Late last month I caught the Eurostar to Paris to interview Professor Steve Kaplan. The memorable morning we spent wandering around the city deserves a post of its own. Watch this space.
However before I left the city Steve insisted I drop in at a bakery called Du Pain et des Idées not far from the Gare du Nord and run by the irrepressible Christophe Vasseur.
Being in Paris with my recording kit, and being presented with such an engaging interviewee I could hardly not make a recording. And because the series if already bursting at the seams and because that means I cannot figure out a way of squeezing Christophe in – here is my interview with him as un petit goût of what’s in store next year.
Christophe has much in common with several of the other artisan bakers I have interviewed for the programme in so far as he had a career which he put aside because he simply knew he had to bake. Just as Dan Schickentanz of De Gustibus was first a lawyer, and then a real estate agent, and Loaf Online‘s Tom Baker a nutritionist with the NHS, Christophe worked in Hong Kong in the marketing and distribution of fashion before he found his metier.
Perhaps it was the name, but I had a mental image of a really modern place – a laboratory like crucible of bread and ideas – and so when I walked along the Rue Yves Toudic looking for the bakery I strolled straight past a really striking boulangerie. The thing is, it doesn’t have Du Pain et Des Idées scrawled all over it.
Christophe’s place was built in 1875. It is a thing of wonder; gilt mirrored signage, painted ceilings, mahogany counters. If you were to dream a Parisian bakery this would be it. Yet in the decade before Christophe took it over three successive owners went bust.
I suspect Christophe could make a go of a bakery in any hovel in Paris but in the Rue Yves Toudic he has found his spiritual home. For what Christophe is doing is embracing and reviving a tradition of French baking that started to decline after 1918 and very nearly died with the 1939-45 war and the industrialisation that followed.
Unlike most modern Parisian bakers Christophe doesn’t sell patisserie; only bread and viennoiserie (the things you eat for breakfast like croissants and Danish pastries – except they’re not Danish they’re Viennese, innit).
Steven recommended I try his Pain des Amis, utterly traditional other than its shape (it’s a large flattish loaf, whose dough is fermented for two days, which is baked in a wood fired over for an hour and from which Christophe’s staff cut chunks for customers).
There’s a rather moving passage early in the interview where Christophe describes the reaction of an 85 year old customer to rediscovering the bread of his youth. Listen and you’ll get des idées.
I asked for a sliver and got a brick sized piece. Did I try the pain aux raisins? I did not. How did I resist? No idea. I must have been hypnotised, or perhaps it was a form of ecstatic paralysis. My ability to say no to fine pastry is non existant. But I don’t feel cheated. I walked briskly from the bakery to the Gare du Nord, got on the train and sped back to Sussex with two of the finest loaves Paris has to offer – (I had another, of which more in a later post) and some excellent goat’s cheese.
Vive La France – and it takes a lot for a Sussex man to say that with gusto, but I do.