Friday, September 14, 2012

Who are the people in your neighborhood: Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake

He talks like quicksilver. Don’t attempt a conversation with him if your French is shaky because the words come tumbling out, all a-race.  Or rather, do have a conversation with him because he’ll enjoy it. Being all by himself in the shop can be a lonely business And it makes stopping for lunch impossible. The French have an expression for this kind of situation - on ne peut pas être au four et au moulin - you can’t be both by the oven and at the mill.
     His name is Christophe - just plain Christophe - and he’s a baker. A baker of delicious French bread and pastries. He started learning his trade when he was only 14½, at schools that included traditional classes but also hands-on experience called pré-apprentissage, a sort of modern-day apprenticeship. He’s been baking almost ever since.
      Now he has his own shop on a busy corner near the Bâteau Lavoir, where Picasso and many others painted their masterpieces and lived off of bread made by someone like Christophe, maybe at this very same corner. It’s on one of several tourist routes that wind their way up and down the steep slopes of Montmartre, so his clientele is made up of both locals and passing tourists from all corners of the globe.
     Neither of Christophe’s parents were bakers. But one of his grandfathers was. From childhood, Christophe was regaled with stories of baking. He heard tales of how Grandpa would put the brioche dough under his bed quilt to rise. (Heating wasn’t all that it is nowadays, rooms were chilly, and the yeast had to be warm or it wouldn’t rise, so...)

In addition to the two types of baguette Christophe bakes - the regular and the more traditional Parisse - he makes several other types of bread. There’s the round pain au levain made with natural yeast, not baker’s yeast, and he seems very proud of this, even though he’s a baker. (I’ll have to get him to explain the difference to me.) And he makes a pain aux céréales that includes six different grains. "Can you name them all?" I ask. And he starts to reel them off: "Linseed, wheat, corn, sesame ... sunflower and... and... and I forget." Then he laughs.
From left to right:  croissants, pains aux raisins,
pains au chocolat, pains suisses
     Christophe also bakes all the traditional goodies, the viennoiseries, that make up a French breakfast. Flaky croissants and sinfully satisfying pains au chocolat cuddle up next to crispy pains aux raisins and crunchy swirls of palmiers, not to mention the chaussons aux pommes oozing with applesauce filling, which my Austrian friend particularly liked for their name: apple slippers or "apfelschlapfen". There are also some breakfast creations of his own, such as his version of the gluttonously rich croissant aux amandes or the treat he calls a pain suisse because of its chocolate-and-crème-pâtissière filling.
     For the afternoon sweet tooth, there are the classic French shortbread-esque sablé cookies or his version of the good old American chocolate chip cookies - but his are a half-inch thick and a good 4" across. And there are donys, which you will recognize as being doughnuts. (I guess his spelling is phonetic, and he won’t correct it, in spite of my urging.) He offers a limited range of desserts (his shop is small) - mostly different tartes, the French version of the one-crust pie, crowded with fresh seasonal fruit and walnuts or pecans or pistachios. Or for something simpler, you can try his version of cheesecake. Even though he’s from Normandy, Christophe also makes his own cannelés flavored with rum and vanilla, a speciality of Bordeaux, and mouth-sized pastels, a Portuguese egg tart. And there are luscious mini-macarons of various flavors and meringues as big as a steelworker’s hand.
     For lunch you can pick up a variety of sandwiches made with his own baguettes or ask him to warm up a quiche lorraine in his small microwave oven, or the French version of a grilled ham-and-cheese, the croque-monsieur. In addition to all this, he stocks some candies for children on their way home from school, and cold soft drinks for the many gasping tourists whose tongues hang out as they trudge up or down these impressively steep slopes, too steep for any horse-drawn wagon back in Picasso’s day, even though this street was once the street - the only one - leading from Paris to the hilltop village of Montmartre.
Christophe lives over the shop, like most artisans and shopkeepers in France used to (and still do outside of Paris). Five mornings a week, he’s at his ovens by 5 a.m and opens the shop at 8. The other two he often wakes up early anyway and loves to look out the window at the calm streets, take a deep breath... and go back to bed. That’s the luxury in his life. The rest of the time, he works hard until 8 at night, when he closes up the shop. It’s a long day.
     To make a baguette, especially the traditional kind, it takes a lot of kneading, which can be done by a machine, and folding, which cannot. A baguette takes 20 minutes to cook at 270°C (518°F) and his oven can hold 160 at a time. Each day, he bakes an average of four ovenloads of each type of baguette. And he rarely has any left. Bread is a staple of the French diet.
     In addition to all this baking, there have been long stretches when Christophe has also had to sell the goods he makes, shuttling back and forth between the oven and the cash register. Sales clerk is not a highly sought-after job in Paris. During the five years that he’s had this shop, he’s gone through at least ten of them. I’d tell you he’s being difficult in his description of the... uh, "lack of devotion" applicants have to their prospective job, except that my old baker friends the Bertheaus, and the Prandys before them, have already told me the same story. Mme Bertheau once said, "The first questions are ‘how much do I make’ and ‘what are my days off’, not ‘what are my duties’ or anything else like that." The exasperation in all their voices - and that stretches over a 40-year period - seems to be a leitmotiv in the French baker’s trade. Maybe that’s because there’s no room for advancement. I mean, the clerk is never going to become the baker; there’s already an apprentice in most bakeries just waiting to move on up.
     At present there’s a lovely older lady behind the register part-time most days. She’s trim, impeccably dressed and nicely made up. Very professional. Very French. At first I thought it might be his mother, but from some comments made, I’m thinking she’s not. Someday I may find out who she is. In the meantime, she’s taken the pressure off Christophe so he can concentrate on the making of delicious bread and pastries rather than the selling thereof. And it gives him someone to talk to, which he dearly enjoys.
     And we all want our bakers to be happy, don’t we?
Aux Délices de Montmartre

9 rue Ravignan
Paris; 18è
open Thursday through Monday
8 am to 8 pm

1 comment:

  1. One sincerely hopes reading of these delights in no way contributes to one's caloric intake.
    Even if it does, it was worth it.