But these are not normal times. It’s August in Paris.
This is the period when most Parisians flee the city for their month-long annual vacations. And the baguette capital — home to more than 1,000 bakeries and patisseries – can feel like a desert boulangerie.
In the city’s 15th arrondissement, what would normally be a five-minute mission required a 15- or, mon Dieu, 20-minute trek in the summer heat this past week—at least for this reporter, an untrained baguette hunter. Three of the 7 neighborhood bakeries have already closed, with more planned to close in the coming days.
The government has long tried to avoid such a predicament. With bread considered critical to the capital, bakers face restrictions dating back to 1790 on when they can close their shops. Only since 2015, when the rules were finally relaxed, are all Parisian bakers free to join the August exodus.
There are still some that remain. Being able to produce bread during the hottest time of the year is a source of pride, said baker Adriano Farano. But he admitted that this summer felt more difficult than previous ones.
“We have rising wheat prices, rising energy prices and of course rising fuel prices,” he said.
Paris 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 race to get ahead of their melted butter, when they try to avoid soggy baguettes and “tough bread disease”, it’s not hard to see why they might decide to head for the coast or the mountains.
This week at the bakery Frédéric Comyn, recently awarded for the best baguette in the capital, black shutters were lowered behind a sign that read: “Official supplier of the Elysee 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 racer had pinned an image of a beach umbrella with hanging stars to the front door. “Happy Holidays,” a caption greeted stragglers.
In France, where bread shortages partly caused the storming of the Bastille and the end of the monarchy, bread held a special status as both a national symbol and a tightly regulated diet. To avoid starvation in the capital or another revolution, the French government decreed in 1798 that the availability of bread must be guaranteed.
In its most modern form, this decree was reflected in the requirement that half of all Parisian bakeries remain open in July and the other half in August, evenly distributed throughout the capital. Bakers going on holiday were required by law to put up signs directing people to the nearest open alternatives. Violators risked fines of €11 per day.
Although average daily diet bread has dropped 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 coronavirus pandemic lockdown, bakeries were considered essential businesses and traveling to the bakery was an approved activity.
But France is also a country with a strong workers’ rights movement and reverence for holidays. And in 2014, as part of a a law designed to simplify corporate practicesthe government abolished duty requirements for bakers.
Sylvie Debelmaniere, who sells dozens of different artisan breads, was closing her shop on Friday until the end of the month. She said it was largely a financial decision. Rising costs had already squeezed her profit margins, forcing her to raise the price of her baguettes from €1.20 to €1.30. And in August, she said, bakeries outside the main 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. “Everybody wants to leave. All the customers are fed up with Paris.
Like most Parisian bakeries, her shop – Boulangerie De Belles Manières – has no air conditioning. She worked there through multiple heat waves this summer, tending to hot ovens as temperatures outside soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. She found that wearing looser clothes helped and tried to drink more water. But she said perhaps the most effective coping mechanism is psychological.
“There’s no point in brooding all day,” she said. “I tell myself it’s cool—and it works.”
Summer heat is not only unpleasant. It can be messed with baking chemistry.
“Oil is very, very sensitive to heat,” said William Boutin, 37, a pastry instructor at La Cuisine Paris, who had spent the morning teaching students the art of the croissant and still had some flour on his cheeks. French oil can begin to melt at 82 degrees – far below temperatures seen recently in the capital.
Heat also affects the dough, speeding up its rise. If the heat speeds up the rising process too much, the bread may lose its desired texture, become denser, or may develop undesirable flavors. Quick-rising dough is also more difficult to shape, Boutin said.
For some confectioners and bakeries, this has led 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 like croissants and chocolate pastries. “If you don’t have good air conditioning, you have to increase the speed of your work.
Other bakers hope that by working harder and faster, they can beat the heat. They have experimented with reducing the water and yeast in their dough and shortening the kneading and resting phases.
They have studied how to avoid “tough bread disease,” a bacterial contamination that is partly linked to heat waves and is characterized by bread giving off a “sour smell of rotten fruit,” according to French bakery magazine La Toque, which dedicated a series of articles to the difficult relationship between bread and heat waves.
And yet, some bakers were disappointed to find that the baked loaves stayed in the heat and moisture it became too soft by mid-afternoon.
Farano said adaptation is key.
He uses no butter in his bread, which allows him to escape some of the problems that have plagued his colleagues.
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 dominant white baguette bread. Some of his breads include Corsican herbs, others are topped 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 visibly excited to find the store open.
Georges Sideris, 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 was successful. Sideris bought Livia with olives and rosemary and Figata with dried figs. He smiled widely as he held his hands tightly.