I’ve been thinking a lot about bread lately and more specifically about baguettes. As I write, you see, I’m in the south of France, which requires a daily morning visit to the closest boulangerie. The French demand good, fresh bread every day. And when in Rome (or Biarritz) you do as the locals do.
But, knowing of my travels and my promise to report each week to CL’s readers, I ate a lot prior to my departure, including a couple of visits to a French bakery on Gulf Boulevard.
My initial selection at the Cafe de Paris Bakery is the Parisian sandwich. I fell in love with this combo years ago on my first visit to the City of Light. When you wrap your mouth around a crispy baguette slathered with the finest butter and taste the salty ham in contrast with a few tiny cornichon, you are hooked. It is simple, but perfection. Cafe de Paris’s version produces a flood of special memories, and I am transported from Indian Rocks Beach to the Champs-Élysées. Luckily, I have left my beret at home, so I don’t blow my cover.
Then there’s an enormous buckwheat crepe with ham, egg and cheese. The huge round ever-so-thin pancake is served with edges folded in to create a giant square. Even so, it’s still big enough for the corners to hang over the plate, and at the center is a perfect egg looking up at you like a bullseye. It is delicious, and accompanied by a small cup of soup. Both the onion and pumpkin soups are very light. The latter seems more like squash; both are okay, but don’t pack much punch. Perhaps they’re made with water instead of stock so that they may also serve vegetarian customers; anyway, that’s my guess. The textures are lush, but the flavors are muted. The onion soup is not so much beefy as buttery, and I miss that added dimension of flavor.
But the cafe au lait is deliciously strong and transporting. My almond croissant is crisp and tasty, if not quite as Parisian as the baguette. There’s a yummy citron, or lemon, tart with a shortbread-like crust and tangy curd. The chocolate tart is a recipe from grand-mère; it’s a flourless sweet that highlights the chocolate without getting too fudge-like, balanced by a nice dollop of cream on the top. Beautiful meringues are light and airy; they break apart in your mouth and flood it with sweetness as they dissolve on your tongue. The café also offers the de rigueur quiche and macaroons which are just fine, but not as transcendent as the crepes or the baguette — which is so good that I singled it out as the region’s best in CL’s recent Best of the Bay issue.
A baguette is, in theory, deceptively simple: just flour, water, yeast and salt. But there are a number of techniques a baker must master in order to produce world-class bread. Once you have the right flour, you need perfect ratios and proper kneading, fermenting, shaping, rising, slashing, baking and cooling. The only thing “simple” about a baguette is the ingredients. The skills required to manipulate dough just so to yield an open, irregular interior and a chewy, crackling crust take years of practice.
So, for a food critic, proper analysis of a French baguette requires attention to many little details of texture and flavor. Does the crust offer both crunch and chewy resistance before giving way to an airy, white and open crumb? How much yeast is apparent on the palate? Is the salt either too muted or too assertive? Is the crust optimally caramelized to yield maximum flavor?
I know Florida law allows drivers to use a cell phone behind the wheel, so I’m sure it’s not illegal to drive while evaluating French bread. As I leave the bakery, drive up Gulf Boulevard and then along the beautiful shores of St. Joseph Sound munching on my baguette, I am pensive and concentrating. While trying diligently to do a proper, professional analysis, all the questions above are swirling in my brain and I lose track of time. But half a baguette later when I stop at a traffic light, I look down to see my black pants covered by hundreds of tiny shards of crackling crust, and I smile. Cafe de Paris passes all the tests with flying colors.
So what’s the takeaway? Outside of France, good baguettes are hard to come by. Few, if any, crackle and spray you with crumbs when your teeth pierce the crisp, chewy crust to reveal what seems an impossibly airy interior. Luckily, Café de Paris Bakery brings France to you in the person of master baker Xavier De Marchi. He’s the real deal, and so is his bread.
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