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Du Pain et des Idées has long been hailed as one of the best bakeries in Paris, honouring timeless baking traditions with flavours that change with each season. Its postcard-pretty quarters are most famous for its pain des amis, a rectangular, wood-fired loaf fashioned to perfection with farmer-ground heritage grains.
Culture Trip: What’s the inspiration behind the name for your bakery, Du Pain et des Idées?
Christophe Vasseur: Du Pain is the basis of the bakery – bread. I added Idées (Ideas) because, for me, bread is kind of a monument, a product that needs to be rethought.
This doesn’t mean I want to start a revolution; I just want to take a trip back into the past to show my customers that we can do bread differently. My bakery is very traditional in the sense that it’s like those that were commonplace a century ago. They only made bread back then, no pastry at all.
CT: What can you tell us about the beautiful building that your bakery is housed in?
CV: It’s registered as a historical monument that dates back to 1875, and it’s always been a bakery. Most of these old buildings have been destroyed and replaced by brand new ones, so there are only a few bakeries left like this in Paris.
The paintings, especially those on the wall and ceiling, are all original. They are from 1875, so should probably be in a museum now.
CT: Where does your love of baking come from?
CV: I don’t know precisely, but I know that it’s been there since I was a child. I started quite late because I was 33. I’m now 50, so it’s been 16 years that I’ve been running this bakery.
CT: Was there a particular cake that your family made that you really loved?
CV: There are a few recipes inspired by what I ate when I was a kid. But I would say that 99 percent of what I sell is from new recipes, from my personal taste and inspiration. Not something that was transmitted through my grandmother or someone.
CT: How did you come to be a baker?
CV: I am a self-trained baker; I didn’t learn in any school. I was in the fashion industry before I became a baker. But there came a moment when I was not happy any more in my fashion life, so I decided to radically change and I am much happier now. Working in design and fashion did influence my baking, though, because there was a lot of creativity.
CT: Could you tell us the process for making a croissant?
CV: A croissant is a brioche, but a brioche that is folded several times so that we create the layers. A croissant is brioche feuilleté – it’s like feuilletage but made out of a brioche dough. It’s extremely technical, and that’s why you can’t find many bakeries where they still make croissants themselves.
Not only is it technical, but it’s no longer taught in French schools. It’s been 40 years since it was last taught in the training programme for bakers, boulanger-pâtissier.
CT: Do your bakers still make croissants by hand?
CV: Yes, they learned from me, and I learned by reading a few books and experimenting with some techniques. But the old-fashioned way, which used to be taught in schools, is no longer the case.
It’s a real pity that the national education system does not trust or believe in it any more, given how iconic the croissant is to French food.
CT: Are homemade croissants much better than factory-made versions?
CV: Of course! Like anything that is handmade versus something processed in a big factory, because of the raw materials we use and the time we spend. A handmade croissant takes about 36 hours to make but only about two hours with the industrial process.
And of course, the ingredients are not the same. It takes time to get the right texture and taste, so two hours versus 36 hours – you can imagine the taste is not the same.
CT: When you say that the ingredients are different, what do you use?
CV: We use farm butter, farm eggs and farm milk. And not just any kind of farm produce; we use the organic, very tasty, pricey ones. But if you want something good, you’ve got to pay the price.
CT: Do your bakers spend most of their time making croissants?
CV: Yes, most of their duty is to make croissants, to make brioches and feuilletages too.
CT: Which pastry in your shop are you the most proud of?
CV: Ah, the chocolate pistachio one. We call it escargot (snail), but it’s not a real escargot: it’s the shape that looks like it. It’s with pistachio custard and dark chocolate chips. That’s the one you should try. If there is only one product to try at my place, it’s this one.
CT: What makes your bakery the best?
CV: First of all, because we are still small. We have only one bakery in Paris, not 10 outlets. When you look for something that is supposed to be craft-made, there cannot be lots of outlets. There is a human limit.
When you claim to make a top-quality product, you can only have one shop. So a single shop with a very limited range, that’s also a sign that it’s truly handmade and homemade, locally. We only have a few products, not 20 kinds of bread and 50 kinds of viennoiserie.
The last thing is our reputation. It’s not because we’re friends with journalists. It’s just because we are known for making the best croissants and the best bread, not only in Paris, but from what I read and hear from many people around the world.