Barely had dusk fallen when I'd received a voice message from the first place I'd handed my CV into - Gontran Cherrier, very hot property on the Paris bread scene, asking if I could start the next day at 9am. It so happened that someone had called in sick, so this, coupled with recent expansion into a second branch and a need to re-evaluate the size of the team meant that my arrival with what they considered a strong CV was perfect timing. M. Cherrier is a TV chef and author of several books and his 'edge' comes from his focus on flavours, traditional (apricot and cinnamon) as well as unusual (squid ink buns with nigella seeds and red miso loaves). His main bakery is in Montmartre, 20 minutes walk and a climb up 111 of those devastatingly Parisien steps, from where I'm living, and gets very busy at weekends.
Although my role here is strictly sales rather than baking, it's a fantastic opportunity to immerse myself in the world of bread, invigorate my rusty language skills under pressure and get to know a bit more about how the French do things. And after a few shifts there I'm beginning to get an idea.
|Pain De Sucre's 'Oasis' - Green apple and coriander compote,|
citrus sponge, grapefrui, orange and pistachio milk jelly.
With a popping candy lollipop, of course.
But, of course, there is the bakery. It is teaching me about La Tradition, and innovation, and how Parisians embrace both in their ritualistic love of bread. Gontran is one of the few bakeries in Paris to sell large loaves by weight, a practise which is becoming increasingly popular and in fact encourages experimentation with flavours as customers opt to take home a little taste of fig and fennel and give it a try. Trying something new is exciting and customers are keen to know what would best accompany the squid ink-baguette. But at the same time it is the markers of routine that fly out the door the quickest, as we sell baguettes and croissants in their hundreds. And this is what I'm enjoying seeing the most, as it simply doesn't exist back home. Most customers fall into the 'tradition' camp when it comes to their daily bread - opting not for a standard baguette, but for one that has been proven longer and therefore has a richer flavour, softer 'mie' (as Clotilde Desoulier points out here there is no equivalent word for this in English; 'crumb' simply does not cut it), and a longer life. Customers re-appear as part of their schedule, buying just a half if that's all they need, asking for multiples to be halved if they're travelling by bike. Children barely tall enough to see what they are after are sent in by parents to buy their after-school 'goûter' of a croissant, pain au chocolat or sugared brioche along with a baguette for dinner, waiting patiently for their change and showing an endearing politeness that is hopefully not just due to their young age.
I'm yet to make it into the kitchen to work but a brief glimpse into the bakery's underbelly gave me excited and hopeful goosepimples. Ginormous baguette ovens stood alongside racks of patiently waiting and proving baguettes, snuggled in folds of polenta-dusted linen. The gentle hum of a paint gun spraying beaten egg on the pastries for an even shine provided a backing track to the delicate work of experimenting with the citrus balance in the Valentine's day special dessert, and everywhere, people had floured hands and quietly concentrating faces.
For now, I will content myself with my end-of-day hauls of staff goodies (research purposes only, you understand) and work on building French traditions of my own.