Falling upon a good bakery for an ‘outsider’ such as me is very much a chancy thing. For Parisians very little is left to chance when it comes to their daily bread. They have their favourite bakery ‘du coin’ – of the neighbourhood – and are faithful to them … unless the quality suddenly drops with a change of ownership, or baker.
I am an unabashed bakery trollop – I show no sign of faithfulness to any particular bakery or pastry shop – unless my tastebuds tell me otherwise. I love this freedom – of serendipitous bakery landings from one arrondissement to another.
At times of course the destination is nothing to write home about (or perhaps what it’s cracked up to be), but it’s a great adventure, a taste adventure, and a délice for the happy-go-lucky flaneur strolling the streets of Paris.
There’s really little that titillates my freedom erogenous zone in such a way as the daily wandering about in ‘search’ (more a random pursuit) of a boulangerie. Having all that choice before you makes it even more thrilling … the discernment (and guessing games) one must exercise before deciding to step over the threshold of one boulangerie-patisserie or another.
There’s an added thrill, when you’ve left the baker to almost last minute – pushing 7.30pm – and time is running out.
Today my 3-hours of roaming from the Champs Elysée through to the Jardins du Trocadero then across the Seine to the Left Bank, the Quai du Branly, the Tour Eiffel and along the Champs du Mars, wound up near Invalides.
This is a bit of a crevice where you fall out of small neighbourhood businesses into huge landscaped areas of ceremonial monuments and parks. I knew I needed a bit of luck – and some decent navigation skills – in order to steer back towards the 7th’s livelier hubs before all the boulangerie closed. (I love the stately silence and elegance of the 7ème arrondissement, but I have friends who got bored living here, due to its overly bourgeois tranquility – which appeals to me – at least as an evening retreat from the hubbub).
Luck was on my side as I tacked across the long Rue Saint-Dominique and hazarded on a bakery. But a gut feeling told me, despite the ‘Artisan Bakery’ sign brandishing the street front, I could do better. Still rather than starve, I went in and bought my little Scandinavian loaf (big enough for me and possibly a bird at breakfast … for 2 euro I will be pushing to get four slices from it) and went on my way – less than won over by the whole ambiance of the place.
Then another couple of hundred meters along, I noticed the tangerine and brown shopfront of another bakery. I had my bread – I didn’t need more – but again that unassailable gut feeling told me I would be missing out on something if I did not stop here.
I joined the double queue breaching the two open sides of the store, and as usual did my panic-choose-find wallet in bottom of bag-with others breathing down my neck routine. In other words, make a choice fast and under pressure, with a battalion of unfamiliar wonders before your eyes.
My tendency to go overboard in a boulangerie is huge – to lose my landmarks, forget what it actually was I came in for, to constantly get deviated, thrown off course, and carry out enough for an army instead of two.
I’m not big on white baguettes. They tend to stick up the intestines very quickly, even if they taste great. I usually opt for wholemeal, cereal and rustic baguettes au levain (sourdough) – or baguettes de campagne with a kind of lightweight fibre – a mix of wholewheat and semolina.
It was the staff who decided for me – clearly they realised they had to come to my rescue (and that of other customers waiting in line) … And so I carried my baguette out and just made it to the Pont Alexandre III in time to see the very last few drops of sunlight illuminate the gilded statues over the Seine.
The worst thing in all of this is I can’t remember which baguette I took away with me – but it was the best baguette I’ve tasted in weeks if not months. It was crunchy in the right places, without ripping the roof of your mouth off as some do – it was chewy – airy but dense – golden and aromatic. So deliciously elastic and full of life.
(The French would call it ‘croquant’ – crunchy – which echoes nicely with ‘craquant’ … literally cute, but more ‘bloody gorgeous’).
And it was ‘gris’ … It may not sound very appetising ‘grey bread’ but that’s the translation. What it actually boils down to is a less refined or sifted flour than white flour, so it is a pallid, pale brown or ashen colour.
Most likely it was the Baguette de Campagne I purchased … the best thing is my uncertainty means I can go back tomorrow and clear up any doubts.
In any case, I clearly have to go back to Nelly’s. I didn’t even have time to take in all the other wonders – the raisin breads and pain au chocolat.
All that in an incredibly convivial atmosphere – as one local said “une bonne boulangerie de quartier sans chichi” … “a good neighbourhood bakery without fuss” … And those qualities can take you a long way.
This unassuming but fantastic Boulangerie Patisserie (‘douceurs et traditions‘ as the sign says) has no website – just head straight there next time you are in Paris. These things don’t translate so well, in anything but by the palate.
Une Bonne Adresse: Nelly Julien, 85 rue Saint- Dominique, Paris.