To begin our tour, Loic and I sample a pastry of our choice and I discover a choco framboise. It is a croissant with half dark chocolate filling and half raspberry filling—a dream come true. Next we walk down very steep stairs to the basement where the bread is baked.
In France, bread bakers and pastry chefs go to vocational school at around 15 years of age. After completing 2-5 years of school, then they apprentice with an experienced chef for about 5 years before going out on their own. The work is physically demanding with long hours and as a result you see very few women in bakeries in France (or as chefs.) In Miss Manon there are no women.
Antonio, who is 25, begins our lessons with the importance of bread in France. It is not just a food—bread is a thread in the fabric of French life. The making of bread is regulated—you are not allowed to deviate. First we see the most popular bread of France—baguette. This is the long narrow loaf of bread that we see French people marching down the street at night carrying like a saber. The other bread we will learn about today is the traditional bread. Years ago, the French government saw that baguette was becoming commercialized—you could complete the process entirely with machines. To save the careers of artisanal bread makers, the government began allowing the production of “traditional” bread. This loaf if made with a starter like sour dough and it is a fatter loaf with more air than baguette. It is yellower in color than the white baguette. The traditional loaf has a yeasty smell from the starter. Both are made with professional yeast that is not like the yeast we find in stores—it comes in large blocks like a pound of butter and it is moist to the touch.
In Paris there is a competition each year to see who makes the best bread. The winner is allowed to make bread for the President for one year.
The bread is mixed in a larger mixer, and then it is cooled to allow it to rise. I am surprised because I thought bread needed to be warm to rise. The bread in France is placed in a cool place to rise. The dough is divided into uniform sections that will become different shaped loaves. I try my hand a creating a baguette, a braid and a traditional loaf. Then we take a razor blade and cut five cuts on the loaves of traditional bread (always five scores, never more or less). A shot of steam goes into the over—this is very important for the color of the loaf and for the crust. Then the bread bakes for about 15 minutes.
While our bread is baking we now go upstairs to learn how to make croissants. A finer flour (number 45) is used to make croissant, along with butter, sugar and milk. There are 2 kilograms of butters for 6 kilograms of dough but as Loic points out –there is still less fat in a croissant than a hamburger. Miss Manon produces 700 croissants per day during the week and 1200 per day on the weekend. Marcel our teacher in croissant techniques has made over 1 million croissants in his life.
There are 170 layers in a croissant—that’s why they are flaky. You place the butter on the dough followed by another layer of dough creating a butter sandwich. Then you fold the dough over, and over and rolling it out. The bakery uses a machine for this and it is still very time consuming—I can’t imagine rolling the dough out over and over by hand. (the pop and fresh dough in the dairy case at the grocery store is looking more appealing now.) When the dough has been folded and rolled, it is cut into triangles. We stretch out the triangles carefully so we don’t tear the dough and then starting with the wide end of the dough we roll it to the small end creating a crescent.
Shocking news: France did not create the croissant which means crescent. It was created in Austria. The crescent is the symbol of Islam and when there was Turkish rule over Austria the “crescent” or croissant was created to honor the Turkish. It was brought to Paris where according to Loic it was perfected. The French believe they are the creator or all best things: wine, croissants, chocolate…However, it is true that pain chocolat or chocolate croissants are definitely a French creation.
While we are working there is a “croissant emergency” on the intercom—the people downstairs in the retail bakery need more croissants! We return to work next on the pain chocolate. The croissant dough is cut into rectangles instead of triangles—then a stick of dark chocolate is laid on top of the dough—we sample a piece of the chocolate for quality control and it is delicious. About a third of dough is folded over the chocolate. Then next to that fold another stick of chocolate is placed and the dough folded over that chocolate too. For the chocolate framboise that I loved, you would place raspberry jam instead of the second chocolate stick giving you one side chocolate and one side raspberry jam..
We are in the bakery for three hours and at the end of our tour I am given two loaves of traditional bread and one braided loaf. I’m wondering if I might want to enter the presidential competition for best bread but then realize I will be going home in two days so I don’t really have time. I am full from the choco framboise that we ate earlier in the day and as I walk down the street wondering what to do with my loaves, I see a homeless woman and child sitting on the sidewalk. The boy is wearing sneakers with Cookie Monster on them. “Voulez vous du pain Madame?” The woman extended her hand and took a loaf. “Merci Madame!” I walked another block with the warm loaf and found a white haired man and his dog. “Voulez vous du pain, monsier?” “Oui, Madame! Merci!” He gave me a toothless smile. I walked back to the apartment feeling that there couldn’t have been a better use for the bread I made.