The Beau, Bon, & BubblyTo bake or not to bake--that is the question that separates the few from the many. It is the philosophical question that guy on Iron Chef should be thinking when he bites into the pepper: damn, I wish this was a sesame cake...Baking is an art, the little Rattatouille squeaks that anyone can cook, but can anyone bake? Bourdain refers to them as the sadists, history the peasants and paysans--me, I refer to them as the demigods of course, morning maniacs with powdered cheeks and and chests and tight tennis forearms; yes baking is a passion of creation, and bread baking, well damn Zeus himself has appeared. Bread is a tedium, not an amateur sport, and while Paris is full of a hundred craftsmen in dusty whites, there is but one who can stand on the top of Gustave's Tower and claim superiority over the crispy little baton--the symbolic icon and lifeblood of France--and his name: Anis Bouabsa of Duc de la Chapelle boulangerie, the winner of the best baguette in Paris 2008.
How do I know this? No, I am not part of the Boulanger weekly news club (sadly) but rather from Elle a Table food magazine, in which an article in the Mai/Juin edition features a striking 'up close and personal' on the master baker. The article noted Bouabsa's long and impressive trophy record including his M.O.F (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) under the boulanger category in 2004 at the petit age of 24 when he received a medal from President Jacques Chirac himself. Chouette.
His celebrity status arises not just from his classic prize winning baguette, but also from his assortment of breads fused with exotic herbs and fruits, as well as his use of variant flours...variant flours, i.e. not wheat, i.e. not gluten. Corn, seigle, and sarrasin are prominent grains found throughout many of his creations, which he states the secret to as slow fermentation (rising en anglais? what country am I from?) of 20 to 30 hours. The article states his creativeness as a result of his Tunisian immigrant parentage--I state his creativeness as a result of being, well creative. An artiste, like any mozart or monet. Well, the best baguette in Paris, and gf bread on top? What wanna-be gastronomique writer could pass scouting that out? On y va.
Monday after class is the perfect day and time to quest a boulanger. Wanting this time a sidekick (yeah a sidekick, Tony has sidekicks, you just can't see them they are behind the camera) I ask Tartar to come along, and we are joyously made three by another friend who we shall call South Africa. Walking to the metro from our beloved university (you catch the sarcasm?), Tartar asks the ever devilish question, so how far is this? last time you dragged me to god knows where... Erm, not far at all.
North end of line 12! We're at the south! My dears, I plead to them, good things are worth waiting for, the harder it is to get, the sweeter it will taste. Fine, lead the way girl, I'll just follow that little blue bag of yours, you're like a walking j.crew add (that would be my professional camera bag, I mean coach bag.) Getting off at metro Marx Dormoy, one stop shy of the line end at Porte de la Chapelle (Paris note: you hear the word 'Porte', you know you are at the edge of the city) I lead the way through a new corner of town; not quite the Paris of Saint Germain and all that is chic Seizieme, the northeast of the 18th is more 'inner city' though it is on the outer. Tight streets cluttered with debris and litter, graffiti strewn walls and signs, dogs barking and babies crying, a different makeup of Parisians leaning outside coffee shop windows. Excellent. Are we in Paris? Tartar asks me as we walk by a chain link basketball court. Yes, yes we are.
20 minutes of walking...remember good things are worth the pain and strife! Here we are! The boulangerie is nearly empty at the hour of half past five, hello hello monsieur, I read in a magazine article that you had bread without wheat flour, like corn. Huh? What do you want? Bread without wheat, gluten, it said you had it. Uh, hold on. He comes back a few minutes later with...the man himself! Ahk! Bonjour, what are you looking for? I read you make bread with alternative flours...ah ok you want this one, its sarrasin, and so there's no gluten. Yes! Give it to me! And I'll take the baguette too of course. For photo purposes monsieur.
We grab the baguettes--and the dark black brown circle loaf Anis handed me himself. Baguette sword fight, if you have not dueled with a baguette baton you are severely missing out on life. Ahhh!!!!! we just met the most famous boulanger in Paris! Whatever helps you get your kicks mallory the others snigger...AS they eat the best baguettes of their life. I knew they were inwardly thanking me.
There we went, me in my tricolor suit of blue white and red---the bleu, blanche et rouge of the drapeau, liberté, égalité, fraternité--carrying my baguette through the streets and metro tunnels, almost as if I were really one of them. But I am not, I don't know what I am. I am just me. But sarrasin bread, let me say, honey, I can die now.
Bon travail Anis Bouabsa, for your Meilleure baguette de Paris. Little brother R--do you still like baking zeee bread? Maybe someday you'll come work for Anis, I'll introduce you. hehe.