For those of you that have exchanged the bread recipe that I love so much, you know the magic behind the recipe is just four simple ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt. Oh, you can jazz it up with different flours or turn it into lemon thyme bread (which is quite delicious). But the simple truth is this: the simpler, the better. (And if you don’t have the bread recipe, I will share it. It will be difficult to buy any more packaged bread after this.)
I had this simple truth confirmed this morning when I had the pleasure of meeting Claude Esnault, the proprietor of the oldest boulangerie-patisserie in Paris, Au Grand Richelieu. This boulangerie has been making baguettes since 1810 (Napoleon’s time). In fact, it was Napoleon’s government that created the very regimented guidelines around making the baguette, with many of these rules still in place today. For instance, a baguette must be 250 grams (no less). There are inspectors that regularly make stops throughout Paris. A boulanger must go through the government to receive vacation time in order to make sure there is another boulanger within a certain distance that will be open. And, yes, the baguette can only be made with flour, water, yeast and salt.
Monsieur Esnault walked us through the process (his French was slow and understandable…but we had a translator along as well) of how he makes 400 baguettes each day. This takes place on the main flour. Down below, they are making 200 croissants, 150 pains au chocolat and a variety of other pastries.
Some of my favorite nuggets of wisdom:
- You can not use the word artisan, boulangerie or patisserie unless everything is prepared at that location.
- Only two ingredients are added to the four (flour, water, yeast and salt) to make a croissant. Can you name them?
- The chocolate used in a pain au chocolat is not sold to the public and can only be made for boulangers. It contains 72% cocoa and gluten which helps it keep its shape versus melting all over when the dough is baking.
- You want to purchase a croissant that is straight and not curved like a crescent. The crescent-shaped croissants are made with margarine, not butter.
- The crescent shape comes from the crescent on the flag of Turkey when Turkey invaded Austria. Then Marie Antoinette moved to France and brought a baker with her. Hence, the beginning of the croissant in France.
- For fans of Julie Trusler’s rolls, the butter in a croissant is added just like you do for Julie’s rolls: roll out the dough, smear on a layer of butter, fold the dough over and roll it again. This happens three times before they are cut into their signature triangle shape.
- The markings on a baguette used to be the signature of the baker. It is not a practice maintained as much anymore.
- You cannot purchase, own or run a boulangerie until you have completed seven years of education: four as an apprentice, two as an assistant and two as the head baker. Yes, this is the same length of time you go to school to be a physician. They take their bread seriously!
- The wheat is different every year based on the weather. The more rain, the less water is used in the recipe because the wheat has more moisture already. In addition, he tweaks his recipe every day based on the weather that day. Humidity, again, requires less water. He says he still learns something every day and has been a baker since he was 14.
My happiest moment was when he shared that he loves what he does. He sees people come in, grumbling about what they have to do that day or something that happened the night before. And he watches their face turn as they reach for their freshly baked item. What is not to love about something so, well, simple?
Upcoming visitors to Paris be warned: I may have to whisk you away to this new favorite place.