This Chef Spent Two Days Trying Out the Best Pastries in Paris. Here’s What He Learned.
Two days in Paris researching the city's patisseries: I sometimes have to remind myself that this is, indeed, my job. Yet for all the "You're doing what?!" and "That will be incredible!" comments in the days leading up to my trip, there was a small part of me that was a little bit intimidated.
I had spent the past two years working on a book about desserts and baked goods. Every Wednesday I would sit down to try the recipes with my co-author, Helen Goh, and see what stage of development each one was at. After months of working this way, I was able to confirm two things. First, there is such a thing as too much cake. And second, the theory of diminishing returns is correct. The more you eat of something, the harder it has to work to get a "wow."
My concern with the way I planned to do Paris — making eight or so pit stops in two days — was how I would fairly assess all the patisseries (pastry shops), boulangeries (bread shops), and purveyors of viennoiserie (croissants and company) I planned to visit. If the enjoyment of food is so much about context, about eating the right thing in the right place at the right time, then surely nothing would be able to compete with that first bite of freshly baked croissant as I stepped off the Eurostar from London.
When I did eventually alight at the Gare du Nord, rather than saving the best till last or pacing myself for the packed two days ahead, I did what all (big) kids in a sweetshop do: head straight for the best, buy way too much, and eat as if you don't know where your next meal is coming from.
So it was that I found myself in Du Pain et Des Idées, Christophe Vasseur's shabby-chic boulangerie near the Canal St.-Martin in the fashionable 10th Arrondissement. I'd heard rumors that Vasseur's croissants were special, even by Parisian standards. So, forgetting all internal reminders to take it slowly, I jumped straight in and bought one. It was indeed first-rate: perfectly flaky, with a good chew in the center and aromas of top French butter. Next came the "escargot," Vasseur's signature creation, in which layers of puff pastry are rolled up, slathered with pistachio paste, and dotted with dark chocolate chips. I threw in a chausson à la pomme fraîche, or apple turnover, for greedy good measure.
I loved everything, but it was for reasons other than the actual viennoiserie that I was pleased to have started my trip at Du Pain et Des Idées. Above the door is a sign emblazoned with the words fabrication traditionnelle, a nod to the time-honored practices that Vasseur, like so many in France, continues to make a living from. But the name of his shop, which translates as "bread and ideas," points to something perhaps more surprising — something I noticed again and again on my stay. Alongside a respect for tradition, there was so much excitement and progressive thinking: so many idées! It's a combination that ensures Parisian patisseries and boulangeries are able to achieve the highest standards, while at the same time remaining relevant and fresh.
Crossing the bridge over the canal, but still in the 10th Arrondissement, I walked through a densely populated and ethnically diverse neighborhood that attracts the type of Parisian inclined to look forward and shake up convention. The perfect place, therefore, for Yann Couvreur to have set up shop.
There are lots of things that make Couvreur's namesake patisserie unusual in Paris. The first is that you can order what you want, then sit down in the shop and eat it, along with a cup of (very good) coffee. Such details may not seem like the stuff of revolution to an outsider, but in Paris — where it's far more typical to buy your bread, croissant, or cake and take it home to eat — the setup isn't as common as you might think. So great is the reverence toward the baked product in this city that some believe it will somehow be diminished by association with the likes of free Wi-Fi, a hot drink, and the company of strangers.
As you'd expect, Couvreur's progressive ideas extend to the pastries he sells, each of which comes with a twist on the traditional technique. Svelte éclairs in a rectangular mold, for example — I'd always thought of pâte à choux as the pastry dough that could not be tamed! — or his signature mille-feuille: free-form sheets of wafer-thin pastry loosely stacked and layered with thick vanilla cream. Made to order, these are such a labor of love that Couvreur creates only 50 each day. There is a mille-feuille chart on the wall with numbers 1 through 50 on it, and, once number 50 has been crossed out, that's it until the next day. Don't worry if you do miss out, though: there is plenty more to choose from. I loved his kouign-amann, a muffin-shaped Breton cake, which is a bit like a crusty, caramelized croissant.
Couvreur's glass shop front has a single counter running along its width where customers can sit and look out at the world passing by. The morning rush was over when I visited, and there was just one man sitting in the window with his little coffee and a plate of, I couldn't help noticing, four full-portion viennoiseries. I don't usually make it my business to count how many pastries someone is eating, but the ease with which this guy polished his off was really quite impressive. He couldn't have been more svelte, and it made me wonder whether there is something in the French water that allows people to consume quite so much butter and sugar and yet stay so remarkably lean. He cleaned his plate, downed his coffee, and headed on in a perfectly business-as-usual way. I decided to take him as my inspiration for the next two days, hoping the waters (or whatever the French secret is) would have the same effect on me.
Another pastry chef with eyes firmly looking forward is Christophe Adam, whose L'Éclair de Génie is doing for éclairs what Ladurée did for macarons: building an empire upon one specialty. (The day after I met Adam, he was in Moscow, opening his 25th store.) The risk of placing so much emphasis on just one very light and air-filled product is, of course, that the end result can lack substance. But after trying Adam's éclairs, I realized that, while he may not necessarily be making the best éclairs out there, he is building the strongest possible brand upon the fluffy foundations that choux pastry provides.
Besides, you go to L'Éclair de Génie for the color and choice, for the fun and the visual thrill. Take your family, take a date, take a bunch of kids, and relish the process of choosing from the array of audacious designs and flavors: pistachio-orange cream and glaze, for example, topped with candied orange pieces, or rose bonbon with marshmallow, pink vanilla cream, and rose petals. The range includes some 280 flavors, in constant rotation, though just 10 are offered on any one day. Number 177, the salted-butter caramel, is always there, though: a favorite of both Adam and his clientele.
If you are visiting the city with friends or family, another fun place to go is Benoît Castel Ménilmontant. It's in the 20th Arrondissement, so a bit out of the center of town, but well worth making the detour for—especially if you're visiting the nearby Père Lachaise cemetery, with its roll call of famous inhabitants (Chopin, Piaf, Wilde, and Proust, to mention
just a few). The neighborhood is an old working-class area in rapid transformation; for now, this means cheaper rent, which means more square feet for shop owners to play with.
And play they do. In the case of Benoît Castel, that means providing things like big wooden tables for real live families with actual kids who do things like spill crumbs on the floor. I'd visited so many wonderfully chic places during my stay that this place felt like a breath of fresh air. I was there just as school was letting out for the day, so kids were piling in with their parents or grandparents for their afternoon snack, which they call the goûter, picking up some bread to take home, or sitting at tables with big cups of hot chocolate. Easygoing breakfasts, brunches, and lunches are also on the menu. But Benoît Castel is about more than just homespun charm. I found a small tart of thinly shaved apple, delicately macerated with lemon, fennel seeds, and vanilla and placed on a crisp, coconutty base, both delicious and highly sophisticated.
Back in the heart of the city — and a far cry from wooden tables in the gritty 20th Arrondissement — headed to the Shangri-La Hôtel for its afternoon tea, which is distinguished by an all-vegan menu. In a country where butter is still God, the idea of dairy-free pastry had a subversive feel I found intriguing. Walking through the hotel's unabashedly opulent foyer, I was pretty sure that if anyone could put the words luxury and vegan in the same sentence, it would be the Shangri-La.
So I set aside any preconceptions I had about vegan food and opened myself up to the possibilities of what can be achieved when things we think of as fundamental to baking are removed. "There's no miracle ingredient that will replace eggs in vegan pastry," said Shangri-La head pastry chef Michael Bartocetti, who joined me as I ate my way through an entirely full three-tiered cake stand. "But you can go a long way with alternatives." Cocoa and coconut oil feature prominently in the list of ingredients, as do things like raw almond milk, rice milk, soy milk, flaxseed, and chickpea flour. I'd be lying if I said that one or two of the pastries could not have been enriched by, well, a bit of butter, but it was definitely an experience worth having — if only to provide some light reprieve from the hourly intake of butter I was otherwise averaging during my stay.
If all of the spots I'd visited so far share a forward-looking approach to baking, the last two shops I visited very much look to the past for many of their ideas. In the case of Claire Damon's Des Gâteaux et du Pain, in the calm, residential 15th Arrondissement, that past is intensely personal. Damon, who grew up in the rural, mountainous Auvergne region, cites the French countryside and its abundant produce as her chief sources of inspiration. She told me about a cake called CD that, as the initials might suggest, was inspired by her own biography. It's topped with wild blueberries, like the ones she used to pick growing up, as well as cream infused with herbs that evoke the aroma of hay from her hometown.
Although her shop has an atmosphere that is chic and serious — loaves of bread look rather like golden crowns lined up on the cleverly lit matte-black shelves — there are many more fun stories behind the pastries. Have a wander around and try to work out the origins of, for example, le lipstick caramel fleur de sel: un accord gourmand. (Damon explained that the "gourmand agreement" refers to an interaction with a regular customer, on a day she wore lipstick to work).
She reminded me a little bit of the British chef Heston Blumenthal, whose food is also, often, a vehicle in which he drives down memory lane: someone who is both utterly serious and delightfully frivolous in almost equal measure. To encounter Damon's whimsical creations in this smart shop in the middle of a busy city felt genuinely special.
By the time I stepped into my last shop, my enthusiasm for all things sweet was, I have to admit, beginning to flag. My sugar ennui was not abated, frankly, by my first impressions upon walking into Boulangerie Bo, in the 12th Arrondissement. The pastries on display looked oversize — a bit garish, even, in the case of the croissant into which raspberry jam had been baked, creating swirls like those on a twister lollipop. The general presentation was also a little old-fashioned, with cakes sitting without fanfare on shelves lit by halogen strips. Meeting Olivier Haustraete, the co-owner, felt like a continuation of the theme. Unlike the dapper, chiseled bakers I had so far encountered in Paris, Haustraete actually looked like he enjoyed his daily bread and butter.
If all this was a way to trick me into keeping my expectations low, then I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. The cakes were one thing — Haustraete has spent a lot of time in Japan and is having all sorts of fun, to very delicious effect, with ingredients such as black-sesame paste, black sugar from Okinawa, and various citrus juices. But the bread, oh my, the bread! The half-hour I spent munching my way through Haustraete's squid-ink baguette, buckwheat bread, and smoked-grain loaf has to have been one of the highlights not just of my time in Paris but of my bread-munching career so far. I actually developed something of an obsession with the smoked bread, which is baked over smoldering olive pits, infusing it with a taste not dissimilar to Jerusalem artichokes. I could have eaten a whole loaf.
Like Claire Damon, Haustraete takes his inspiration from the past. Not so much his own (interesting though that is, with the years he spent in Japan) but more the past of the French peasants whose practices and way of life he has such reverence for.
I met a lot of passionate bakers and cake makers during my time in Paris, but Haustraete was the only guy I saw who actually listened to his bread after squeezing the crust. There's life and soul at Boulangerie Bo, and so much heart. I felt filled to the brim with all three as I headed toward the Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar back to London, my luggage smelling of lightly smoked Jerusalem artichokes. There may be such a thing as too much cake, but my appreciation of making and eating it was in no way diminished by my jam-packed tour of Paris.
So energized was I, in fact, that, glancing at my watch, I realized there was time to make one more stop. I'd been told, in a manner I'd assumed to be hyperbolic, that I could not leave Paris without visiting Jacques Génin's shop in the northern part of the Marais Quarter to try his pâtes de fruits and caramels. I directed the taxi to detour, zipped inside the store, got knocked sideways by the extreme deliciousness of the fruity flavor-bomb confections within, and stocked up on some little bags to take home as gifts. Clearly, it would be physically possible to leave Paris without sampling Génin's phenomenal mango or passion-fruit caramels, but, well, life wouldn't be quite so sweet if you did.