Paris — In a country where baguettes reign supreme, Djibril Bodian has earned the tribute of its capital city for his work as an artisan of the staff of life.
The 33-year-old native of Senegal, who came to France as a child and wistfully recalls playing in his father’s bakery, is the recipient of an annual award given by the Paris mayor’s office for producing the best baguettes in the city.
I met Bodian at Le Grenier à Pain, a little bakery in the storied Montmartre section of Paris, which is one of a chain of famous bakeries opened by the celebrated French baker, Michel Galloyer.
In his lovely autobiography “Why Not Me” about his rise to fame as a baker and entrepreneur, Galloyer includes a short history of bread, also touching on its importance in the life of the Jewish people.
“When they fled Egypt during the exodus,” the Hebrews “took with them dough which had not yet risen. They baked it into galettes: it was the famous ‘unleavened bread.’ … Nowadays, in Jewish practice, the prohibition from eating leavened bread comes out in the form of a commemoration: every year, the night of the exodus has to be relived.”
Since 1993, the Paris mayor’s office has offered a prize for what are officially known in France as “baguettes de tradition,” and Bodian, who is in charge of things at the Montmartre branch of Le Grenier à Pain, is the latest winner.
When I arrived at the bakery, a young woman employee, her red apron dusted with flour, was filling a bag with baguettes for a waiting customer.
Where to look next? The choices seemed endless — and way beyond baguettes.
Two varieties of brioches were stacked near the counter — chocolate and sugar — but I was quickly drawn to the moist almond croissants topped with thinly-sliced almonds on top of a display case, inside of which were Viennese pastries in a rainbow of alluring colors and shapes.
There were also jars of preserves and chutneys with the Grenier à Pain label on a shelf near the entrance to the bakery.
Just a few feet behind the counter, Bodian, wearing a white T-shirt, was lowering one of three large trays of baguettes he had just pulled from the mouth of an oven.
Remembering his childhood days playing in his father’s bakery, he confided to me, as if by understatement, that “the world of the bakery is something that I know very well.”
These days, it’s all work — even though some might argue that the work you love is also a form of play.
After Bodian’s prize was announced, the bakery was besieged by people from other parts of Paris and from as far away as Bordeaux, desiring to taste his winning baguettes.
But Le Grenier à Pain, whose beige-and-brown motif and exposed brick walls lend it a touch of rusticity, remains a quintessentially neighborhood bakery in an area of Paris known for the red windmill of Le Moulin Rouge and the Sacre-Coeur Church, which overlooks the city near, of all things, an actual vineyard.
For his efforts, Bodian was awarded a 4,000-euro prize, along with the distinction of supplying baguettes for a year to the Èlysée Palace, the official residence of the French President.
It’s nothing to scoff at in a country like France, where baguettes, a staple of French eating, are typically carried home under the arm after work or nibbled at lunchtime on the street.
The No. 54 bus dropped me off in front of Le Moulin Rouge on Boulevard de Clichy, just one stop away from the famous Brasserie Wepler in Place de Clichy.
Knowing that I was this close to the brasserie, the old haunt of the late American writer Henry Miller, not only reminded me of Montmartre’s literary and artistic connections but also filled me with a sense of nostalgia because my wife and I had met Miller many years earlier at a party in his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Montmartre is also colored by some distinctly Jewish history, dating to the early part of the 20th century, when the neighborhood was populated by working-class, immigrant Jews — among them a good number of anarchists.
From Boulevard de Clichy, I walked up rue Lepic, disappearing into a maze of small cafés, fruit stands, and boutiques hidden behind parked cars and motorcycles crowding the little street.
I soon spotted the brown awning of Le Grenier à Pain at 38 rue des Abbesses and noticed the announcement of the mayor’s prize displayed in the window.
In 1993, France passed a law detailing how to make “baguettes de tradition.”
The requirements are that only flour, water, salt and yeast, and nothing artificial be used to prepare these baguettes, which have a classic, hard crust with slits across the top to allow them to breathe.
For Bodian, the most important quality in a “baguette de tradition” is taste.
And while machines are used in the process, some steps still require working by hand.
“Machines can’t replace a human being,” Bodian said, “because there are some steps a human has to do which a machine can’t do.”
As he took a batch of warm baguettes from the oven with his bare hands, the young baker reminded me that, after all is said and done, there really is no secret to making the best baguettes in Paris.
“The only secret,” he noted, “is to be patient and to respect all the ingredients.”
IF YOU GO...
Le Grenier à Pain, located in the 18th arrondissement (or district) of Paris, is open from 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m., and closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. (The bakery is not kosher).
An English version of Galloyer’s autobiography, which includes pastry recipes, was published by Thoba’s editions in 2008 (www.thobas-editions.fr).
For further travel information about Paris, visit http://en.parisinfo.com.