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March 24, 2012

Let them Eat Bread.


What will I miss most about France? Fresh baked bread!

During the 4,000 years it has been our staff of life bread has been taxed, surveyed, controlled, fought over, and finally reduced to an unappetizing, unwholesome, and depressing conformity.

This is not so in France-not yet, anyway-though a large percent of the bread eaten here is mass-produced today; the rest comes from small bakers. Since the famous baguette has a life of about five hours, it has to be made twice daily, even hourly. This best-known of French breads is far from being the only kind, however. There are dozens upon dozens of varieties, with shapes and tastes peculiar to each region-flat bread, round bread, twisted bread, bread in the shape of a hand or a hat.

At 8 rue du Cherche-Midi, centuries before Poilâne, there stood an abbey. It’s uncertain if the nuns baked bread—though the basement oven certainly seems ancient — we do know, however, that the 17th-century convent was destroyed in 1789 during the French Revolution. The bakery, which moved in soon after, continued unremarkably until Pierre Poilâne discovered the location in 1932.

I love their website

The long lines that form everyday suggest that one of the best bread in Paris is made by Poilâne, a baker whose heavy round loaves dusted with flour are served in some of the most discerning restaurants and homes. In the old days, dark bread was for the poor, white for the rich. Today the situation is reversed. Poilâne's rough brown bread is made of only these ingredients: coarse, stone-ground whole-wheat flour; water; sea salt; and levain, the leavening agent.

Little has changed since Pierre Poilâne, a young baker from Normandy, first began baking the dark country bread that has become a specialty, though today the operation has much expanded.

Bread has always been a barometer of the social and political fabric. It was a bread crisis, symbolized by Marie Antoinette's airy remark "qu'ils mangent de la brioche" that precipitated the French Revolution. It was a time when bakers were as unpopular as the nobility, for bread cost almost half a worker's wages.

During the German occupation in World War II, the French were forced to eat black or gray bread-traditionally peasant fare. After the war ended, white bread symbolized liberty. The other bakers were annoyed that Poilâne continued making dark bread. There was even talk of forbidding such bread! All he was doing was continuing a tradition. I admire him for his stubborn wisdom. One mustn't be trapped by tradition. On the other hand, we can't live intelligently, humanly, without an understanding of it.

For people accustomed to white bread, Poilâne's heavy loaves may at first prove rough on the jaws. It is hearty bread not for the dainty feeder. Two slabs buttered for breakfast fuels me until supper. Though some favor it with robust meals like roast lamb or rabbit stew, I insists it is adaptable, even to the most delicate preparations of sole and veal and it goes with all cheeses. Among my favorite are big miche, raisin bread, nut bread, brioche, seedless rye, and their superb apple tart.

The walls at the shop are hung thick with paintings honoring his famous round loaves. The collection was started after the war when Poilâne accepted a canvas in exchange for bread from a hungry painter. Word of his generosity spread.

Their most bizarre commission came, inevitably, from Salvador Dali, who asked for a set of bedroom furniture, life-size, including a four-poster bed. Dali explained that "in our apocalyptic age it might prove to be a good food investment in case of disaster." When Poilâne remained skeptical, he added, "It's the only way I have of knowing if I have mice in my house.”

Qu'ils manger du pain!

March 1, 2012

My Paris Notebook

“The most beautiful church in Paris, after Notre Dame” was started in 1532 and consecrated, with a piece or two still missing, more than a century later.  During those hundred years, taste had changed even more radically than in our own century.  

The original plans for Église de Saint-Eustache were like a final look at the religious architecture of the Middle Ages.  By the time the building was ready to be decorated, the taste of a new age prevailed.  The result was a patchwork that a still later age would find lamentable.  The 1828 edition of a guide to Paris (Le Veritable Conducteur Parisien) deplored “the poor taste of the architect” and “the confused mixture of Latin and Greek.”

Viollet-le-Duc hated the Renaissance, which explains his loathing of the interior of Saint-Eustache; however, he was not the only person to see it as “badly conceived, badly built, a confused mass of debris borrowed from all sides…a kind of Gothic skeleton covered in Ramon rags stitched together like a harlequin suit.”

By the time Saint-Eustache was completed, in 1642, there was absolutely no one living who could describe what had been there before.  

In fact a chapel, dedicated to Sainte-Agnès, a Roman martyr, had stood there for 300 years before it was demolished to make way for a more modern, more imposing church. Conceivably, people in the neighborhood were disturbed to watch it being torn down.  They had been christened and married there; their parents had been taken from the chapel to their burial ground.  Alas, the wiping out of a 300-year-old chapel almost 500 years ago does not arouse our nostalgia.  

It does not enter our minds to say that if it still existed Paris would be more attractive or easier to live in.  Three hundred years today, seem dwindled, short.  The loss of a building 150 years old, closer in time, is the work of vandals.  

Saint-Eustache now looks not like an architectural patchwork but like a harmonious and splendid reproach to anything built within yards of it.  


(The late André Marchal playing the glorious church organ.)

As for the chapel, we can try to imagine what it must have looked like, and we can be sure that it was there, for three shrunken centuries.  The danger is when a whole generation of Parisians, for want of knowing, will answer “What was there before?” with “Nothing.”