When Paris shuts down in the August heat, baguettes are harder to find

Baker Sylvie Debellemaniere sweats in the Paris heat.  Traditional baguette dough requires special care in hot weather.  (Photos by Adrienne Surprenant/MYOP for The Washington Post)
Baker Sylvie Debellemaniere sweats in the Paris heat. Traditional baguette dough requires special care in hot weather. (Photos by Adrienne Surprenant/MYOP for The Washington Post)

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PARIS — In normal times, more than 9 out of 10 Parisians live within a five-minute walk of a bakery. Some people can choose between two or three on their street. Don’t you want to cross the street? It is not to worry. In many places, there is a bakery on each side.

But these are not normal times. It’s August in Paris.

This is the period when most Parisians escape the city for their annual month-long vacation. And the baguette capital, home to over 1,000 bakeries and patisseries – can feel like a boulangerie desert.

In the city’s 15th arrondissement, what is usually a five-minute mission required a 15-or, mon Dieu, 20-minute walk in the summer heat last week, at least for this correspondent, an untrained baguette hunter . Three of the 7 bakeries in the neighborhood were already closed, with more planned to close in the coming days.

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The government tried for a long time to avoid such a predicament. Since bread is considered essential to the capital, bakers have faced restrictions dating back to the 1790s on when they could close their shops. Only since 2015, when the rules were finally relaxed, have all Parisian bakers been free to join the August exodus.

There are still those left behind. Being able to produce bread in the hottest time of the year is a source of pride, said baker Adriano Farano. But he recognized that this summer is tougher than the previous ones.

“We have rising wheat prices, rising energy prices, and of course rising fuel prices,” he said.

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Paris has also had an extremely hot summer. When bakers work with 450-degree ovens and no air conditioning during a heat wave, when they have to race to stay ahead of melting butter, when they try to avoid soggy baguettes and “stringy bread disease,” it’s not hard to see why they might decide to go to the coast or to the mountains.

This week at the Frédéric Comyn bakery, recently awarded the capital’s best baguette, the black shutters were lowered behind the presidential palace’s “Official Elysée Supplier” sign. There was no indication when the bakery would reopen. (Many French government officials will not return to the capital before August 24.)

A few hundred meters further on, a competitor had placed an image of a beach umbrella with stars hanging on the front door. “Happy Holidays,” a sign greeted those left behind.

In France, where a shortage of bread partly caused the storming of the Bastille and the end of the monarchy, bread has held a special status as a national symbol and a strictly regulated food. To avoid a famine in the capital, or another revolution, the French government decreed in 1798 that the availability of bread had to be guaranteed.

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In its most modern form, that decree was reflected in the requirement that half of all Parisian bakers remain open in July, the other half in August, evenly distributed throughout the capital. Bakers going on vacation were legally required to post signs directing people to the nearest open alternatives. Violators risked fines of 11 euros a day.

Even though the average daily diet of bread fell from 800 grams in 1875 to around 80 grams, bakeries remain deeply embedded in the country’s culture. The television program “The best bakery in France”, in its ninth season, attracts millions of viewers. During the coronavirus pandemic closures, bakeries were considered essential businesses and a trip to the bakery was an approved activity.

But France is also a country with a strong workers’ rights movement and a reverence for holidays. And in 2014, as part of a law designed to simplify corporate practices, the government eliminated on-call requirements for bakers.

Sylvie Debellemaniere, who sells dozens of different artisan breads, closed her store on Friday for the rest of the month. She said it was largely a financial decision. Rising costs had already reduced her profit margins, forcing her to increase the price of her baguettes from €1.20 to €1.30. And in August, she said, bakeries outside of the main tourist spots can’t count on a large customer base.

“A lot of people haven’t been on vacation in two years because of covid,” he said. “Everyone wants to leave. All the customers are fed up with Paris.”

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Like most Parisian bakeries, his store, Boulangerie De Belles Manières, is not air-conditioned. He worked there through multiple heat waves this summer, tending to hot ovens as outside temperatures topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit. He found that it helped him to wear looser clothing and tried to drink more water. But she said that perhaps the most effective coping mechanism was psychological.

“There’s no point ruminating all day,” he said. “I tell myself it’s cold, and that works.”

The summer heat is not only uncomfortable. May alter cooking chemistry.

“Butter is very, very sensitive to heat,” said William Boutin, 37, a pastry instructor at La Cuisine Paris, who had spent the morning teaching students the art of the croissant and still had some flour on his cheeks. . French butter can start to melt at 82 degrees, well below temperatures the capital has seen recently.

Heat also affects dough, accelerating its growth. If the heat speeds up the proofing process too much, the loaves may lose their desired texture, become denser, or may develop off-flavors. Fast-rising dough is also more difficult to shape, Boutin said.

For some pastry producers and bakeries, this has led to difficult decisions.

“Some of them in Paris decided not to sell and not to do viennoiserie” during heat waves, Boutin said, referring to products like croissants and pains au chocolat. “If you don’t have good air conditioning, you have to speed up your work.”

Other bakers hoped that by working harder and faster, they could outsmart the heat. They have experimented with reducing the water and yeast in their dough and shortening the kneading and resting phases.

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They have investigated how to avoid “stringy bread disease”, a bacterial contamination that is partly related to heat waves and characterized by the fact that bread emits “a sour smell of rotten fruit”, according to the French bakery magazine La Toque. , which devoted a series of articles to the difficult relationship between bread and heat waves.

And yet, some bakers were disappointed to discover that loaves baked in the heat and humidity became too soft by mid-afternoon.

Farano said adaptation is key.

He doesn’t use butter on his bread, allowing him to escape some of the problems that have hampered his colleagues.

His Pane Vivo bakeries produce naturally sourdough breads from an ancient variety of wheat and have found a growing fan base among Parisians looking for a healthier alternative to the dominant white baguette. Some of their breads include Corsican herbs, others are garnished with dried figs or dark chocolate.

“Our customers, once they start eating this bread, they can’t go back,” he said, as a steady stream of customers poured in, many of them visibly excited to find the store open.

Georges Sidéris, 63, said he had little hope as he set out on a mission to find his favorite breads on Thursday. “I told myself: I’ll try, you never know,” he said.

But even in August in Paris, his mission was successful. Sidéris bought a “Livia” with olives and rosemary and a “Figata” with dried figs. He showed a wide smile as he held his loaves tightly.

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