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England has the Order of the British Empire with its knights and dames; peace builders have the Nobel Prize; even Hollywood has its Oscar. Recognizing the best of the best in their fields is a way to celebrate, distinguish, and highlight top-quality work. In France, there is only one token of acknowledgment that matters – the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF), or best craftspeople of France.
This prestigious competition is only held every few years, and the award is reserved for those who have gone above and beyond in 17 crafts like glassmaking, textiles, hospitality, and, for our purposes, the 10 categories of food: pastry, butchery, charcuterie, bread making, ice cream, chocolate, cheese, fish, grocery, and roasting.
In the food industry, in particular, the MOF title has become and remained the ultimate label of a star artisan. During a visit to Paris, seeking out the fruits of their labor is destined to be a delicious endeavor.
While some MOFs have opted for celebrity – like renowned restaurateur Joël Robuchon and celebrated chocolatier Jacques Torres –others, like neighborhood butchers, fishmongers, and cheese mongers, are often hiding in plain sight.
There’s no database to guide you to finding MOFs in Paris, but the winners respectfully brag about their prestigious title by giving us two clues: their collar and their awning.
MOF chefs wear a recognizable tri-colored collar in the hues of the French flag on their chef coats, a very obvious representation of their all-star status. If you have the chance to peek into a bustling French kitchen or watch Top Chef, the French edition, you may catch a glimpse of this prestigious accessory.
Some experts aren’t shy about boasting their success on their storefronts to attract a passerby like yourself. If you’d like to go on a MOF treasure hunt, we recommend heading to the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, where many awnings are decorated with insignia. Even so, you’d be surprised to find them sprinkled throughout all of Paris’s arrondisements, so keep your eyes peeled!
While these winners use the collar and awning to be rightfully celebrated, the accolade of MOF doesn’t necessarily bring about mainstream commercial success. Some artisans prefer to stay incognito, taking jobs on-staff in restaurants instead of having their own stores. Some may say they’re bashful, others may insist their title doesn’t change the fact that they’re passionate about their craft. Nonetheless, these celebrated artisans continue to develop their skills and pave the way for future food innovators in France.
Since its founding in 1924, the MOF competition has been an effort to revive the number of craftsmen in France and recognize those who have excelled in their trades, in order to serve as a model for the next generation of craftsmen. But even with a high concentration of MOFs in the Ile-de-France, becoming recognized as a MOF is no easy feat, as portrayed in the film Kings of Pastry.
What distinguishes MOF from other certifications is that it is peer-reviewed – the jury is made up entirely of professionals in the same trade. This not only restricts the competition to those who truly know the ins-and-outs, but it also guarantees a track record of success and value throughout the competitions.
Any artisan who is 23 years old or older can enter the competition, but only those with the endurance, innovation, and ability will receive a serious bid. Lead up to judgment day can require years of preparation to refine technical skills and innovation to ensure the candidate can be effective and quick in front of the jury.
During the competition, each candidate is given an amount of time and basic materials to create a perfected masterpiece. More than just the final result, the jury examines the potential MOF’s method, organization, act, speed, knowhow, and respect for the rules.
The jury isn’t limited to doling out first second and third prizes; there is no quota of winners for judges to meet, which means, in theory, no one or everyone could be granted the MOF title. Competitors are judged individually rather than against each other. If they earn the necessary number of points during the competition, they will be rewarded the lifelong title, presented to them by the French President at the Sorbonne in Paris followed by a ceremony at President’s home, the Élysée Palace.
For competitors who don’t make the cut, they’ll have time to refine their skills before having the chance to be considered again – the competition only happens years 3-4 years. In fact, fewer than 10,000 people have ever received the MOF recognition, so it’s quite common that the same candidate will partake in the competition multiple times before earning their title.
Bread is as basic as it comes. On the French table, it’s seen as a vehicle for flavors during a meal, often paired with a simple spread of salted butter or hidden below a mound of salad to absorb the lingering vinaigrette. Beyond being present at every meal, there’s much more to le pain in France than you may think.
Start with its history: loaves of bread, albeit of different qualities, have been staples on tables of both aristocrats and peasants since before the Middle Ages. From these segregating varieties came the pain d’égalité, or “bread of equality”, which rose up in 1793 as a political tool to further the argument of the injustices in society. Fast-forward to find the Napoléon-inspired baguette that ruled so strongly in the 1900s, the average French person ate 3 loaves per day. Today, bread remains so relevant in French society that asking a politician the cost of a baguette is a common tool to discern his or her grasp on reality.
It’s no question that bread is engrained (no pun intended) in French society and culture, and as such, finding the “best bread” has become a necessary and coveted tourist experience. But seeing as there are 35,000 boulangeries, or “bakeries”, in France, where do you start?
First things first, let’s decipher what “best bread” means. The truth is, we can’t tell you. And not because it’s some French culinary secret locked up in the Hotel de Ville, the mayor’s office, but rather because it’s totally subjective.
For example, some may think the “best bread” would be the most authentic. Their best bet would be to head to a French bakery that has been making baguette since the 1920s. Others, however, may consider the “best bread” to come with accolades, whether on the bread itself or the boulanger, or “baker”, who woke up at 4 a.m. to pop it in the oven.
To discern what “best bread” means to you, consider three things: what bread varieties are out there, who’s baking it, and how experts judge.
Any tourist book can tell you that memorizing the phrase, “Une baguette, s’il vous plaît,” (translated: “one baguette, please”) helps take the fear out of ordering at a foreign boulangerie, where there is likely has a line of regular customers waiting to place their orders. It’s a safe bet, and you’ll keep things moving. And while there’s nothing like walking down the street nibbling on the nose of your baguette to say, “Paris, I’ve arrived!” there’s so much more that you may be missing out on.
For example, let’s say you bought some brie, or another variety of soft French cheese, on your way to the boulangerie. What you may not know is that pain de campagne, or dense “country bread”, is begging for some creamy, cheesy goodness and would be your better bet over baguette.
Try to open your mind beyond baguette, and embrace all of the types of bread. Luckily, each boulangerie should have similar offerings, so here’s a trusty cheat sheet:
• Pain de tradition française (Traditional French bread). The most common is a “baguette tradition or à l’ancienne,” meaning “ancient.” For only 10 cents more, this strictly handmade variety pales in comparison to its molded, industrialized counterparts. • Pain de campagne or miche (Country bread). A sourdough bread style you may know as the signature loaf of the bakery Poilâne. • Pain au levain. (Sourdough bread) • Pain maison (House bread) • Pain complet (Whole wheat bread) • Pain aux cereals (Multigrain bread) • Pain de seigle (Rye bread) • Pain au son (Bran bread) • Pain de mie or pain blanc (White sandwich bread) • Regional breads. Try Pain Alsacian, a German-influenced rye, pine, molasses, and oat loaf, or Pain Brie, a heavier bread from Normandy.
And a quick vocab lesson: pain means “bread”, bio means “organic”, aux implies that the bread has something inside (e.g.: pain aux raisins means “bread with raisins”).
Next, what to expect when you take this monumental step inside the boulangerie. Here are some tips: • Buy fresh. It’s best to go first-thing in the morning to get a right-out-of-the-oven loaf life no other. Best eaten within 5 hours (trust us, it’s not that hard to do), but if you really can’t finish it, the birds will thank you. • Lines are a good thing. With a boulangerie on what seems to be every street corner, you can trust locals who take the time to wait on a line. That said… • Going to the boulangerie is a systematic chore for the French – for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They know exactly what baked goods or sandwiches they want and have timed their visits accordingly. Put your nose up against the glass window before hopping on line to do some preemptive decision-making. • Even the “best” baguette isn’t worth shelling out more than 2€. If you’re paying between 90-1,40 €, you’re not limiting your choices – and you’re not getting swindled.
After World War II, France went through a number of political, economical, and social changes, all emphasizing stability and efficiency. Bread making became less about the development of authentic recipes, and was rather focused on cranking out affordable loaves for the larger population (bonjour, baby boom). Bread became industrialized and less of an “art.”
As the French do, they eventually revolted, resulting in a bread renaissance that would acknowledge both the art and the artist behind bread making. As an art, the stipulations of making le pain de tradition française, “traditional French bread,” became revered and made official by a French decree in 1993. A loaf is only tradition française if it is completely handmade, has no additives, went through a long fermentation, and contains only four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast.
As for the artist, in the 1980s, France established the artisan boulanger, an official classification used to reward bakers who made bread in their bakeries instead of reheating prepared, industrialized loaves. It was an effort to boost the credibility of hard-at-work bakers and bring bread-buyers from supermarkets back into bakeries.
While the artisan boulanger title on a boulangerie awning was initially an indication of excellence, today, it’s a bit outdated. Some artisan bakers don’t make all bread on premises – a bit misleading. And other exquisite bakers have chosen to not go through the process of getting certified. There is, however, one accreditation that’s worth seeking out: the Meilleurs Ouvriers or “Best Workers of France.” This rare competition is unique in that it’s a peer evaluation, and no one guarantees trustworthy results like judges who know the ins-and-outs of the craft themselves. A baker’s admission to MOF requires fulfilling an 8-part bread order, including those in the tradition française, among other criteria.
So, get to know who’s behind the loaves and in front of the oven. Boulangers who take the time to bake à la tradtion française or who are celebrated by their peers are certainly the breadwinners.
You can trust the opinion of esteemed, decorated boulangers to guide you to what they have deemed the “best bread,” but there’s no better judge than your own palate.
As a stepping-stone, consider the annual Meilleur Baguette de Paris competition, or “Best Baguette in Paris.” In this competition, judges determine which boulangerie earns 4000 euro and a contract to be the official baguette provider to the Élysée Palace, home to the French president, for one year. Not an easy feat.
These criteria used in 2016 can be a jumping off point for your own judgment: • Appearance. Perfectly brown and yellow, signifying caramelization. • Cuisson, a word that can be best translated as “doneness.” This criterion would distinguish a burnt baguette from one that’s perfectly baked. • Inside. The doughy part of a baguette should be a creamy color, limited crumbs, and large, irregular holes. • Taste. Sweet, tangy flavor with a hint of salt. • Smell. With just a handful of ingredients, a great baguette should have a symphony of smells.
While these criteria are unique to this one bread type, getting an idea for what panels of experts consider when judging any kind of loaf should be a jumping off point in a personal definition of the “best bread” – for baguette and beyond.
Go Forth and Sample In the end, it’s up to you to decide what “best bread” means. Is it not a baguette but surprisingly the pain Alsacian you dared to try? Did it come from a MOF boulanger? Or did it simply beat out competitors in your own personal taste test? Whichever way you slice it, French bread is going to be delicious simply for the reason that you’re eating it on Haussmann’s boulevards.
With some prior research and a toolkit of your own, you can perhaps find your “best bread” in Paris – and we’d love to know which one made the cut! Was it one that was recommended by a friend, or one you happened upon during a stroll one day? Let us know – even we are always on the hunt for the best of the best.
The French have a favorite dessert and it is not, as you might expect, macarons, nor mousse au chocolat (chocolate mousse), or even crême brulée... It’s the éclair, that elegant finger-shaped pastry filled with cream and glazed on top!
Éclairs were created in the 19th century by chef Marie-Antoine Carême, one of the first celebrity chefs of French culinary history. Carême is also credited for inventing the profiterole, a choux pastry covered in chocolate syrup typically filled with ice cream, and the croquembouche, a cone of choux pastry balls fixed together with caramel! The éclair was an adaptation of the “duchesse”, a pâte à choux dessert shaped like the present-day éclair, but made with almonds. Carême removed the almond component from the recipe and filled the dessert with either cream or jam (typically apricot).
The name “éclair”, which means lightning, was given many years later, and it remains a culinary mystery as to why this particular name was chosen. The most common explanation is that the pastry is so exquisite, it is eaten in a flash, at lightening speed!
There is some confusion these days when it comes to differentiating an éclair and a Long John doughnut. This mix up is due to the fact that doughnuts are sometimes marketed as éclairs in certain parts of the United States! As far as I can tell, the only similarities are their oblong shape and the fact that they contain filling, like cream or jelly. As doughnuts, however, Long Johns are a lot softer than éclairs. They are also deep-fried, a typically un-French way of making pastries.
If you would like to try your hand at making homemade éclairs, I would suggest starting by mastering the choux pastry (the crust part of the pastry). Like puff pastry, desserts made with pâte à choux do not rise with yeast. Instead, they obtain their final swollen look through the effect of steam and heat in a very hot oven. Moreover, allowing the ingredients (milk, sugar, salt, butter, flour and water) to first boil and then thoroughly cool off before adding eggs makes for a tastier dessert! Once the dough is cooked and cooled, the cream is added through a hole in the éclair thanks to a piping bag (also known as pastry bag) fitted with a nozzle. You can even make the filling yourself from scratch with a simple, fool-proof recipe: whisk together egg yolks, milk, butter and a thickening agent, like cornstarch! Thick cream is key to ensuring that your éclair will not have an unpleasant soggy or overly moist texture. Be sure to refrigerate your pastries in order to preserve their fresh and firm consistency; the icing should harden like ganache. Ideally, the éclair will stay slightly cold but still melt in your mouth.
If your taste buds are urging you to find and eat these tasty treats during your trip to Paris, let me share some words of wisdom. First, while you can find the éclair “classics” – the chocolate and coffee flavors – in most French boulangeries (French bakeries), some of the high end stores recommended to me by locals either no longer sold éclairs or suggested that I buy a different version of this pastry. However, I have found that this dessert’s quality dramatically increases in these types of Parisian gourmet shops because the choux pastry is often more fresh and crisp! I am also glad to report that I have not yet encountered a truly mediocre/bad éclair (which had been the case on my macaron hunt).
My conclusion is that while the éclair may not be sold everywhere these days, the pastry is nevertheless thriving in Paris. This pâtisserie is even sparking a fair amount of creativity: I have seen extra long éclairs (three times their normal size), designer éclairs (completely decadent and festive, decorated with golden nuggets), and salty éclairs (a delightful cross between an amuse-bouche and a sandwich)!On my hunt for the best éclair in Paris, I went to the Maison Pradier, a local favorite and the winner of 2015 Best Éclair in Paris competition, Dalloyau, a luxury bakery and fixture in French culinary history, L’Éclair de Génie, the new up and comer in the éclair world, and Jean Paul Hévin, the general favorite in online rankings! My winner is the Maison Pradier’s wonderful dark chocolate éclair on the Boulevard Saint-Germain; they call it the “80% chocolat”. It fit all of my criteria (the choux pastry was flavorful, light and had a good consistency, the cream was rich and velvety, but not too sweet, and the chocolate glaze was perfectly melted, not too thick and delicious). However, the éclair’s shape was noticeably irregular! I resolved that this should not matter and did not affect how I felt about the pastry’s taste... until I ate other éclairs, like the Dalloyau éclair, which was perfectly round and smooth! Although definitely less delicate and savory overall, the éclair and its filling actually tasted “fuller” and more “round” to me! Thanks to this éclair tasting, I am now a die-hard fan of this pastry. My new go to snack (or even breakfast) is coffee and éclairs! Specifically, I like the plain, classic éclair au chocolat, without the fuss of trendy flavors like salted caramel or unexpected frostings topped with colored sprinkles or crunchy nuts!
In my quest to find the best macaron, those chewy bites of heaven the French know how to make just right, I devised a plan of attack: 4 locations in Paris, 12 macarons, and an evaluation sheet. More on that later.
First, what are macarons? Not to be confused with “macaroons” which are coconut cookies, macaron pastries look like little neon sandwiches: two somewhat crunchy, moist, and fluffy almond meringues separate a layer of jam, ganache (chocolate-and-cream glaze) or buttercream. Macarons are usually made with egg whites, almond flour or powder, almond extract, food coloring, a pinch of salt, and three types of sugar (powdered, confectioners, and granulated).
Who’s the genius behind these sugary delights? The short answer: a band of Italian monks from the 9th century! It is believed that Catherine de’ Medici brought the monks’ recipe to France when she married Henry II. Many think that Marie-Antoinette had something to do with macarons; however, just as the queen probably never said “let them eat cake”, she certainly never got the chance to devour macarons in her lifetime. Sofia Coppola’s widely successful film Marie Antoinette willfully plays with anachronisms, introducing macarons and their colorful, double-decker appearance before their time! Indeed, macarons, as originally conceived by the monks, were quite sober: colorless and stuffing-less, this version of the pastry was as exciting as present day Nilla Wafers.
You may be wondering: what makes macarons so special? Why the big hoopla? I wager that this worldwide infatuation has something to do with their striking colors and creative designs: the macaron beckons us through its bright hues, sheens, and dainty decorations, which vary from shiny sprinkles to rose petals and even gold leafs. Macarons manage to be luxurious, elegant, and slightly decadent all at once. Also, the “macaron” concept itself seems irresistible: a relatively simple pastry that can be infinitely altered (color, design, taste) to achieve savory greatness! For instance, instead of the traditional ganache or jam, some adventurous foodies have invented both the jelly doughnut macaron and the peanut butter and jelly macaron. It seems that when it comes to these pastries, the sky is the limit!
You know a dish has gained a substantial universal status when McDonald’s tries their hand at it: you can now purchase macarons at Mc Cafés in Paris! However, there seems to be little (to no) consensus among the French when it comes to these new macarons: while some online reviews like the Figaroscope don’t bother even mentioning these “little macs”, the Express ranked them #2 for their framboise flavor, ahead of famous gourmet brands like Lenôtre and Dalloyau!
Frozen macarons are even sold at Picard, France’s so-called favorite grocery store which specializes in freezing food technologies. This supermarket advertises an assortment of mini macarons (chocolate and coconut, salty caramel, hazelnut, and orange with orange flower) which are surprisingly tasty!
This brings us back to my macaron expedition. After perusing online rankings and asking around, I discovered that I would need to pick a side in “Paris’ Great Macaron War” between the two major players – Ladurée, the French luxury bakery that’s been around since 1862, and Pierre Hermé, a smaller scale operation instigated by Hermé, a famous chef pâtissier, in 1998.
Ironically, Pierre Hermé initially worked for Ladurée, where he started the trend of creating intricate macaron flavors that go beyond the typical chocolate, pistachio, coffee, raspberry, and vanilla. While Hermé is known for its artistry, Ladurée has become a timeless classic because of its history. Notably, Ladurée contributed to popularizing the salons de thé (tearooms) in 19th century France! In fact, if you are looking for a chic place to eat your macarons and/or a creamy hot chocolate, I would recommend going to Ladurée’s Parisian shop on the Champs-Elysées or their new tearooms in the Soho neighborhood of New York City.
Conscientious of my macaron budget, I picked a total of four shops in the Quartier Latin: Ladurée (rue Bonaparte) and Pierre Hermé (also Rue Bonaparte – coincidence?) were musts, as well as Gérard Mulot (Rue de Seine), a local favorite. Out of all the excellent macaron shops in the city, I decided to finish my tour by going to the Café Pouchkine (boulevard Saint-Germain), a trendy fixture in the world of pâtisseries in Paris since its inception in the early 2000s. I was intrigued by the Café Pouchkine because of the pastries’ rave reviews and the hype around the boutique/tearooms’ décor.
While taste is a subjective matter, the experience of eating a macaron is somewhat universal! It all starts when a macaron catches you eye, because of its color, shape or decorations. You take a bite and get a feel for the textures and consistencies. Finally, you get to the flavors, from the initial tastes to the ones you discover as you’re eating. I think this way of experiencing food can be translated to the following criteria for judging macarons: aesthetics (is it enticing?), shell texture (is the shell smooth, slightly crispy but not crunchy?), filling (is the texture light, velvety, and flavorful?), and flavor (is is distinctive but not overly sweet?).
My favorite macarons, by a long shot, were Pierre Hermé’s! Not only are they stunning to look at, but they are also the most exquisite pastries I have ever eaten! While I can’t say that I definitely unearthed the hiding place of the best macaron in Paris, a city filled with pâtisseries at every corner, I can tell you that I discovered some incredible sweets, and look forward to having the chance to find and taste many more!