Luckily, it gave me time to find a bakery that I loved! (6 hours, in fact, but I only found the bakery in the last 10 minutes, so I can't grumble. Nobody else is grumbling either, it seems like everyone is inured to the strikes, the waves of different protesters, the police with guns... “Vive La France!” was my hostess's tired comment when I phoned to explain why my arrival would be delayed). My concern right at the moment was to find something to eat and the traditional French lunch-time menu was , though deeply desirable, not practical. The choice seemed to be noodles, kebab or full sit-down meal with a glass of wine.
So, I'm tottering along, cursing, with my backpack which is seeming heavier and heavier, and then I am distracted:
A warm waft of heady, bready air floated towards me along the cafe facades of rue Villiot. My legs decided to make a sharp right turn before my head had really had time to think up reasons why not-to (I was not going to miss the only train out of Paris!) and I was drawn through the door of a bakery that I'm sure I once dreamed about. On the right were tables of smiling chatting un-Parisian-looking Parisians were drinking tea and eating snacks with gusto (like I said, so un-Parisian!), and on the left there were all the cakes, tarts and bonne bouche piled high, all slightly oven-singed and, oh, just delicious-looking. Behind the counter, the assistants all looked so happy in that we're-working-but-it-doesn't-feel-like-work way. They were all shiny-faced because of the humidity coming from the bread baking in the back room. Multi-sensory marketing at its best! It's rather like the way that supermarkets channel the smell of doughnuts into their entrance foyers... only much more direct and much, much nicer.
One assistant talked me through all the breads, after failing in her attempt to divert me onto cakes. All their breads were available as miniature loaves, so that you could taste several types before buying a whole whopper, or so that you could have them made up a sandwich. It struck me as very sensible since, in Italy I'd found the big loaves could be very good but just too inconvenient, whereas the little dinner-rolls were almost invariably the least interesting and most unsatisfying. Bakeries in Italy pump out thousands of them daily, because “they're the only thing people will buy”. Seeing these varied rolls today made me think again that it is time for bakers to set the agenda, to direct peoples' tastes, or we end up being like Greggs the Bakers. Please read what Greggs finally said to the Real Bread Campaign here, in respose to gentle questioning about the quality of their bread: Apparently, they only do it because the public forces them to, poor things.
Yes, tastes and life-styles have changed, but can we not still aim to do our best in any situation? The warm and happy atmosphere in this bakery, Farinez'vous, told me that working towards such an aspiration is greatly rewarding because, guess what?, the customers love it! If your French is better than mine, you can read more about the bakery's philosophy on their website. And then take a step back and think "hold on! Since when did bakeries have a philosophy webpage?"
Mini-loaves – no, wait: There must be a better name... I'm thinking panini carini or paninnocini, perhaps?... – can be found quite often now in new-wave bakeries in big cities. Please can someone could tell me if it started in America? Eating a single-portion roll is certainly a different experience from cutting part of a large loaf. Purists would object to the way that the change in volume:surface-area ratio upsets the crust:crumb balance of the original loaf. I prefer a large loaf because it can be shared. Big loaves are better if you only shop or bake occasionally, but this probably isn't the concern of a city-dweller. Anyway, this place offers the choice of either size and if you're still not happy, well, have a cake instead. Wherever it came from and whoever thought it up, I like this 'sampler' size and find it a positive alternative to the downwards spiral of finding the lowest common denominator, the curious disaster of the public getting just what the public wants.
Time to run for my train! I take it all in: the swap-shop bookshelf, the community notice-board, the clink of crockery, chatter of people, the smell of new bread, the whoosh machinery in the bakery, and – above all – the smiles. I bought two breads, a little version of their pain de campagne for eating with chocolate for my lunch, and a long, thin rye loaf that I thought might last better as a gift for my hosts. Just in case I get caught up in more strikes and end up spending days in a limbo of banner-waving workers and shrugging officials...