[Ed. note: King Arthur Flour Bakery director and Master Baker Jeffrey Hamelman is in Paris this week, at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. He'll be posting updates regularly; read his post from yesterday.]
The Europain trade show began today, and it remains one of the most alluring bakery shows there is. There are equipment vendors for large production bakeries, and others for smaller outfits who still do a lot of handwork. There is the wonderful Rue des Ecoles, a section on the show floor where most of the French pastry schools and trade organizations have a booth. There are different areas where competitions take place – one area just for a student competition, another for pastries, one for chocolate, and another quite serious one where all the competitors make an elaborately decorated croquembouche.
Europain is a great place to see new trends in baking, and without a doubt the French are a reinvigorated baking country. After perhaps a little too much smugness and resting on laurels, during which time they watched as other countries equaled and often surpassed them, they have really soared in the past decade, and it's quite something to see the new pastries and breads that are gaining prominence these days.
There are lots of vendors that have a small working bakery as part of their display so that potential customers can see equipment in action and taste the results. These can be fascinating, and I found myself riveted today, watching some new equipment in action. Salesmen mill about, ready to hook new customers.
By noontime, you'll see the sales areas of these booths filled with clients sitting at small tables and munching a small baguette sandwich while they sip Perrier or coffee or even (yes, at 11 a.m.) a flute of champagne. This great cacophony of people is an exhausting delight, a baker's paradise. And tomorrow, when the Coupe du Monde's actual baking competition begins, there will be that added element to enjoy.
Of course there are many other delights in Paris, not the least of which are the outdoor markets and the bakeries. Yesterday I visited two bakeries of great renown, and tomorrow I'm going to visit a few more with a couple of bakers from King Arthur who arrived in Paris this morning for the first time. I do believe they'll be rubbing their eyes in wonderment!
Others from King Arthur have been here for a few days, and it's fun to compare notes with them and hear of their planned and unexpected experiences on the streets. We all returned from Europain to central Paris on the train (the show is about 25 minutes from Paris proper), and they all went back to the hotel to sleep off a little jet lag.
I decided to stroll one of my favorite markets, the one on rue Mouffetard, just a few minutes walk from our hotel by the Pantheon. As I followed the meandering narrow cobblestone street as it wound gently downhill, I couldn't help but smile at the sensory onslaught – the colorful displays of fruits and vegetables, the hawking cries of the vendors (one gets the feeling that these same vendors were calling out from the same stalls in the same piercing intonations 200 years ago), the many small restaurants with their particular aromas wafting into the street, the housekeepers buying a day or two of food amid the crowds of tourists.
I passed by a few fromageries until I was just near the bottom of the market street, where one of my favorites is located– Androuet. As I entered, the aromas were so vivid as to be almost visible. Two old geezers in berets were in line in front of me, so I had a good time to browse as they ordered their cheeses. This they did with great care, each of them buying three or four selections.
As with all the best cheese shops, at Androuet cheeses are not pre-sliced and sealed in plastic; they're cut to order. Looking at the selections, it seemed clear that only cheeses that are ripe and ready to sell are displayed (I believe Androuet has a cave where they do some ripening of younger cheeses before selling them, but I may be wrong).
I was perfectly patient waiting my turn, which was a good thing because the old gents were clearly in no rush. And the two sales clerks clearly know their business, so lengthy discussions preceded the purchase of each selection. Once a cheese was chosen, it was wrapped with care and due respect (which, at up to 35 euros or more per kilo, it surely deserved).
When my turn came, I ordered one of my favorite goat cheeses – a Ste Maure. When I asked the clerk if it was made with "lait cru" (raw milk), he pointed to the small sign by the cheeses, which said "Ste Maure de Tourraine" and informed me that if the words "de Tourraine" were on the cheese, then it legally had to be made with raw milk.
This long, cylindrical cheese is curious in that there is a piece of straw inserted down the middle of the cheese, through the entire length. I have never known why, and since the clerk was clearly a knowledgeable guy, I asked him.
If my far-from-perfect French got this right, what he told me is that these somewhat soft cheeses, destined for the Paris market, had a ways to travel from their place of fabrication in the Loire Valley, so the straw was inserted to help them keep their shape and not fall apart during the journey. Further, the piece of straw is inscribed with a number signifying the date of manufacture.
Now I'm so eager to pull it out and see, but the King Arthur contingent just called, and we're off to dinner . . .
Michael Bittel, the senior vice president/general manager of our flour division, was one of the King Arthur employee-owners enjoying dinner at La Ferrandaise, where one of the dessert choices was cheese. They bring the entire load, and you just take what you will. Good stuff.