Moment in time no. 3 - la boulangerie/patisserie
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
This is one of my very favourite photographs. I'm not quite sure why. But it is very French. The colours of the shop are somehow very French and the way the young bakers on a break are lounging agains the door, although universal, is also somehow very French. Perhaps it's the blue of the trousers. You cannot quite see the name of the shop and that it is indeed a boulangerie, but that kind of drawing on the wall and the ears of wheat drawn above and below should be a clue. It is such a typical way of denoting that the shop within is a baker's shop. And the little pieces of tissue paper that they wrap around the baguettes, and fold around their patisseries are always decorated with a similar drawing. Alas I cannot find a picture of one, but all of you who have been to France will know what I mean.
I cannot now remember where this particular boulangerie was. It was in a small village that we visited on one of our days of village hops from our home base, which I think might have been Lorgues. I think perhaps somewhere north of Cannes - quite a long way north of Cannes, but it could easily have been anywhere else - although somehow I think in the south of France. I think the pale yellow tells me this somehow. I wonder what they are talking about those two young men? Are they workers or the owner and his brother or son, or friend? They are not large, these establishments after all, and tend to be family owned.
Every time I am booking a house to stay in in France, one of the first questions I ask the owner is how far away is the nearest boulangerie? Bread for breakfast is essential and the less distance one has to go the better. Sometimes we have been lucky with our choice of house and the boulangerie is just across the road, or round the corner, sometimes it's a short healthy walk or run by the more energetic of our companions, sometimes it's a bike ride away - or even a short ride in the car. On occasion we have been too far away and have had to buy bread the day before and reconstitute it in the oven by dampening and heating. It works pretty well but it's not as good as the fresh baguette from the baker next door or down the road. Here are a few from our travels, although two of them at least were being visited for lunch food or an ice-cream. Lots of them serve ice-cream too.
We always try to go to an 'artisan boulangerie' because these are where you find the best bread made on the premises by hand, not in a factory by machine. Not that that is to be sniffed at either. We have sometimes resorted to that in a hypermarket when all else fails. During the day, of course we have our pick - well as long as we get to them before they too close for lunch. The last picture above features husband and friend just making it in time to a boulangerie in Albi market that was in the process of closing up.
And then, of course, many of them are patisseries too. My husband's favourite shops. He has a tendency to chat up the lovely ladies behind the counter as he is choosing his lunchtime sweet pastry - most usually a chocolate croissant, but sometimes he launches into almond croissants. Me - I go for the quiches and savoury bites, but we often buy something really decadent for dinner at home that evening - a tart, a cake, a chocolate covered something, or a coffee eclair for me. There is always an accepted range of regular offerings, but often a local speciality or two,
like these from Lamalou-les-Bains in the Languedoc hills. They were actually on a market stall, but then often the patissiers and boulangers set up a stall in the local market.
French bakers have at least two bakings a day. Gorgeous though the baguette is, it's freshness and crunch do not last very long. I first met the baguette in Meung-sur-Loire, at the age of around 13, which I now see, from observing my granddaughters, was very young (the oldest of my granddaughter's is 12 and soon to be 13). Simone and I would cross the road from the Mairie, where she lived, and walk down the main street of the small town/large village to the baker's. I think it was this one:
I remember that it was very old and you could just see the very old ovens. We would make this trip twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, so that we had fresh bread for lunch and dinner, nibbling on the end of the baguette along the way. The French don't necessarily eat baguettes for breakfast - they might have what they call toast, instead. Once tasted I fell in love with the baguette. I remember our regular order was 'un pain et deux baguettes'. Patisserie was bought elsewhere then, in a specialist patisserie in the church square and only on Sundays - for lunch. Which is where I fell in love with eclairs.
When you buy a baguette in France, the lady - its nearly always a lady - behind the counter will test each baguette to see if it is crunchy enough. Perhaps they are not quite as choosy for tourists, but if you smile nicely and speak in French or attempt to, they will. Below is one of the other current boulangeries of Meung-sur-Loire but it is just so typical of so many boulangeries in France - with the baguettes, and pains and ficelles stood on end and ranged against the wall with the other pains on racks and the pastries arranged in a case. Even the hypermarkets tend to have an actual boulangerie just outside the long row of checkout counters. The boulangerie is a sacred thing in France. Meung sur Loire is not a very big place, but it has at least five different boulangeries.
Here in Eltham we have a shop that could be called an artisan bakery which is similarly arranged, but because this is Melbourne it also has a few tables for coffee. But it is hugely expensive. A croissant - one croissant - will set you back at least $5.00, some are more, and they always look marginally burnt to me. I probably should try their wares, but I don't think they need my patronage. There is always a queue. Which is interesting.
If I need a baguette I buy one from Laurent Patissier in Coles. Not quite as good as a genuine French one. But pretty good imitation. I have yet to taste a really French one outside of France. No actually that is not quite true. Paris Go serves a pretty good one, but whether it is made on the premises or bought in I don't know.
So there you go - a favourite photograph. I think I'm going to get a print made and hang it on the wall. It's sunny and serene and French. It was a lovely afternoon strolling with our English friends around little villages, all of whom had something beautiful, or strange, or original that cried out for a photograph. I wonder where those men are now?