French Stick to the French Stick, but the Good One

“Mrs Barillon, is the boss awake?” the saleswoman asks in the bakery’s back shop. It is 10:30 am, and the warm smell of croissants does not disturb Pascal Barillon’s sleep at the second floor of this Montmartre building. The 2011 prize-winner for the best Parisian baguette is currently recovering from his early shift which started at 2:30 am.

“The secret of an excellent baguette is time,” Pascal Barillon explains, once awake. “I want at least six or seven hours to go by between the time my employees and I make the dough and the time it comes out of the oven. That’s why we start so early.”

The perfect aeration

A secret that might have made the difference for the jurors of the annual Contest of the best baguette, created 17 years ago by the then-mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac. This very serious competition does not deal with anything else than a mere French stick. Or does it? The only bread in competition is the baguette “tradition”, not the white baguette —“the bad one,” according to one of the saleswomen at Mr Barillon’s bakery.

“Baguettes in Paris are way better now than they were before the Contest,” Jacques Mabille recalls. As president of the Professional Chamber of Bakery, he sits on the jury every year and can instantly tell the difference between two baguettes, considering the aspect, baking, the airy texture of the interior, the smell and taste.

For Pascal Barillon, these subtleties depend on every baker’s personal touch: “If you give the same flour to ten different bakers, you’ll end up with ten completely different baguettes.” Beyond the quality of ingredients, almost everything depends on the technique. For instance, Mr Barillon chooses to restrict dough-mixing as much as possible so that the bread is “not too aerated”. “We have to compensate with longer rest periods, that’s why the whole process takes so long,” he says while a young apprentice puts a series of uncooked sticks in an oven so wide that it barely fits in the tiny back shop.

Best baguette in the world?

It is more difficult to decide between the ten first baguettes of the Contest. All of them are excellent, though different. The jury then proceeds to subtler arguments, just like wine tasters. As of Pascal Barillon’s baguette, “It’s sweet, generous in the mouth, with a fine crust and a distinctive smell.” “And it’s best out of the oven with some slightly salted butter,” he says with sparkling eyes. The French President can check it by himself, since the annual prize-winner gets to deliver the Élysée about twenty baguettes every morning.

Nothing compared to the expected 30 to 50 percent increase of sales, mostly due to tourists. “The baguette is one of the most typical attributes of the French. Foreigners consider the best baguette in Paris as the best in the world: they don’t want to leave without taking a bite,” Jacques Mabille analyzes.

There is not one best baguette, though. Every day is different. “You cannot imagine how much weather and humidity have an influence on bread,” Pascal Barillon insists. “We have to adjust parameters such as rest, temperature or the duration of dough-mixing to remain as consistent as possible,” he says, pointing at the stainless steel machines around him.

“But I’m not complaining, after all this is what our job is about. Being a good baker is not just mixing flour and water.”

Photo: Pascal Barillon (DR)

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