In August in Paris, a baguette is sometimes a good 20 minutes

Baker Sylvie Debellemanière sweats in the Parisian heat.  Traditional baguette dough requires special attention in hot weather.  (Photos by Adrienne Surprenant/MYOP for the Washington Post)
Baker Sylvie Debellemanière sweats in the Parisian heat. Traditional baguette dough requires special attention 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 a five-minute walk of a bakery. Some people have a choice of two or three on their street. Don’t want to cross the road? Do not worry. In many places there is a bakery on either side.

But these are not normal times. It’s August in Paris.

This is the time when most Parisians escape the city for their annual month-long vacation. And the baguette capital – home to over 1,000 bakeries and patisseries – can look like a bakery desert.

In the city’s 15th arrondissement, what’s usually a five-minute mission required a 15-or, my goodness, 20-minute hike in the summer heat of the past week — at least for this correspondent, a baguette hunter not form. Three out of 7 neighborhood bakeries were already closed, and more are planning to close in the coming days.

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The government has long sought to avoid such a situation. With bread considered essential for the capital, bakers faced restrictions dating back to the 1790s on when they could close their shops. Only since 2015, when the rules were finally relaxed, have all Parisian bakers been free to join the August exodus.

There are still those who remain. Being able to produce bread during the hottest time of year is a source of pride, said baker Adriano Farano. But he admitted that this summer was more difficult than the previous ones.

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

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Paris also experienced a summer of extreme heat. When bakers work with 450-degree ovens and no air conditioning during a heatwave, when they have to rush to stay ahead of melting their butter, when they try to avoid soggy baguettes and the ‘Stringy Bread Disease’, it’s not hard to see why they might decide to head for the coast or the mountains.

This week at the Frédéric Comyn bakery, recently awarded the best baguette in the capital, black shutters have been lowered behind the sign proclaiming: “Official supplier of the Elysée” of the 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 further, a competitor had affixed to the front door the image of a parasol with hanging stars. “Happy Holidays”, a sign greeted those who remained.

In France, where the shortage of bread partly caused the storming of the Bastille and the end of the monarchy, bread has held a special status as a national symbol and a strictly regulated food. To avoid a famine in the capital, or another revolution, the French government decreed in 1798 that the availability of bread must be guaranteed.

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In its most modern form, this decree resulted in the requirement that half of all Parisian bakers remain open in July, the other half in August, evenly distributed in the capital. Bakers going on holiday were legally required to put up signs telling people of the nearest open alternatives. Violators risked fines of 11 euros per day.

Even though the average daily ration of bread has fallen from 800 grams in 1875 to around 80 grams, bakeries remain deeply rooted in the culture of the country. The program “La Meilleur Boulangerie de France”, in its ninth season, attracts millions of viewers. During the coronavirus pandemic closures, bakeries were considered essential businesses, and a trip to the bakery was an approved activity.

But France is also a country with a strong movement for workers’ rights and a respect for holidays. And in 2014, as part of a law to simplify business practices, the government scrapped custody requirements for bakers.

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

“A lot of people haven’t gone on vacation for two years because of covid,” she said. “Everyone wants to leave. All customers are fed up with Paris.

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

“There’s no point ruminating all day,” she said. “I tell myself it’s cold – and it works.”

The summer heat isn’t just uncomfortable. This can disrupt the cooking chemistry.

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

Heat also has an impact on the dough, accelerating its rise. If heat speeds up the fermentation process too much, breads can lose their desired texture, become denser, or develop unwanted flavors. Quick-rising dough is also more difficult to shape, Boutin said.

For some pastry chefs and bakers, this has led to tough choices.

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

Other bakers hoped that by working harder and faster, they could outsmart the heat. They tried to reduce the water and yeast in their dough and to shorten the kneading and resting phases.

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They researched how to avoid ‘stringy bread disease’ – a bacterial contamination which is partly linked to heat waves, and which is characterized by the fact that bread gives off ‘a sour smell of rotten fruit’, according to the magazine of French bakery La Toque, which has devoted a series of articles to the difficult relationship between bread and heat waves.

Yet some bakers have been disappointed to find that breads baked in the heat and humidity become too soft by mid-afternoon.

Farano said adaptation is key.

He doesn’t use butter in his bread, which allows him to escape some of the problems that have bothered his co-workers.

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

“Our customers, once they start eating that bread, they can’t go back,” he said, as a steady stream of customers arrived, many of whom were visibly delighted to find the shop open.

Georges Sidéris, 63, said he had little hope when he left Thursday on a mission to find his favorite breads. “I said to myself: I will try, you never know,” he said.

But even in August in Paris, his mission succeeded. Sidéris buys a “Livia” with olives and rosemary and a “Figata” with dried figs. He flashed a broad smile while holding his buns tight.

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