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Time to Rise: Learning the Secret of Paris Boulangeries

An amateur baker apprentices with a Paris boulanger and learns the secret of artisan bread

In Paris, the 9th arrondissement is popular, hip even, dotted with wine shops, boutiques, and boulangeries, but still has the close-knit feel of a residential neighborhood. The streets are lined with old apartment buildings that seem to lean onto the sidewalks. Inside intimate bistros on these quiet, narrow lanes, maître d’s chat with locals as they arrive. One Sunday afternoon last winter, when I visited, the streets were crowded with couples and families out for a leisurely stroll. By 3 a.m. the next day, however, Rue des Martyrs, a main artery in the district, was empty, the stores dark except for a slit of light coming out of the side entrance of the Boulangerie Arnaud Delmontel. Everyone was still asleep. Everyone, that is, except for the bakers—whose ranks I was about to join.

Over the centuries, how many bakers have walked Paris’s dark avenues at night, heading to the fournils—baking rooms—to provide the city’s daily bread? In the 18th and 19th centuries, les geindres (the groaners) began before midnight, each laboring over hundreds of pounds of dough that they kneaded by hand and baked in basement wood-fired ovens. The poorest slept by the hearth, inhaling flour and often suffering from tuberculosis. Yet many did their jobs superbly, faithful to the demanding task of coaxing bread out of levain, or sourdough—a process that took days. As I walked toward the bakery that morning, I felt as if I were following in the footsteps of ghosts.

As an avid home baker with a decade of experience slapping around dough, I had come to Paris to learn how to make a stellar baguette. I wanted one with a crisp crust, an uneven bubbly interior (called the crumb), and a distinctive flavor that would make my friends at home in Washington, D.C., ooh and aah. I figured Arnaud Delmontel was the one to teach me: A master baker, he had won the award for best baguette in Paris in 2007.

I also wanted to investigate a cultural question: Why had bread, which held a commanding place at the French table, crumbled into mediocrity in the decades following World War II? By the 1980s, it was an open secret in the baking trade that truly great French bread was a rarity, as speed and efficiency increasingly trumped the slow fermentation necessary for an outstanding loaf.

In 1987 a cultural critic writing in the French newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur proclaimed that the baguette had become “horribly disgusting.” It was “bloated, hollow, dead white,” he said. “Soggy or else stiff. Its crusts come off in sheets like diseased skin.” Renowned French baking professor Raymond Calvel mused that the best baguette might soon be made in Tokyo. What had brought this on? And how was quality bread revived in the 1990s? The answers to these questions lay in Paris, which is what brought me to the door of Boulangerie Arnaud Delmontel at three that morning last February.

When I arrived, head baker Thomas Chardon opened the door to the fournil and said, “Salut.” A wiry, energetic man of 26, he was covered in flour, his once-blue fleece now a snowy white. Pop music blared from a portable radio, and Chardon literally slid across the flour-specked floor to place a batch of baguettes on a couche, a linen cloth that supports the shape of the loaves as they undergo a final hour-long rise before baking. Heat radiated from the deck oven in the otherwise chilly room, and the toasty, faintly hazelnut-like aroma of baking bread filled the air.

I put my things away on a shelf and, using my pidgin French and lots of hand signals, started to assist Chardon. He motioned me over to a tub of bubbly, glutinous dough that he had just pulled out of a refrigerator. It had a sweet and faintly grassy aroma—the result of the luxurious 24-hour fermentation required for Delmontel’s signature baguette renaissance. We poured the mass into a mechanical divider that sliced it into small bricks. After a rest, we dropped the bricks into a shaper to form the baguettes. We rolled and stretched these preformed loaves and tucked them into the linen couche for the final rise before they went into the oven.

Next, we headed down a narrow stairwell into a tight basement kitchen where a half-dozen pâtissiers were busy making pastries and cakes. We slipped past them into a back room not much bigger than a closet and knocked out another two dozen or so hearty loaves leavened with stiff, mildly acidic levain and a pinch of yeast: big round boules with sesame seeds and flaxseeds, fig and walnut whole wheat breads, and cheese breads. Chardon guided me slowly in shaping the loaves, stretching the dough across the counter with my palm and nimbly tucking the sides of the dough under with my fingers. After several tries, I picked up the technique, and when the dough was ready, we moved it into the refrigerator for a daylong rise. I worked in slow motion compared with Chardon, who was like a machine that never stopped moving and never took a break.

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When I asked Chardon later that morning how he knew a sheaf of rising baguettes on a couche was done, he pointed to his eyes: It came down to a decade of observing. I studied a batch of loaves, poked the skin to feel the tension, and asked, “Finis?” I thought they were. He peered at them closely and replied, “Cinq minutes.” So we waited five minutes for the dough to relax, then placed the baguettes carefully onto a cloth-lined conveyer belt. I had the honor of making the five swift signature slashes on top of the loaves with the lame (a curved razor) and slid them into the 500°F oven.

We did these tasks repeatedly that first morning—shaping, rising, slashing, and baking perhaps 200 loaves, then mixing more dough for the following day. By 7 a.m. I still hadn’t had a cup of coffee. So Chardon dashed across the street and returned with a couple of cafés, which we sipped with hot croissants the pastry chefs had just pulled out of the oven downstairs. Now the latest batch of baguettes was baked: darkly spotted, crisp, and well caramelized here and there. When we removed them, the crusts crackled as they met the cooler air outside the oven. “Ils chantent,” Chardon said—they’re singing.

The baguette wasn’t always so melodic. Steven Kaplan, the world’s preeminent scholar of French bread, has made this clear in numerous articles, books, and television appearances in France, where he’s culinary royalty. A Brooklyn-born bread lover weaned on Jewish corn rye, he’s studied this arcane field for four decades from his post at Cornell University’s history department. Now, though, he lives in Paris, where he critiques bread and writes scholarly tomes. (His latest, on a poisoning incident in southern France in the 1950s, took a decade to write and came in at 1,300 pages.)

I met him one morning at a café in Montparnasse. I wanted to find out why French bread had gone downhill in the decades following World War II. In his 2006 book Good Bread Is Back (Duke University Press), Kaplan offered an analysis of how and why French artisans lost their way before starting to recover the true glory of French bread in the early 1990s.

“For years I had watched the sensorial quality of French bread palpably deteriorate,” he told me. The decline first set in, he said, when bakers switched from levain to commercial yeast in order to shorten the bread-making process. Yeast could work as an acceptable substitute for levain, but instead of relying on minute amounts of yeast and letting the dough ferment over 24 hours— as Delmontel does with his baguettes—bakers added more yeast and cut the rise period to as little as one hour, “suppressing the first fermentation that is the source of all taste,” Kaplan said.

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The situation worsened in the 1950s, when bakers started using intensive kneading machines that satisfied consumer desire for an ever-whiter crumb. They started sprinkling in additives such as vitamin C to spike fermentation, and heaps of salt to mask the absence of flavor. In short, while pursuing the promises of modernity—efficiency, speed, and whiter bread—what French bakers lost was the one indispensable ingredient: time.

“For me, bread was a crucial dimension of what the French proudly call their ‘cultural exception,’” or national identity, said Kaplan. “They did not seem to be aware that they were putting it in grave peril.” By the 1980s, the French ate less and less bread. Boulangeries folded; those that remained competed with supermarkets, which baked frozen baguettes and sold them as loss leaders. Kaplan was among a small group of critics and bakers who fought this trend through newspaper editorials, television interviews, and, of course, superior bread. Perhaps the most visible was Lionel Poilâne, who baked celebrated loaves in one of the last remaining wood-fired ovens in Paris. He called his sourdough miche a “retro-innovation,” because he was resurrecting levain when it had fallen out of use.

By the early 1990s, the artisan movement that Kaplan and Poilâne had championed was gaining traction. Young bakers followed Poilâne’s lead, using organic and stone-ground flours and levain; others scaled back on yeast and returned to the long fermentation necessary for a superior baguette. The French government came to their aid at an epochal moment in 1993, when it began regulating the term baguette de tradition, referring to precisely the baguette Chardon taught me how to make. The loaf, the state deemed, could be made only with flour, water, salt, and yeast—no chemical ameliorants allowed. In this way, the state placed a protective barrier around boulangeries. Since the baguette de tradition required a longer rise, it was the enemy of efficient production but the savior of bakeries competing against supermarkets. Once again, time was the key ingredient for boulangers trying to restore bread to its former glory.

Delmontel, now 41, began his career in Paris just as this movement was percolating. Trained as a cook and pastry chef, he initially looked down on breadmaking. Bakers had a reputation for being screwups in culinary school, with few prospects aside from vocational trades. “I thought, All they’re doing is mixing flour and water—what’s so hard about that?” he said.

But once Delmontel came to the States in the mid-1990s to run the pastry department at a new Whole Foods Market in Madison, Wisconsin, his view of bread baking changed. “They were doing all these wonderful loaves, with sourdough and whole grains,” he told me, “and I realized there was more to it than just flour and water.”

When he returned to France and began working for a boulangerie, he visited a test kitchen run by a small milling company in Chartres—a fairly common arrangement in France, where bakers partner with flour producers. This one, the Viron mill, was a family-owned champion of the artisan movement and worked closely with bakers to develop the best techniques. After his stint at the mill, Delmontel perfected his baguette renaissance—made to this day with Viron’s Type 55 flour. In 1999, he opened his first bakery, the one on Rue des Martyrs. A second followed in 2004.

Delmontel’s shining moment came in 2007, at a blind tasting for the Prix de la Meilleure Baguette de Paris, a competition that recognizes Parisian breadmakers. Of the hundreds of baguettes that went before the judges—Kaplan among them—Delmontel submitted two. He took home first prize for the loaf with the best crust, crumb, aroma, flavor, and look. As part of the honors, French president Nicolas Sarkozy dined on Delmontel’s baguettes at the Elysée Palace for a year. Sales shot up 25 percent at his two shops.

One day at the bakery, during a brief lull I noticed a recipe taped to the wall: Delmontel’s formula for making several hundred baguettes. Using the same ratio of water, salt, flour, and yeast, I calculated the quantities necessary to make three baguettes and showed my figures to Chardon. “Oui?” he said. “Un test,” I replied.

I weighed out the small batch of ingredients and then, to Chardon’s surprise, I began kneading the dough by hand. “I haven’t done that since baking school,” he said. The French flour was noticeably less absorbent than the American flours I was used to, owing to the fact that French flour has less protein than American flour. When the shaggy dough developed into a more solid mass, I showed it to Chardon, who signaled to keep kneading. After a few more minutes, I let the dough sit, then kneaded again before each of three 20-minute rest periods. I put the dough in the refrigerator for a 24-hour rise, and told Delmontel about my little experiment when he walked into the fournil. The next morning, I waited for another free moment to take out the dough, which had risen nicely and was filled with bubbles. I shaped the baguettes by hand, let them rise once more, then baked them in the huge oven. They sprang up nicely, and when we removed them with the long wooden peel (a spatula), I saw they had a deep golden-brown color, and the slashes were well defined. Once the loaves cooled, I picked one out and took it upstairs to the chef.

Le test,” I announced, entering Delmontel’s office. He looked amused as I gave him the loaf. “Nice slashes,” he said. “Good color. May I cut it open?”

Of course, I nodded.

He took a knife and cut the full length of the loaf as if making a sandwich, then thrust his nose inside to breathe in the aroma. “Ah, good smell,” he said. Looking at the uneven air pockets in the crumb, he smiled. “I didn’t know my formula could be done on such a small scale,” he said. Then he took a bite.

Ah, c’est bien!” he concluded. A French baker had told me I made decent bread. What else did I need? I flew out of the office to tell Chardon the good news.

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At La Boulangerie Par Veronique Mauclerc, Guillaume Viard bakes in one of the last wood-fired brick ovens in Paris. At 20 feet deep and 16 feet wide, it is said to have been a community oven for neighborhood families.

When I wasn’t practicing at the bakery, I sampled others’ wares. I ate baguettes that contained just a hint of levain at Du Pain et des Idées, a gorgeous little bakery in the 10th arrondissement that celebrates the “old-fashioned” style of baking and is open only on weekdays. I took a train out to Sceaux, a village in the suburbs of Paris, where I visited the bustling L’Etoile du Berger. Staffers handed out samples of apple bread to a long and patient queue of customers. And back in Paris, I made a pilgrimage to Rue Monge to try the ethereal baguettes made by Eric Kayser, considered the Alain Ducasse of French bread. But among the most memorable loaves I ate were those at La Boulangerie par Véronique Mauclerc in the 19th arrondissement, a working-class neighborhood far from the center of Paris. Mauclerc’s exceedingly dark, organic, whole grain breads are made entirely with levain and baked in a century-old wood-fired oven, one of only four left in Paris. The loaves—some made with saffron, others with preserved fruit—were exquisite and unique.

One day, working at Boulangerie Arnaud Delmontel, I walked outside to the front of the shop in my baker’s coat, dusted with flour. A middle-aged man standing in line smiled at me—a simple, warm acknowledgment of the work I was doing to bring him his daily bread. In each of the bakeries I visited I felt a similar sense of connection, no matter how long the lines or how rushed the staff. Good bread, when made with patience and craft, drew people in. There was no reason to rush this process or to compromise it. True bread is timeless, and it springs from the patient heart of the baker.

Back home in Washington, I called Delmontel one day to complain that the flour I used wasn’t as good as his and that the bread didn’t taste the same. “Look, whether it’s the same flour I use is not important,” he scolded. “The most important thing is to make people happy, to love what you have done!” Then I remembered: This was the lesson I had witnessed every day in France. It was the source of great bread, the most important rule. And now it was mine. A

Photographs by Brian Doben. This appeared in the premiere issue, 2009. Read “13 Tips for Visiting a Paris Boulangerie” and “David Lebovitz’s Sweet and Savory Tour of Paris.”