Monday, April 28, 2008

Bread of Fantasy

La quête du pain peut même être appréhendée comme le catalyseur de la grande histoire des hommes.

The search for bread may well be considered the catalyst of the history of man.

Le Pain Poilane, considered Paris’ “best bread” (which is one out-of-this-world distinction, really) takes itself very seriously, as you can see from this quote on the brochure that comes with your order there. But then, I take bread seriously, too. I’d choose a perfectly crusty baguette, a hearty brown pain de campagne or a traditional pain au levain over any decadent dessert or rare delicacy you could dream up to offer. Before the trip, I’d searched for some place where I could learn how to bake the good stuff, but it seemed that most cooking schools would rather teach how to roast a duck or prepare mousse au chocolat. I came to realize that, in France, bread is thought best left up to those bakers for whom it has been a life-long métier. So I opted for the much easier post as bread-taster and made an un-scientific study of the best boulangeries in the city.

Poilane is the only bread in Paris distinguished by its brand in the restaurants it supplies. Bistros and brasseries boast “Nous servons du pain Poilane” in their windows, and for good reason. Once at 7am and again at 4pm, a line forms outside the Left Bank bakery as they bring fresh loaves out of the oven and customers salivate in unison. Getting bread there, as I did one weekday afternoon, is choosing a diamond or deciding on a child to adopt; it’s that weighty. I wasn’t allowed to serve myself at all, but was assisted by a bread technician who spoke in one long string of descriptions of grain type, fermentation methods, baking temperatures, chewiness, density, flavor. I left with way more bread than one girl can eat, with loaves in a rainbow of colors and the most delicious scent wafting around me. I discovered that the best way to lighten one's load of bread is to share it with the homeless. It's more delicious than centimes and it makes everyone feel good.

And the thing about good bread is, it would be a crime to spoil it with anything other than pure butter. In France, this is a given. There’s an accept-no-imitation dogma that runs deep. PAUL Bakeries, the chain that produces what I’d consider the second best bread and the tastiest croissants, advertises Patisseries pur beurre, Pains de Fantasie! After just finishing Michael Pollen’s awesome treatise against the offenses of industrial food processes, I cringe to think of the enthusiasm over calorie-less “I can’t believe it’s not butter” spray. Putting it on Poilane bread would be like pouring paint thinner on a Picasso – unthinkable.