Inside the Bakery #2: Simply the Brest

If you’re currently within the confines of the hexagone (France for the uninitiated, in reference to its shape) you can’t help but notice two things. The brutal heatwaves sweeping the nation and the poor (weird? utterly bat-merde crazy?) souls voluntarily climbing up mountains on bicycles in such high 30s-low 40s weather. Yes, the Tour de France is here again, and this time, maybe, just maybe, the French might take it (Update: er, no they didn’t…)

Not only one of nation’s favourite sports and a quite astounding physically demanding challenge to wrap your head around, cycling has managed to reach French cultural spots that other sports just haven’t managed, namely creating a magical partnership between cycling… and patisserie. But to be honest, in a country where food is King, Queen and the whole bloody Royal Family (well they don’t have a real one, remember) it’s amazing it hasn’t happened a lot more often.

Yes, in addition to having its own clothing line (those natty coloured jerseys), cycling has its own official pastry. And it has done since 1910 when pâtissier Louis Durand was asked by his friend Pierre Giffard to create a dessert to commemorate the Paris-Brest-Paris (or PBP) bike race that he had created in 1891. A prolific sports event organiser and journalist, Giffard founded the PBP as a method of boosting sales of his Parisian newspaper Le Petit Journal (after seeing the success of a 600km Paris to Bordeaux race that was created for that very reason) and by 1895 it seemed that his plan had worked and with a daily circulation of two million it was the world’s most popular newspaper.

Officially the world’s oldest long-distance cycle race (the Tour came along a few years later as a publicity stunt for a rival newspaper) the 1,200km event was designed to show off the capabilities of the humble bicycle, then the sharpest of cutting-edge technology, with a ride from Paris to Brest in Brittany and back again.

The fact it takes place on two wheels is essentially all it has in common with the hallowed Tour, and rather than taking place every year with a changeable route, the PBP has settled into a four-yearly cycle keeping pretty much the same itinerary, with the 2019 edition due to roll off on the 18th August. Originally a professional race but now exclusively populated by amateurs, this year more than 6,000 riders will take part, with the sole aim of trying to stay in the saddle and complete the challenge in under 90 hours. Much sleeping under hedges and dogged determination will see the participants through, and you can tell your buddies that you would have taken part, but registration is now closed. Excuses for the next four years until the 2023 edition entirely up to you.

If this all sounds a bit too physically and mentally taxing for you, then direct your penny farthing to the bakery and order the Paris-Brest – two circular wheels of choux pastry filled with praline cream and dusted with slivered almonds and icing sugar (I had to eat two just to check the recipe). Most commonly available in small individual pastries, you can also find a much larger version, comparable in size to the tyres on those weird foldable bike things. Given its high calorific value, it was and still is popular with the race riders (yes, during) though they have the luxury of being able to burn off the calories almost instantaneously. I’ll wait for the stifling heat to pass, and then I’ll jump back on my Velib, promise.

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Inside the bakery #1: Nothing compares to choux…

Bakeries and France are like peas and carrots. It’s unthinkable to imagine the country without their intoxicating displays and heady smells, and they’ve shown they can hold firm, clinging on to France’s streets with unwavering authority no matter what big supermarket chains can throw at them (i.e. not bloody much). Nothing compares to tucking into the nubbin end of a warm baguette on your way home, and as for the pastries, well, the reason for many a gym membership. You could almost say heading to one is a religious experience…

When talking about simple delights, food is naturally at the heart of the French philosophy. Whether an expertly constructed croque monsieur in a neighbourhood brasserie, or a plate of pain perdu washed down with a steaming coffee (ok tea, British tradition holds strong) a few euros is all it takes to transport yourself to gastronomic heaven. And if it’s that you’re explicitly after, then the bakery provides you with a dizzying array of tickets.

But what to choose? Forget the road to heaven, trying to decide what to have, and then trying to get it home before you cave in and devour the thing in two whole bites is a special kind of hell. Luckily, I have selflessly conducted extensive research on the matter, and can now introduce you to one of my bakery counter favourites – la religieuse. Shake her hand, give her the bises, and if you don’t like her, then keep in the loop as I’ll be presenting other delicious candidates as the year progresses.

When thinking of choux pastry (so called since the little puffs look like mini cabbages or choux), it’s the humble eclair or profiterole that normally springs to mind. But the choux family has another, rather pious member, dressed to the nines in honour of your gustatory pleasure, usually cruelly overlooked in favour of her better-known cousins.

Literally translating as ‘nun’ a religieuse is a two-tiered choux delight, complete with natty little outfit and a tender heart of crème patissière – that thick pastry cream with a calorie count worth running a couple of marathons for (but c’mon, who’s counting?). It’s designed on purpose to resemble a good sister, with a head and body covered in an icing habit delicately joined together by a piped buttercream ruff.

Said to have been invented in 1856 at famous Parisian café Frascati (perhaps the chef had a few sins to absolve but a shift schedule that didn’t factor in time for confession), this edible abbess typically comes in chocolate or coffee flavour, though luxury bakery La Durée often flies in the face of conformity and peddles colourful morello cherry and pistachio versions (amongst others). Pricey at €7.50 a pop, it’s a bold move when dicing with such a traditional food heritage, and frankly, as an expert, I don’t think much of their ruffs.

All wrapped up in a dainty little package from around €2.20-€2.50 (depending on the postcode, obviously) all that is left after the all important selection process is complete, is to transport la soeur home, and decide, whilst swiftly whispering a prayer, whether to eat the head or the body first (I hope you can appreciate just the sacrifice I made in delaying my personal gratification whilst I took photos). The singing of hymns in praise of French bakeries afterwards, is entirely optional.