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When Paris shuts down in the heat of August, baguettes are harder to find

Written by Javed Iqbal

Baker Sylvie Debellemaniere is sweating in the Paris heat.  Traditional baguette dough requires special care in hot weather.  (Photos by Adrienne Surprenant/MYOP for The Washington Post)
Baker Sylvie Debellemaniere is sweating in the Paris heat. Traditional baguette dough requires special care in hot weather. (Photos by Adrienne Surprenant/MYOP for The Washington Post)

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PARIS — In normal times, more than 9 out of 10 Parisians live within an area five minutes walk of a bakery. Some people have a choice of two or three on their street. Don’t want to cross the road? Not to worry. In many places there is a boulangerie on both sides.

But these are not normal times. It is August in Paris.

This is the period when most Parisians flee the city for their month-long annual vacation. And the baguette capital – home to more than 1,000 bakeries and patisseries — can feel like a boulangerie desert.

In the city’s 15th arrondissement, what is normally a five-minute mission required a 15- or, man Dieu, 20-minute trip in the summer heat this past week — at least for this correspondent, an untrained baguette hunter. Three out of 7 bakeries in the neighborhood were already closed, with more planning to close in the coming days.

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The government has long sought to avoid such a predicament. As bread is considered critical to the capital, bakers have faced restrictions dating back to the 1790s when they could close their shops. Only since 2015, when the rules were finally relaxed, have all Parisian bakers been free to participate in the August exodus.

There are still those who remain. Being able to produce bread at the hottest time of the year is a source of pride, said baker Adriano Farano. But he acknowledged that this summer feels tougher than in the past.

“We have rising wheat prices, rising energy prices and of course rising fuel prices,” he said.

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Paris has also had a summer of extreme heat. When bakers work with 450 degree ovens and no air conditioning during a heat wave, when they have to run to stay ahead of their melting butter, when they try to avoid soggy baguettes and “stringy bread disease,” it’s not hard to see why they decide to head for the coast or the mountains.

This week at the bakery Frédéric Comyn, recently awarded for the capital’s best baguette, black shutters were pulled down behind the sign proclaiming: “Official supplier of the Élysée” presidential palace. There was no indication when the bakery would reopen. (Many French government officials will not return to the capital until August 24.)

A few hundred meters down the road, a competitor had put a picture of a beach umbrella with dangling stars on the front door. “Happy Holidays,” a sign greeted those left behind.

In France, where bread shortages led in part to the storming of the Bastille and the end of the monarchy, bread has assumed a special status as both a national symbol and a tightly regulated sustenance. To avoid famine in the capital, or another revolution, the French government decreed in 1798 that the availability of bread should be guaranteed.

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In its most modern form, that decree was reflected in the requirement that half of all Parisian bakers be open in July, the other half in August, evenly distributed across the capital. Bakers who went on holiday were required by law to put up signs directing people to the nearest open alternatives. Violators risked fines of 11 euros per day.

Though the average daily diet bread has fallen from 800 grams in 1875 to around 80 grams, bakeries remain deeply rooted in the country’s culture. The television show “France’s best bakery”, in its ninth season, attracts millions of viewers. During the corona pandemic lockdowns, boulangeries were considered essential businesses and a trip to the bakery was an approved activity.

But France is also a country with a strong labor rights movement and reverence for holidays. And in 2014, as part of a law designed to simplify business practicesthe government scrapped the duty requirements for bakers.

Sylvie Debellemaniere, who sells dozens of different artisanal breads, closed her shop on Friday for the rest of the month. She said it was largely a financial decision. Rising costs had already squeezed her margins, forcing her to raise the price of her baguettes from €1.20 to €1.30. And in August, she said, bakeries outside the prime tourist spots can’t count on much of a customer base.

“A lot of people haven’t been on holiday for two years because of covid,” she said. “Everyone wants to leave. All customers are tired of Paris.”

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Like most Parisian bakeries, her shop – Boulangerie De Belles Manières – has no air conditioning. She worked there through several heat waves this summer, tending the hot ovens as temperatures outside soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. She found that wearing looser clothes helped, and she tried to drink more water. But she said the most effective coping mechanism might be psychological.

“There’s no use brooding all day,” she said. “I tell myself it’s cool—and it works.”

The summer heat is not just unpleasant. It can mess with the baking chemistry.

“Butter is very, very sensitive to heat,” said William Boutin, 37, a pastry chef instructor at La Cuisine Paris, who had spent the morning teaching students the art of the croissant and still had some flour on her cheeks. French butter can start to melt at 82 degrees – well below the temperatures the capital has seen recently.

The heat also affects the dough and speeds up its rise. If the heat speeds up the rising process too much, breads may lose their desired texture, become denser, or they may develop undesirable flavors. Rapid-rising dough is also harder to shape, Boutin said.

For some pastry manufacturers and bakeries, this has given rise to difficult choices.

“Some of them in Paris decided not to sell — and not make — viennoiserie” during the heat waves, Boutin said, referring to products such as croissants and pains au chocolat. “If you don’t have a good air conditioner, you have to increase the speed of your work.”

Other bakers have hoped that by working harder and faster they could outwit the heat. They have experimented with reducing water and yeast in their dough and shortening the kneading and resting phases.

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They have studied how to avoid “thready bread disease” – a bacterial contamination partly linked to heat waves and characterized by the bread giving off “a sour smell of rotten fruit”, according to the French bakery magazine La Toque, which dedicated a series of articles to the difficult relationship between bread and heat waves.

And still some bakers were disappointed to find baked bread sitting in the heat and humidity became too soft in the middle of the afternoon.

Farano said customization is key.

He does not use butter in his bread, which allows him to avoid some of the problems that have hampered colleagues.

His Pane Vivo bakeries produce natural sourdough bread from an ancient wheat variety and has found a growing fan base among Parisians looking for a healthier alternative to the dominant white baguette bread. Some of his breads contain Corsican herbs, others are studded with dried figs or dark chocolate.

“Our customers, once they start eating this bread, they can’t go back,” he said as a steady stream of customers arrived, many of them visibly excited to find the store open.

Georges Sidéris, 63, said he had little hope when he set out on a mission to find his favorite loaves on Thursday. “I told myself: I’ll give it a shot, you never know,” he said.

But even in August in Paris, his mission succeeded. Sideris bought a “Livia” with olives and rosemary and a “Figata” with dried figs. He smiled widely as he held his loaves of bread.

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Javed Iqbal

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