the crunch from the sugared nuts. As it was our first anniversary (four years after we got married, the advantage/disadvantage of a Leap Day wedding), a glass of pink fizz seemed the most appropriate accompaniment. A pairing I'd be very happy to get used to.

Chocoholic, the Ewing had the chocolate eclair, a chocolate flavoured, creme pat-stuffed puffy tube of choux dough that's caramelised with a hazelnut struesel topping before being wrapped in a further shell of chocolate. I'm sure I don't need to tell you how well this was received and, although I was sceptical that the bells and whistles would improve what is already a stone cold classic in my eyes, I can confirm from my (tiny) bite that it was worth the plaudits.

Last day in the City of Love bought rain, but it would have taken a deluge to stop me getting to du Pain et des Idees. Despite the wonderfully old school frontage, windows piled high with fresh bread and cakes, that make you feel like you've been transported back in in history, the bakery only opened in 2002. Since then they have making up for lost time, with head baker, Christophe Vasseur, being was named best boulanger in Paris in 2008.

L'escargot chocolat pistache, with it's garish green go faster stripe of nut paste and studded through with chocolate chunks, was the best snail I have ever eaten (for the real thing see our lunch at Pied du Cochon, where they still managed to be one of the most pleasant things we ate).

As good as it was the pain choc banane may be even better, taking the humble croissant and ramping it up with an ingot of dark chocolate and the addition of fresh banana. Our mini-pave - a sort of small, square roll - stuffed with reblochon cheese and lardons, was also outstanding.

The last stop on route to Garde du Nord was supposed to be Grenier au Pain, for a final kouign amann. Sadly we arrived to find it shuttered - a perilous risk in France, with their random opening hours and strange holidays. Happily Coquelicot is pretty much next door.

The Ewing, who had been practicing her pronunciation all week by watching You Tube videos, successfully asked for the kouign amann. Puffier and less syrupy than the Grenier version, it was good but lacked the former's wow factor. 

I, being ever the hopeless romantic, chose the coeur framboise, or raspberry financier. An unusual choice, I'd normally go for something with chocolate or nuts, this almondy, squishy, perfumed little morsel with a sharp fruit kick ended up being one of my favourite morsels consumed on our visit and the perfect addition, along worth a little vin rouge, to our train picnic on the Eurostar back home.

I could ramble to some gluten-filled conclusion, but I think the picture says it all really; je t'aime French baking.

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