Tag Archives: Bread

Forget the Louvre. We really go to Paris for the croissants (because we can’t get them here)

Tartine at Cafe Tourelle in the Marais

Cafe Tourelle in the Marais

Until recently I had unlimited access to a couch in Paris and used it as much as courtesy and time permitted. The apartment was in an intoxicatingly romantic, creaky floored ancient building across from the police station in the Marais, the old Jewish quarter, which had not been raised to build the grand allees of Paris and thus retained its charms. Among these were a bakery on the corner and another half a block down. In addition the café Tourelle with solid day to day food and a terrific Café au lait with either tartine or croissants was three minutes away, as was the quirky café muse.

I spent my mornings there sipping on my fat cup of chicory redolent coffee and licking the jam off my fingers, envying the chatting French couples around me who take this for granted.

The croissants were always perfect – flaky and buttery, soft with a just a enough tooth, crying to be undressed one flaky layer at a time and devoured. So were the macarons at the corner shop, which my hosts pronounced far superior and less expensive than those from LaDuree (where I gladly spent $40 on what was essentially 2 glasses of bubbly and four cookies).

LaDuree macarons

Macarons at La Duree

Now and then I picked up a box of diverse pastries, breakfast suited tartlets and assorted treats to take back to the apartment to share – an excuse, as my hostess keeps her admirable figure by not eating pastries, leaving them mostly for me.

I value good pastries. When I bought a couch of my own in Berlin,  my first requirement was a bakery within walking distance. There are three, but they are not French, While the Germans are no slouch at baking, they can’t hold a candle to the Parisian croissants, but they are generally far better than what  we can find at home.

Most European bakery goods, in fact,  blow our American selection out of the water . They are made by better and differently trained artisans using different wheat and fatter butter . European bakeries play to a more demanding audience. Parisians  would rise up in arms at our low American standards.  The French complain loudly and immediately that the baguettes are endangered.  The average American wouldn’t k now a good baguette from a sandwich roll.

The majority of American pastry is produced in commissaries from mixes of a sort or par baked and finished off where it is sold. Hotels which used to vie for the top European and American pastry chefs now buy their goods pre-baked from wholesalers. A recent promising breakfast at San Francisco’s once exquisite Campton Place served a selection of breakfast breads which would have been equally in place at an IHOP.  The Maitre d’ gliding by with the inquiry, “Isn’t everything absolutely fabulous? “ It was not.

The main reason American pastries and “small” breads, known as Vienoiserie, are third rate is because that’s what Americans expect and want – hockey puck scones, cardboard Danish, huge cookies tasting of baking soda and an assortment of  sticky things kept in a cool case, which alters the proteins making the pastries them tough, stale and stickier.

Most bakery items are over sized – The French appreciate the the tiny, flavor packed macaron. We tend to prefer the sweet only six inch cookie or the half pound muffin, an overly sugared giant cupcake in reality.  A nice coffee shop I frequent tried selling a few higher quality small pastries and ended up throwing them out, because nobody would buy them. We are used to big and sweet as opposed to flavorful with mouth feel, and that’s what we buy.

There are some very acceptable, even good volume small item pastry/bakery producers/wholesalers, but their good work is foiled by the ignorance of retailers unaware of how to store and sell them, so cool cased palmiers end up tasting like glue covered shoe box covers.

La Boulange Palm Leaves

La Boulange Palm Leaves Correctly Stored

Of course we are not to blame, because most of us have no way of knowing any better. We get our sense of what is possible from the market, and coffee shops like Starbucks set the bar very low. We have scant basis for comparison.

Every once in a while a great bakery shop opens, then disappears.  A wonderful artisan Italian bakery in West Portal sold as a turnkey business to an operator who quickly switched to Costco before closing his doors last week. Creighton’s, another neighborhood store offering excellent, rustic pastry switched hands and products to the standard mass market trash.

The most recent sad story of short lived great bakeries, at least for its many fans,  is that of  La Boulange, the small business triumph of Pastry Chef/ entrepreneur Pasqual Rigo, which opened it’s first unit in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, then began to expand with a a cafe in that neighborhood and another grand little cafe in the Metreon building, where lines formed out the door within a month.

Latte and pastries at La Boulange

Rigo, a smart, skilled artisan, with a little help from his friends created a line of French style pastries and lunch snacks which would surely pass French muster. He manages to sell small items – macarons, madeleins, financiers – at profitable prices and offers home made tasting jam and butter for breakfast items, and a selection of savory sides – cornichons, sauces, etc –  and the coffee, served in warm bowls like a French farmhouse kitchen, is delicious (for the moment). It is a growing corporation with a single unit feel. Or at least it was.

La Boulange has just been purchased by Starbuck’s for $100 million with the explanation that they need the group to improve their quality. I don’t buy it. As a matter of fact I predict that this will be the short of long death of La Boulange.

Rigo’s skill and vision have about as much chance of uplifting Starbuck’s quality as the Titanic did of raising the iceberg.  “They needed a place to produce their pastry,” said a local LB manager. With more than 25,000 total units (including the Starbuck’s owned Seattle’s Best outlets) Starbucks would need a “Place to produce their pastry” half the size of Texas.  At this point La Boulange’s production is artisan, which means among other things that it is produced in proximity to the outlets. It also means that it is not too large to be overseen and quality controlled by people who both know and care. Those people are hard to find and probably won’t flock to Starbucks. Starbucks will not be able to do that, even with dispersed commissaries, which means cooled product transport. (Again, cold is the enemy of great baked goods.)

So why did they buy the company at that price? Starbuck’s management team must have known that La Boulange’s products could not inspire their national audience. I think Starbucks acted out of a different motivation:Corporate intervention.

If a growing, vibrant company threatens to outshine an existing larger corporation, then that corporation has two options: 1)They can expend the money and effort to meet the higher standard, or 2) they can kill or consume the upstart  it before it grows and becomes a threat.  Hostess Brands failed to see the threat when California’s Acme Bread and La Brea Bakery started America’s bread revolution. Now they have filed for Bankruptcy.   La Boulange CanellesStarbucks could not afford to lose business to a group which could attract a substantial portion of their business. If Starbucks had not subsumed La Boulange, It’s probable that an investment firm wold have taken it national.

This kind of competition intervention is legal and from the shareholder standpoint, justified.  Google bought Skype and Microsoft purchased Yammer for $1 billion for that reason. But this is different.  There is a vast difference between smart aps and social networking and food. As the grandfather in Johanna Spyri’s novel tells Heidi, “you can’t bite into a coin.”  When corporate interests reduce the quality choices of the greater public, questions of integrity apply.

Why do I think that Starbucks’ motivation was not a sincere desire to serve their customers better treats? Because the company could have addressed their quality issues more easily and economically.

I used to walk the Fancy Food Show with the culinary director of one of a local airline catering company – he may have been working for one of the large San Francisco production bakery café groups at the time – who was charged with sourcing most of the Starbucks’ pastries. His criteria were clear: nothing over $0.40 per piece. “I’d love to get this, he’d say, but they won’t pay for it.”   If Chef J. was squaring with me (I am not sure he always did this), then the goodies now sold by Starbucks  have 200% to 400% markup as opposed to an industry standard of about 75% to 100%.

If Starbucks had wanted to address the quality of their food and snacks, they could have started there. They could also have hired a great baker / pastry chef for as little as $300K a year – a lot of money, but far less than what they paid for La Boulange. American Pastry chef and baker come Paris expat David Lebovitz comes to mind – he surely would have saved them a few million.   Finding these people is my livelihood, and I can attest to the availability of highly qualified individuals who could have worked with the company to create attractive and financially  effective product .

La Boulange's Condiments

La Boulange Condiments

They could simply have hired a completely independent consultant to assist them with the selection and storage and showcasing of the product they already sell.

It is in fact possible, if Rigo and his team stay on, that Starbucks’ products will be a little better, but it is an absolutely sure thing that La Boulange’s selection will be dragged down.  The staff  at La Boulange stated they will start serving Starbucks’ coffee on Monday. (A new face there stated today that they would continue to serve the LaBoulange selection).  It will be interesting to see if it comes in the big, frothy cups. That is not improvement.

Macarons at La Boulange

Macarons at La Boulange

San Franciscans are murmuring that Rigo sold out. He did not.  He cashed in, and deservedly so. He achieved the American dream by hard work and smart business, and he and his partners deserve everything they have earned.  The fault, if it is one, lies with Starbuck’s. Quashing the quality competition before your own brand is subjected to negative comparison shows a regrettable lack of integrity along the Michael Douglas “Greed is Good” line of corporate thought.

Unlike many of my friends, I have nothing against Starbucks. I never thought that being large or successful is evil, although it clearly may corrupt ethical decision making. In the past Starbucks found “a need and filled it.” For all the condemnation of their pushing out mom and pop coffee shops with sour, stale brew, they introduced America to a wider and better range of coffees than most of us knew and provided common spaces with WiFi, setting a standard others picked up. Kudos for all that, but  scant respect for this caper.

Miss Maudie’s explanation of  Atticus’s admonition to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind: ““Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Can you say the same thing about a nascent corporation based on tradition and quality?

It is unfortunately too late for Starbuck’s to put down their BB gun. Their contrivance will be a loss to hoards of Americans who will never know what they missed.  Pity.

Perhaps Starbucks will prove me wrong. Let’s hope so, but even supposing that their intentions were not to keep the product quality bar low, the size of their operations poses a surely insurmountable impediment to maintaining La Boulange’s promise. I’d love to eat my words and good if not great croissants at any of their 17000 locations, but that’s pretty improbable.

Then again, there are more than one smart, talented and skilled bakers in the world, and with the possible incentive of $100 million (or a percentage of that sum – Rigo unfortunately  needs to share with investors and deal makers), who knows which young Turk will bless us with financiers? Look what Nancy Silverton kicked off with La Brea in the bread world.  Let the games begin.



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The Bread Game

Food as sport divides up fairly tidily into two categories, contact and spectator, with a bit of media, a few big talkers around the fringes and vast secondary economies cashing in on every aspect of the game.

The active mode, growing, brewing, cooking, canning and baking, has experienced a surge under the current food movements, which have catapulted millions of Americans into their gardens and kitchens much as the back to the earth and self sufficiency communities of the seventies sent young hippies into growing and baking communes.  Of course the-bus dwelling, pot-growing Hippies didn’t have Arclinea kitchens and Whole Foods markets, and their clumpy all grain breads and biodynamic grain gruels were usually barely edible, but the sentiments of the two factions are similar.

The current culinary moral imperative – know your food, calculate your water footprint, save the planet – traces its roots straight back to the children of thee summer of love, and that’s a pity, because it misses the point of the downright fun of playing with your food. Dogma is a poor reason for embarking on the creative process that ends up with golden loaves of bread and shelves of Mason jars filled with jewel toned jams.

Swiss Zopf

The spectacular thing about home production for me is that it doesn’t require justification or social motivation. It’s fun – a joyous, sensual, self affirming process starting with a flat of berries, a dead fish or a bag of flour and progressing through a series of motions and senses to a completed, delicious, lovely edible item you can either share with your friends or hoard for yourself.

My favorite food for play is bread. I inherited the knack for it from my mother and aunt, the McClintock sisters, who may have begun making it out of the frugal fiats of their Scott’s heritage, but were skilled enough to create identities for themselves from their successes, Maxine (my mother) winning the Pillsbury bakeoff from which she brought home a pile of swag which included the newest GE stove, a mink stole and a mixer, and Jimmie, who baked her way to the top of her Tidewater society, getting up at 5:00 am daily to pour herself a pint of beer and set up the starter for the day’s bread and food. The smell of rising yeast and fresh loaves was and is for me synonymous with home.

Unlike pastry, bread is not a science. It is an instinct, hedonistic, atavistic and Dionysian. It draws on living things and earth, yeast, bacteria and the gluten strands, which thank the baker for brutalizing the cells of the grain by forming chains to hold water and air.  American breads are – or were – mid things between bread and pastry. By the time I reached adulthood, you had to go overseas to experience the infinite possibilities of leavened grain.

Fifteen years after the war I had the good fortune to land in Europe with the limitless offerings of regional bakeries not yet impacted by the gargantuan food corporations which would eventually decimate them when European women began to demand convenience and price without realizing the quality it would cost them in their foods.  Master bakers still ruled, and the preferred shops were easily identifiable by the lines of disciplined shoppers stretching out onto the sidewalk.

In Germany, where I landed, there were  “Semmel” – hard crusted, soft centered breakfast rolls with a pinwheel on top, which cost me a few clothing sizes – and “vollkorn”, dense, black-brown, moist breads baked with entire grains and berries. Smeared with pate or white cheese sprinkled with herbs, it was dinner.  The German word for dinner is not “Abendbrot” or “evening bread” by chance. Each town or village had its own signature baked goods, and every other country – France, Sweden, Austria added to the wealth.

A few years later I found myself in Switzerland with my own kitchen and mixer with a mill/grinding attachment. Since our back yard was bounded by a hundred or so acres of wheat, barley or depending the season, corn, baking was a given. Every housewife knew how, had her own recipes and tips, and everyone wanted to share.  On holidays we baked with the kids. Our kitchens and homes smelled like fresh loaves. Bread was a social connection, a metaphor and a health food.  That was twenty years ago, and it could not last.

About a year back I got bit by the baking bug again at Rainbow Grocery. I had gone for something else, but one minute I was standing in front of bins of hard wheat and soft wheat, rye, graham, 00 and high/low gluten flour, and the next I was at checkout with $20 worth of different flour varieties.

They shouldn’t say that something you stop doing and then start again is “like riding a bicycle.” They should say “It’s like making bread.”  Once you learn, you never forget the right feel of the dough, the look of the surface and even the sound of the dough slapping against the butcher block.  It’s hard for me to understand how I went for so many years without the ceremony of cutting off the hot heel of the oven hot loaf and smearing it with butter.

A lovely friend, whose previous incarnation was as a baker and celebrated pastry chef, says there’s an old village (that’s redundant – there are no new villages) in the Canton of Vallais outside of Geneva, where the local bakery gives weeklong baking courses for making the original breads of the region. It would be in autumn. Maybe I’ll go.

In the meantime I have a sweet dried apricot rye that brings happiness from the moment the yeast bubbles to the last end crust of the double loaf.   I’m in the game again, just for the pleasure of it.