[The Best Baguette in Paris]
…and it’s not even me saying it, but the good members of the jury in the 2006 edition of the yearly Grand Prix de la Baguette Parisienne. The winner is Jean-Pierre Cohier, whose bakery is just off the Place des Ternes: this was his fourth time competing, and he received the distinction for his baguette called Tradition. He’s been making that baguette for twenty years, with flour from the French Beauce region, and it is a baguette that is hand-shaped and requires 24 hours of fermentation. The lucky guy will receive a prize of 4,000 euros, and the exclusive right to fill the daily baguette needs of L’Elysée, where the President de la République lives and works. (This all sounds very grand, but apparently it is just 25 baguettes a day.)
So what’s a Tradition baguette you ask? French bakeries usually offer several types of baguettes these days: a baguette ordinaire, which costs less than one euro, and one or more fancier (and pricier) baguettes, using a different quality of flour and a more elaborate production process — such as Cohier’s “Tradition” baguette. The latter category is usually more to my taste: ordinary baguettes tend to have a tougher and browner bottom crust (and I seem to have issues with that), a thinner interior texture (when I prefer the inside of my baguettes to be Rubens-fleshy), and they also go stale much faster. Great if you’re looking to make croutons for a fondue, not so great if you wish to enjoy it over a couple of days.
[As a side note, I would like to draw your attention to a frustrating void in the English language: correct me if I'm wrong, but there is no single-word way to say "the soft interior of bread". There is in French: the word is la mie (pronounced "mee"), and it is pretty convenient for writers who want to describe bread using short sentences -- not that short sentences are actually my forte or my ambition, but you get my meaning. As a side note to my side note (who says those can't be nested?), and although there is no etymological connection between the two, ma mie is also a deliciously quaint expression which means "my darling" when said to a woman. It is more often found in literature than in real life, but we could certainly start a trend. Update: "la mie" apparently translates to "the crumb". Although I don't think it conveys quite the same idea or, more importantly, feeling -- "crumb" sounds a little dry and sad, when "mie" evokes a more noble notion, a certain tenderness or softness, and not just of texture -- I stand corrected and happy to have learned this usage.]
Anyway. Back to Cohier’s baguette: taking the opportunity of my being in the neighborhood, I paid a little visit to his bakery earlier this week: I was half-expecting throngs of eager people waiting in line to snatch a baguette, and I had braced myself for the possibility of a “sold-out” sign, but apart from a newspaper clip in the window announcing the news, it was all pretty normal — an old lady dropping her change, me stopping its rolling flight with my shoe, a teenager ordering a baba au rhum when he really meant a salambo because the little tags had gotten mixed up, business as usual.
When it was my turn I ordered the winning baguette, and congratulated the baker’s wife, who looked pleased, if a little uncomfortable. I rode the bus home with my warm baguette, and we tasted it that night with a friend — the question “Would you like to try the best baguette in Paris?” rarely receives a negative answer I’m sure. Verdict? It was really very good: the crust was thin, but offered just the right amounts of elasticity and crunch, and the interior (the mie if you will) was light and supple. The smell was particularly remarkable, with a distinct difference between the crust, which smelled of wood and woodfire, and the inside, which gave off a delicate flowery/grassy scent, so fresh and moist I feel compelled to liken it to morning dew.
A fine baguette, yes, but I probably wouldn’t have elected it myself: although I haven’t tasted all the baguettes in Paris obviously, my own personal winner remains the Piccola, from the oft-mentioned Coquelicot bakery: its upper crust does not have those hard darker ridges, and its interior is fluffy like a freshly plumped pillow. However, if you happen to know the person who picks the jury members for the competition, do let him/her know I’d be happy to put my judgment to the test!
270 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in the 8th
24 rue des Abbesses, in the 18th