Rise and Shine in Paris
On the heels of the world’s best bakers, and our own Madeline, in the City of Light
By John H. Ostdick
All photos copyright 2012 The Write House: John H. Ostdick
Ever since Le Cordon Bleu degreed my wife Michelle as a Pastry Chef, everything in our life seems touched by a dusting of flour — even our suitcases. At times, her flour-tossed journey is the driving force for new adventures.
Pursuing that muse is part of the reason we step into a chilly Paris in March with some of the best bakers in the world. Every four years, the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, the World Cup of Baking, the Flour Olympics, if you will, invades the City of Light in conjunction with Europain, the world’s largest baking trade show.
We’ve actually got a two-part mission on this trip: to explore the wonders of the Coupe du Monde, and to experience Paris through our collegiate daughter’s study-abroad eyes — or at least a laundered version of that perspective.
We have arranged, through the help of an ex-pat who was a childhood friend of the Pastry Chef, to rent a lovely flat on rue Benjamin Franklin in the 16th arrondissement, not too far from the Eiffel Tower. Our landlord Joe, an outgoing ex-pat originally from Louisiana, meets us and steps us through how everything in the third-floor flat works. The ex-Marine, who lived in the space before moving with his partner to the suburbs, is one of many Parisians who rent out living space year round (www.airbnb.com).
Soon we are standing in line at the best boulangerie in the neighborhood, Desgranges on Passy, ordering ham sandwiches with Gruyere and clumsily dropping our Euro coin payment in an automated teller machine. (Our daughter’s firm instructions for proper boulangerie protocol: Offer a “bonjour” greeting but try no further conversation, because the bakers are too busy for further pleasantries; the consistent long lines are testimony to that fact.) We pop into LeCave, which has dust-blanketed bottles of wine and spirits in its windows — including several with snakes inside them — and purchase some wine to take to dinner with friends later in the week.
For the trip, I come armed with a few crucial phrases, such as, “Oui, cher,” the essential spousal travel concession, “Yes, dear.” I am not versed in the language, and don’t really try outside a few perfunctory phrases despite being repeatedly asked for directions within the city by non-Parisian Frenchmen.
The Pastry Chef proceeds gamely, but trying to speak understandable French in Paris is challenging, as Parisians have their own unique dialect that is difficult to mimic, and they disdain the slightest mangling of their language. Several months into her Parisian study abroad program, our daughter Madeline is still struggling with this inevitable challenge. Most often, Parisians seem to prefer an awkward conversation in broken English rather than hear a visitor soil their language.
Stepping into a Sensory Overload
John, the Pastry Chef’s ex-pat local friend, mentions that he needs to make a trip to a garden center, so he volunteers to ferry us for our first foray to the opening Sunday of the Europain Trade Show, of which the Coupe du Monde is part. His errand plans are scuttled on the way to the Paris Nord Villepinte Convention & Exhibition Center, outside of Paris near Charles de Gaulle Airport, when he realizes the route to the garden center is snarled by traffic from a futball match at the 80,000-capacity Stade de France. Nonetheless, he supplies all kinds of local information as he delivers us to the Europain site and continues on his merry way.
During this eighth World Cup competition, 12 teams (from France, the United States, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, The Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Poland, Peru, Senegal, and Costa Rica) perform at the highest levels over three days. The Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie — created in 1992 by Christian Vabret, who carries the title of best bakery craftsman in France — seeks to develop the quality of bread worldwide and to promote the baking profession.
Each team comprises three members, and each person specializes in one of the major Coupe du Monde categories: Baguettes & Specialty Breads, Artistic Design, and Viennoiserie (Pastries). Collectively, the teams also must produce a sandwich presentation for a fourth category, Savory Selection. The criteria for these categories include bread sculpture, number of pieces, completion time, volume, weight and an assessment of both individual output and teamwork. But those measures are objective. The great determining factors are texture, consistency, finish, overall harmony and final taste. Teams are evaluated by international judging committees on the basis of individual excellence in artisan baking, as well as on teamwork and time management.
The exhibition hall housing the competition and trade show is enormous, and buzzing. As far as the eye can see, display cases of patisserie, chocolate, ice cream, candies, breads and the machinery that produces them stretch out before us, catching us unprepared to soak it all in. We pass enormous mixers, sheeters, machines that control portions and row after row of brilliant-colored packaging options. (The French adore their color spectrum.)
At one end of the hall, cheering crowds on a grandstand watch the teams of Peru, France, and Italy preparing their entries. The Peru contingent is surprisingly large, dressed in red PERU-emblazoned t-shirts and chanting loudly.
Away from the competition, we explore the rows and rows of confectionary sculptures, breads, and industry tools of all iterations. My Pastry Chef spots a yellow lame in a display case — a French razor blade used to score bread — and vows to find out where she can buy one.
The Pastry Chef disappears into a maelstrom of visitors jostling through a pop-up product booth in search of silicone baking molds that are hard to find in the States. She stands patiently in a cramped, snaking line with other fanatics to grab a few molds shaped like spheres, sunflowers, and Madeleine shells (nearby are polycarbonate molds for shaping chocolates). She also nets a grape mold but makes herself put back a 3D mold of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, she emerges unscathed, happily swinging the plastic bag bearing her haul.
With her hands loaded down with pamphlets in French she can’t really decipher but wants to keep for visual ideas, the Pastry Chef wanders along pathways of macaron towers in every color — pistachio to saffron — and chocolate in shapes that defy words: pyramids, hexagons, and other geometry. She makes note of the chefs edging by her in their gorgeous coats of many colors, from countries far and wide, their toques sitting jauntily atop their heads like sultans’ headgear. She envies the embroidery of their logos.
From one booth to the next, manufacturers and vendors are wooing clients with champagne and chocolates. Obviously, sugar and flour are big business, but nothing quite drives that notion home like the scope of this show. According to the Europain 2012 official summary, by the end of the four-day event 82,690 visitors from 143 countries (a little more than 70 percent are French) enter the exhibition hall. Almost 800 exhibitors hawk their wares. The throng includes 265 media representatives (54 percent were from abroad).
If the saying is true that one “eats with the eyes first,” we quickly overindulge by merely walking through the presentations, not even scratching the surface of the bread displays or the bread sculpting that is now in full swing at the Coupe baking stations. Under such visual bombardment, we experience a deepening hysteria that comes from seeing too much, too fast, and not being able to enjoy each visual treat. We force ourselves to stop snatching sweets from the sample trays.
And so we retreat, planning to return the next day with more caffeine to bolster our resolve to see and sample it all. We find the RER rail system station nearby, and flee back to our little apartment to recover.
Paris, Without the Straight Lines
We meet Madeline (yes, she was repeatedly read the Paris-based Madeline books as a child) after classes at New York University’s Paris campus. She’s dressed in leather jacket, dark slacks, blue blouse with white rounded collar, and Doc Martens (her hair has adopted a red tint). We wander through the Tower plaza, with its constant buzz of adjacent traffic in the streets and people shuffling along the grounds. Like many imposing natural and manmade creations — Mount Hood and the former New York Twin Towers come to mind — the Tour Eiffel serves as a familiar anchor and comfortable point of geographical reference.
This pre-spring Paris day is chilly and gray, but the conditions lend their own Old World charm to the city. We across the Seine, dropping into an outpost of the famous French bakery Poilâne, not far from Madeline’s sixth-floor walkup on rue du Grenelle. We pop into a convenience store, where we buy some wine (“just about anything over $3 is good here,” our daughter advises) and stinky camembert cheeses.
Madeline’s room is situated directly above a boulangerie, and the aroma of freshly baked bread wafts about during the climb up. The accommodations are simple but perfect for her needs. An added perk: the top of Eiffel peaks over the top of the building across the courtyard, and at night it blinks at her through open shutters.
We drink and munch in her flat, choosing to ignore her sink full of dirty dishes. As darkness grows, we take our leave and stroll back along Grenelle across the Seine.
Although she is studying for exams, Madeline carves some time for us each day to share what she considers special about Paris: one day it’s a boulangerie lunch eaten on the colorful chairs by the central fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens (one of her favorite retreats); another day it’s a stroll past the strapping young men playing soccer on the fields adjacent to L’Hôtel national des Invalides, the incredible resting spot of Napoleon Bonaparte. He is buried like a nesting doll in a series of six caskets of various types (the final mahogany one is enormous). Originally, you could only look at it from a circular terrace from above, so visitors had to bow before the emperor to see it.
We alternate between footwork and subway, mother and daughter often pushing ahead while trading observations and insights. As we pass back before some athletic fields, Madeline sheepishly admits that she and her friends often will linger here watching the young men playing soccer (true to form, we pass six giggling young Asian women participating in that pastime).
Unlike the constant frenetic pace of New York, the ebb and flow of Paris changes noticeably throughout the day. Beyond the rush hours, its pace throttles back, and pedestrians — locals and tourists alike — piddle through the city’s narrow side streets. As much as she is enjoying her time here, Madeline admits that New York still owns her heart.
One of the times we cross the Grenelle bridge over the Seine, a shivering model, dressed in dance garb and ballerina flats, waits on a photographer taking light readings on a gray, overcast day. She shifts back and forth trying to warm herself as he disappears behind a light umbrella. They get hardly a notice from the traffic passing by. This is Paris, after all.
During our week here, we experience many “Paris” moments, including a tour of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artwork at the Musée Marmottan Monetan (the structure, which houses the largest collection of Claude Monet’s work in the world, was originally a hunting lodge for the Duke of Valmy), and an intimate fireside dinner at the flat of some ex-pat friends. Perhaps none was as special, however, as a brief respite we have upon leaving Le Bon Marché department store and getting caught in a light, cold shower that drives us inside the courtyard of a former medieval hotel turned holy place in the 7th arrondissement.
As we admire a lit statue in the courtyard, we notice a group of locals and a flock of blue-clad Daughters of Charity entering doors across the way. We open a chapel door and peer in, quickly moving back out quietly so as not to intrude on a pending service of some sort. Just then, one of the black-scarfed, blue-clad nuns fixes us through her big, black-framed glasses, and beckons with a wave for us to come inside. We follow her black, squeaky-wet shoes into the room, where 50 to 60 of her sisters are seated among a smattering of locals. The wet squeaks of the Daughters’ shoes are the only sounds audible over the soft murmuring in the chapel.
The sanctuary is gloriously lit in bright blue and white. It was consecrated in 1815 and dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. According to Daughters of Charity literature, as a young child St. Catherine Labouré (born Zoe Labouré) left her farming family in Burgundy after dreaming that St. Vincent-de-Paul told her “God has plans for you.”
In 1830, when she was 24, Labouré entered the Daughters of Charity Mother House on the Rue du Bac in Paris. Shortly thereafter, she changed her name to Catherine and soon reported three apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary that would lead to a popular new devotion throughout the Catholic Church (although she kept the particulars of the visions to herself until shortly before her death in 1876, and it wasn’t until 1947 that Pope Pius XII named her a saint).
One of these involved a design for what would become known as the “Miraculous Medal.” The apparition told Labouré that those who carry the medal would “receive special protection from the Mother of God and abundant graces.” The medal has been the source of many reported miracles in the years since.
Labouré’s body was remarkably preserved when it was exhumed in 1933. Her incorrupt body now lies somewhat spookily on display here inside a glass case. We dare not approach for a closer look, and after soaking in the quiet ambiance of chapel, depart very gingerly.
Peering into a Baker’s Lair
We arrange to meet some other U.S. breadheads for a back-door tour of the Boulangerie Abbesses in Montmartre. Outside it is so cold, we conjure up visions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Dick Diver, removing his fragile wife, Nicole, from the Paris damp in the 1920s. This is a chill that once in the bones cannot be coaxed out even by wearing a full-length mink, a scarf, or a beret. No amount of café grande might fix it.
Although the bakery does not seem to know of our coming, a soft-spoken baker agrees to walk us into a small room where dough is mixing in one giant batch. A shaping machine portions and elongates baguette shapes, and an oven with a conveyer belt moves the loaves into the gaping warmth that transforms them into award-winning beauties. Baguettes have a short shelf life — only about 4 hours for best flavor, so baguettes in the oven are headed to the front of the bakery for tonight’s Parisian dinners.
We watch the baker slash his baguettes quickly and almost effortlessly, never snagging the scoring lines. The Pastry Chef is feverishly taking notes, all shared via translation, from this quiet and determined baker, who represents generations of Parisian bread-making tradition.
When asked the secret to a great baguette (this particular boulangerie recently won an award for the best in Paris), the baker replies: “Respect for the dough and time. You can’t rush it.” Very little yeast is used in these doughs, but there is lots of attention to time and respect, resulting in a golden, brown, delicious beauty.
After the tour, we follow our noses out the back door and around to the front of the bakery, to stand in line as seems to be the case in every location where baguettes and macarons are sold in the City of Light. Stand in line, have your Euros ready, don’t chat with the staff.
Later, we learn that our informative tour paled in comparison to one that another group of bakers experienced this day — their baker wore only an apron, and nothing else, as he worked in his tiny, hot space.
The Competition Heats Up
When we return to Europain via the RER the next day, we are more prepared for the sensory onslaught.
This day, the USA team, comprising Harry Peemoeller, Jeremy Gadouas, and Mike Zakowski, see the culmination of three years of planning, competition, and baking practices pay off before family, friends, trade representatives, and the best of the world’s bakers. The team had arrived the week before the competition, and spent four days honing their work in Arras, 180 kilometers north of Paris.
By the time we arrive at about 10:30 a.m., the bakers have been engaged in the timed competition for almost six hours. They each toil in their individual area of their kitchen to occasional chants of “U-S-A” from the American contingent in the crowd — Zakowski, baguette and specialty breads, by the rear ovens; Gadouas, Viennoiserie (pastry), on the right; and Peemoeller, artistic design for the bread sculpture, front and center.
The activity is open to grandstand viewing, and a procession of photographers, videographers, judges, and staff buzz the area in front of the kitchen. The intoxicating aroma of baking dough wafts over the crowd.
During the allotted one-hour prep session the previous day, Gadouas had prepared two straight-doughs that are birthing his pastry items, three types of croissants and four types of brioches. Zakowski is using more than 200 pounds of dough to create a variety of goods, including the baguettes and specialty breads. Peemoeller’s artistic design piece, titled “Wild, Wild West,” is comprised of largely live dough (traditional bread sculpture is made of “pate morte” — dead dough).
Positions on the Bread Bakers Guild Team-sponsored team are open to any American who meets the competition qualifications. A team of up to nine bakers was originally selected, each specializing in one of 2012 Coupe’s three required categories. Peemoeller, Gadouas, and Zakowski qualified to be the USA entry by winning the Louis Lesaffre Cup competition in Las Vegas in 2010. The first of nine official team practices at different venues was held in August 2011 at the French Pastry School in Chicago. Various former Coupe participants and high-level U.S. chefs offered advice and critiques throughout the process.
Peemoeller, senior baking instructor at Johnson & Wales University’s Charlotte, North Carolina campus, creates a centerpiece that is 40 inches high by 40 inches wide by 40 inches deep, its individually baked components weighing in at close to 100 pounds. Zakowski, a bit of a free spirit, brings much of his ingredients from his base in Sonoma, California: His bread “was a 75 percent stone-milled California wheat called Yecora Rojo, a hard, red winter wheat that’s an heirloom varietal. And then it had millet and toasted sunflower seeds.” Gadouas, who works at Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston, Illinois, originally tried out for the baguettes and specialty breads role on the team, but didn’t make the cut. Instead, he was offered a chance to try out for the Viennoiserie category. “So I started practicing and the more I did, the more I enjoyed it,” he says.
Watching the imaginative creations come to form is curious theater. An elaborate can-can dancer (Team France), Vespa scooter (Team Italy), and a runaway mine train (Team USA) slowly take form on the presentation space at the front of the kitchens. The atmosphere is electric at times, with supporters of each team chanting and cheering their bakers on.
When it’s all over, Team USA places second behind Japan, and ahead of third place Taiwan in an intensely tight competition. Although scoring is not released when the winners are announced, judges report that only 4.98 points (out of 600) separate the top two finishers. The 2012 Coupe marks the first time in the competition that no European team finishes in the top tier.
On a rainy evening after the completion of 2012 Coupe, more than 140 Bakers Guild members and guests trade stories in the Grand Salon of the Hotel d’Aubusson on the Left Bank. Team USA members are toasted before a roaring fire.
“I wasn’t nervous at all until the time started getting close,” Peemoeller says between guest congratulations. “Our work was good, and we had to finish on time. After all, I didn’t want the French to say all we Americans can do is make hamburgers [smiling broadly].”
As we make our way into the evening rain, we recount Sabrina’s (Aubrey Hepburn version, no remake for us) advice to Linus (Humphrey Bogart) in the movie Sabrina: “This is what you do on your very first day in Paris. You get yourself, not a drizzle, but some honest-to-goodness rain, and you find yourself someone really nice and drive her through the Bois de Boulogne in a taxi. The rain’s very important. That’s when Paris smells its sweetest — it’s the damp chestnut trees.”
Of course, we would add the aroma of freshly baked bread as critical to the complete Parisian experience. To turn a Bogart line from another classic: We’ll always have that in Paris.
The Pastry Chef, Michelle Medley, contributed to this report.
About the Bakers Guild
The Bread Bakers Guild includes 1,400 members, both in the States and worldwide, among its ranks. The non-profit alliance of professional bakers, farmers, millers, suppliers, educators, students, home bakers, technical experts, and bakery owners and employees was founded in 1993.
The preliminary application and selection process for 2016 Team USA will begin in 2014.
For more information, visit www.bbga.org.
A Documentary in the Baking
Sonoma County filmmaker Colin Blackshear attended the World Cup of
Baking and is working on a documentary film about the process.
For more information, go to Mike Zakowski’s website, thebejkr.com.