The Local Bakers

Bakery

The ownership of the little boulangerie at the corner of the Rue Cardinet and the rue Léon Cogniet changed last year. Not only is the bread better, the new owners are actually friendly.

Over the course of a few years when I began to live in the area, I would sometimes see the old owner emerge, spattered with flour, from the back of his boulangerie, to mutter a word or two to his wife, who shared vending duties with another woman. Neither of the saleswomen was particularly welcoming. You’d say “bonjour” as usual on entering the store, and be greeted with a sometimes-annoyed nod of the head, as if you’d interrupted an important reverie.

The baker never seemed to be at ease either with his wife or the other saleswoman, or even with being seen by the public. But I’d catch sight of them outside their boulangerie from time to time as they ambled about the neighborhood, absorbed in whatever it is that couples talk about who appear to be incompatible.

I’d sometimes catch a glimpse of the baker himself walking their aged beagle. He resembled the dog more than the dog did him – though the dog didn’t have a cigarette hanging from drooping mustachioed lips – padding along as if he couldn’t wait to return to his den, far from the yeast and the rising and the work that he had devoted decades to. Perhaps not devoted. Endured.

Still, although he appeared in some ways spent, the baker didn’t seem aged to me, only exhausted. No more than 60, maybe – around the usual retirement age in France. But last year, when I returned after being away for a few months, I noticed that he’d grown thinner – even his protruding potbelly had shrunk. Perhaps from illness. Perhaps he’d given up eating his own baguettes. He’d never had come across as someone happy with his work in any event. It showed in his bread. The baguettes had begun to lose character, as if the baker had abandoned the will to bake.

The bakery used to be closed on Saturdays, and open Sundays. Then a year or so ago it closed for weekends. Perhaps the baker and his wife sensed competition and retreated. A patisserie had opened up across the street, Les Enfants Gâtés (the spoiled children). It’s higher-end than the homey boulangerie, but that doesn’t really matter. In France, a boulangerie doesn’t directly compete with a patisserie. Although they both offer some of the same products – viennoiserie, sandwiches – the boulangerie is mainly for bread, for croissants, for pains aux raisins, for chaussons aux pommes, for homey tarts and tartelettes and for filling a hunger, while the patisserie is more often for fancy gateaux, for elaborate desserts and for making an impression.

Still, no one in this boulangerie was ever happy to see a customer walk in the door. As if, having baked the bread to imperfection, it would have served everyone there better if all of those baguettes were to disappear magically from the shelves without anyone having to engage in the act of exchanging money. Or of saying hello.

A few times when the soon-to-retire baker served me, he did so in relative silence, in a preoccupied manner. Of course, in a bakery something is always rising or in the oven, so your mind is on that. But I had the feeling he was looking forward to the day when he wouldn’t have to spend time with people like me – that is, customers. When he wouldn’t have to rise early to check on the dough. When he wouldn’t have to shape the millionth baguette de tradition or pain de compagne and slip them into a scorching oven. When he could sleep in and eat bread baked by someone else. If he’d ever eat bread again.

His wife seemed to look forward to something equally non-service-oriented. While not actively rude, she was actively uninterested, which is sort of the same thing. I took to walking a couple of blocks out of my way, to buy baguettes at a combination boulangerie-patisserie on the nearby Rue du Prony, where the bread was better and the service was friendlier.

Like a lot of people who spend long periods of time in France, I’ve become accustomed to buying baguettes for most meals, and to appreciating the differences between good and bad ones. I’m certainly no expert on what constitutes a perfect baguette, but I could tell that the fading baker’s baguettes were no long worthy of his profession. Which is a shame. Baguettes are serious business in France. Even for those of us who didn’t grow up taking for granted that something as basic as a baguette could be both important and delicious, and a sign of the quality of your life, it’s obvious that a good baguette makes a surprising difference in how we think of a meal.

The bakery reopened last summer after the usual monthlong summer closing. But something had changed. On passing by it one morning I noticed that someone else was behind the counter, a pleasant-looking young man. I entered. I decided to buy a baguette. The young man smiled at me and reached for one of the loaves. I asked him, “Are you the new baker?”

“Among other things,” he said. Then a young woman came in behind him from the back. It turned out to be the baker’s wife, who smiled at me.

I asked, “Un changement de propriétaire?” Or, a change of ownership?

Oui,” they said in unison, grinning at me and at each other. The door burst open, and a little girl skipped in, running behind the counter to join them. Their daughter, whom the baker bent to lift, kissing her face as she giggled. The family, or at least the baker, had not yet succumbed to the tedium of endless baking days.

Their bread is noticeably better, too. I hope it stays that way.

Shortly after first encountering the young baker and his wife, I saw the retired baker and his wife as they and their beagle made their way down the Rue Léon Cogniet. They moved all three as if in procession toward nothing in particular but with a deliberate predestined pace, like figures from a Maupassant story doomed to relive their disappointments. I haven’t seen them since.

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