In search of the best baguette

When you move to a new “quartier,” or neighborhood, in Paris, one of the first things a French person will ask you is if you’ve found your boulangerie yet. Knowing where you’ll get your baguette is of utmost importance as no two baguettes are the same, and therefore none are treated equal. Same goes, of course, for croissants and macarons. (Like it does for burgers, pizza, and bagels in New York. All savvy chowhounds know this, n’est pas?)

While price, hours and location are key factors in choosing your go-to boulangerie, it should really come down to taste and quality.

In the early days of my arrival, when I lived in the 9eme off Rue des Martyrs, I didn’t know much better and just went to the one on my corner, cause, well, it was on my corner and I could smell it as soon as I hit the curb. That was good enough for me.

As I began to get to know the area a bit better, I noticed the one up the block often had a line, which tipped me off to the fact that perhaps I should expand my baguette horizons. (Nothing like a queue to confirm quality—and waiting at a boulangerie is one of the few times I’ll relent.)

IMG_1860

The late-evening baguette rush on Rue des Martyrs

But it wasn’t until I relocated up here to Montmartre that I really started to be more particular with my baguettes. For one, the two closest boulangeries just didn’t cut it. Their baguettes were bland, tough, and rarely warm. In my opinion, a surefire sign of whether a baguette is legit is if it also tastes good at room temp since, generally, anything warm is worth eating. Plus, a baguette has about a 5-hour shelf-life, so if it’s been sitting around for a bit and still tastes good—as disappointing as it may be that it’s not chaud—well, bravo.

Also, now that I’m infiltrating myself into the Paris food scene a bit more, a lot of which I credit to the recent piece I researched and wrote for Saveur.com, I gotta keep up with all the various gourmands (food lovers, aka foodies) in this city. And there are a lot of them. It’s almost a requisite for maintaining one’s Frenchdom: Must love food. Must be discerning about food. Must be able to properly discuss all forms of food in any circumstance or situation.

So I’d have to search a bit further and wider to determine my local boulangerie, which, quite frankly, was for the best considering I’d been hanging out with a baguette’s best friends fromage and vin for the better part of the last few months. I’d make myself work (ie., burn calories) for my doughy, crusty carb craving.

Now, while I could’ve just done my own research and started going in and out of every boulangerie in the quartier each time I wanted a loaf, that would’ve taken forever. Boulangeries are as plentiful in Paris as nail salons are on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Plus, hello calories and coin-counting! I wanted to narrow it down fairly quickly, so I could establish a routine and relationship with my boulanger. To do so, I asked locals I know who live in the area and consulted the past winners of the Grand Prix de la Baguette de Tradition Française de la Ville de Paris,  a.k.a. The Best Baguette in Paris Competition, which has occurred annually since 1993. This was the year the state enacted a law stating that a true “baguette de tradition” could only have four ingredients—wheat flour, yeast, salt and water—and never be frozen or baked off premises. It’s amazing how, despite these basic regulations, so many baguettes can come out of the oven so differently.

For the competition, nearly 200 bakers enter to win the coveted title, a €4,000 award and the honor of supplying the French presidential palace with bread for the entire year! The 15-person judging panel always consists of several prestigious bakers, including the previous year’s winner, journalists, a top chef of sorts, someone with an Meilleur Ouvrier de France (like a famous butcher), and others in the food community, along with a few lucky randoms who had submitted themselves into a contest sponsored by the Mairie de Paris (the state).

Let’s not talk about the fact that I learned of said contest the day after entry had closed. I already cried over spilled bread crumbs.

Luckily for me, it turns out several fine bakers of the 18eme had made—and topped!—the list three years in a row starting in 2010. So, during my first few weeks of living in Montmartre, I set out to try as many of the past winners in my arrondissement as my waistline would allow.

For those interested in doing their own tour of Montmartre’s Best Baguettes, here’s a handy list of where to go based on the winners dating back five years:

2010
WINNER: Djibril Bodian (Le Grenier à Pain Abbesses), 38 rue des Abbesses

2011
WINNER: Pascal Barillon, Au Levain d’Antan, 6 rue des Abbesses
FOURTH PLACE: Gontran Cherrier, 22 rue Caulaincourt
FIFTH PLACE: M. Risser, Le Fournil du Village, 12 place J.B. Clément

2012
WINNER: Boulangerie Mauvieux 159 rue Ordener

In 2013 and 2014, two different bakers from the 14eme knocked the butte from the top slot—but still left room for some to make the list:

2013
SECOND PLACE: Boulangerie Raphaëlle, 1 rue Feutrier
NINTH PLACE: La Parisienne, 12 rue Coustou

2014
TIED FOR SECOND: Ali Ben Kadher from La Montmartoise at 43 rue de Clignancourt

And now, just last week it was announced that the 2010 winner from the 18eme, Djibril Bodian of Le Grenier à Pain Abbesses, won again this year, bringing a butte baker back to the almighty baguette throne!

While there are many from the list I still haven’t tried, who knows if I’d really be able to tell the difference and find a favorite without getting one from each and setting them all out in front of me at the same time like they do for the annual competition. I guess I’ll just have to stick around in Paris long enough to enter the contest next year.

In the meantime, I’ll likely continue going to two that had me at “bonjour!”: Gontran Cherrier, who won fourth place in 2011, and Boulangerie Mauvieux, who won first place in 2012. Why? Let me count the ways:

  1. No matter what time I go in—and it always varies—they’re often warm.
  2. But if they’re not, they still taste dang good.
  3. Furthermore, if left unwrapped (a tip from a friend), they both last longer than 5-hours and even take well to being slightly reheated.
  4. Both let me get “une demi” (half) for those days I know I won’t finish a whole. (Or won’t without feeling like a major fatty.)
  5. Both are located fairly close—about an 8-minute walk—but in different directions, so if I were coming from the east or going to west…you get the point.

Of course, as a resident of the 18th arrondissement, I felt it was my duty to at least try this year’s winner. I wasn’t even hungry, nor had any intentions of staying in that night for a dinner of baguette et fromage, but since I was walking by…

Le Grenier, won 1st place in 2010 and this year.

Le Grenier, won 1st place in 2010 and this year.

When I arrived on Saturday afternoon, there was a line out the door, but it moved pretty fast since it’s encouraged to always pay with exact change. In fact, many boulangeries use a coin-counting machine for swift transactions.

To my delight, upon placing and receiving my order—une demi baguette, sil’vous plait—it was warm! And so, as one does upon receiving such a fresh helping of soft, crusty carbs, I ate the entire half before I reached the end of the block.

Gone, but not forgotten.

Gone, but not forgotten.

6 thoughts on “In search of the best baguette

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