Seeing Paris, baguette by baguette
By SARAH WILDMAN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: June 24, 2019
I am in love with the art and heritage of French bread.
Fortunately I’m not alone. Each year one chef is chosen in the Grand Prix de la Baguette de tradition francaise, an accolade bestowed each April for the past 25 years. The winner goes to a handcrafted baguette that beats out dozens of entrants from across Paris and tops a list of 10 finalists; all compete for a cash prize of 4,000 euros ($4,900) and -- most importantly -- mass recognition for superior artisanal baking. All 10 are then permitted to emboss a gold laurel on their shop window emblazoned with the year of award and their ranking.
That gold stamp means each year’s list of winners provides an unusual guide to the city, a path toward walking Paris with an eye to the best, most iconic, crispiest baguettes imaginable. It offers travelers a key to the city and a tasting menu of one of the anchors of every French table.
Over four chilly days in March, my partner, Ian, and I embarked on a journey of gluten. A mission of carbohydrates. A 96-hour tasting marathon. We ate as many of the award-winning baguettes as we could. Baguettes studded with seeds. Baguettes that are simply traditional. Baguettes sliced in half and stuffed with tuna. Baguettes adorned with brie, arugula and pears. I ate them with jam. With goat cheese. With butter. With salt. With nothing.
We walked 12 miles one day, 10 another. We saw Paris anew and witnessed how the local boulangerie-patisserie still marks each arrondissement. Once or twice I cheated, diverting to eat the wheaty country loaves at the Poilane bakery in the sixth and tasting the exquisite croissants at Maison Plisson in the third.
But mostly I ate baguettes, dropping crumbs in my scarf and noshing as I strolled. It was our first major trip away from our children; we wanted to make the most of it.
Beyond the Eiffel Tower, or the kissing couples on bridges across the Seine, the Louvre, the Pompidou, the Tuileries, the beloved, beleaguered Notre Dame -- there is one image that, for me, has always symbolized Parisian life: the early morning and midday line out the door of a boulangerie. It is a time-honored wait for a baguette, typically endured next to a row of perfect pastries behind a glass case.
That line is democratizing - in it you’ll find students and besuited office-goers, workers in painters’ overalls, proper matrons with purses that click shut and coats that nip in at the waist, tourists and shopkeepers. Each patron hands over 1.10 to 1.30 euros (about $1.25 to $1.50) for a baguette.
The Prix de la Baguette comes with an honor that bestows more work, that being 12 months of baking for the Elysee Palace in Paris, the home of the French president. Prize-winning loaves are judged on a crispy crust with just the right amount of crumb and strict adherence to French rules for the perfect baguette: an exact amount of flour, yeast, water and salt. No other ingredients. They must be baked in the same place where they are sold.
On day one of my carb-heavy adventure, I went to three recent prize winners and finalists in the Marais: Ernest & Valentin above the Arts et Metiers metro stop in the third arrondissement, where you can watch bakers turn out baguettes in real time through a picture window and pick up a gravlax sandwich on seeded-baguette or a brie-arugula-pear combo on traditional. I tried a plain baguette at Maison Hubert Rambuteau on Rue Rambuteau, a block from the Pompidou, and glanced through the windows of one of my go-to favorites, Au Petit Versailles du Marais on Rue Francois Miron near the St. Paul metro in the fourth, with its gorgeously painted beaux-arts interior. The last boasts a space to sit and eat a tart with a cup of tea. The line for the tradition can be long, but I have happily waited to pick up a baguette there many times.
On Day 2, Ian and I headed to the Luxembourg Gardens, wandering through the not-quite-yet-green manicured spaces, encircling the pond and back out again to try the patisserie Maison Decorde on Rue Gay-Lussac in the fifth arrondissement. There, we ran into a massive demonstration: the children’s global day of action on climate change that was happening simultaneously around the globe. A professor standing to the side told me these strikes had been taking place for weeks in Paris.
I worried about my carbon footprint in my search of baguettes. I felt guilty about not bringing my children. And then I kept eating.
I began to see the laurels everywhere, aided by websites such as La Cuisine Paris, which maps them all out. In the 18th there was Au Duc de la Chapelle, where Chef Anis Bouabsa made a recent second appearance on the list of best baguettes. Chefs can compete more than once but must wait four years after a first-place win.
After 24 years of the competition, there are winners to be found in almost every arrondissement. (The 2019 winner, named after we left town, is Fabrice Leroy, of the 12th.)
Chefs will tell me you shouldn’t eat a hot baguette, that the true taste emerges when it cools, but I have always loved them direct from the oven. In 15 odd years of coming to Paris for work, one of my most memorable baguettes was at the Boulangerie Aux Delices de Glaciere on Boulevard Auguste Blanqui, near the offices of Le Monde newspaper. It was during the French elections - I was on my way to dinner with a friend; we shouldn’t have been snacking. But we were urged by the woman behind the counter to wait a moment. When she beckoned us back, the baguette we purchased poured with steam as we broke it open. We sat at an outside table and ate it at once. The chef there - Khemoussi Mansour - won second prize in the baguette competition in 2017. At the time, I didn’t know to look for the laurel.
If one thing stands out about the competition in the past several years, it’s that the prizewinning chefs often have names that reflect a Paris of diverse origins, from North Africa to Japan. They are the bakers, the early risers.
The 2018 champion, Mahmoud M’Seddi, a 28-year-old Parisian-born baker of Tunisian descent, told me that winning the competition "changed my life."
"Before, I was an ordinary baker," he continued in French. "Now I’m an ambassador of bread." After his win, newspaper and television journalists from around the world came to interview him. He has three patisseries, and they are spread out -- one on Boulevard Raspail in the 14th arrondissement and a stone’s throw from the Fondation Cartier, a soaring Jean Nouvel-designed mecca of modern art, made of glass and surrounded by gardens; the other two are in the 13th arrondissement.
I visited all three. We met on my second trip to a M’Seddi boulangerie, on Rue de Tolbiac. Upon arrival he insisted Ian take a pistachio cake, as part of house hospitality. He was enormously cheerful, playing us videos of his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.
M’Seddi is also worried: He is concerned that French shoppers will be drawn to the convenience of baguettes for sale at supermarket chains -- the Monoprix, Carrefour, Franprix.
But so far, these laurels keep both Parisians and tourists alike coming into his shop and those of his fellow, ahem, bread winners.