When Paris closes in the heat of August, baguettes are harder to find

Baker Sylvie Debellemaniere sweats in the Paris heat.  Traditional baguette dough requires special care in hot weather.  (Photos by Adrienne Surprenant/MYOP for The Washington Post)
Baker Sylvie Debellemaniere sweats in the Paris heat. Traditional baguette dough requires special care in hot weather. (Photos by Adrienne Surprenant/MYOP for The Washington Post)

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PARIS — In normal times, more than 9 out of 10 Parisians live within a five-minute walk of a bakery. Some people have a choice between two or three on their street. Don’t want to cross the road? Not to worry. In many spots, there’s a boulangerie on either side.

But these aren’t normal times. It’s August in Paris.

This is the period when most Parisians escape the city for their month-long annual holidays. And the capital of the baguette — home to more than 1,000 bakeries and patisseries — can feel like a boulangerie desert.

In the city’s 15th arrondissement, what’s usually a five-minute mission required a 15- or, mon Dieu, 20-minute trek in the summer heat this past week — at least for this correspondent, an untrained baguette hunter. Three out of 7 neighborhood bakeries were already shuttered, with more planning to close in the coming days.

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The government long sought to avoid such a predicament. With bread considered critical to the capital, bakers have faced restrictions dating back as far as the 1790s on when they could close their shops. Only since 2015, when the rules were finally relaxed, have all Parisian bakers been free to join the August exodus.

There are still those who stay behind. Being able to produce bread during the hottest time of the year is a source of pride, said baker Adriano Farano. But he acknowledged that this summer feels tougher than previous ones.

“We have rising wheat prices, rising energy prices and of course rising fuel prices,” he said.

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Paris has also had a summer of extreme heat. When bakers are working with 450-degree ovens and no air conditioning during a heat wave, when they have to race to keep ahead of their melting butter, when they’re trying to avoid soggy baguettes and “stringy bread disease,” it’s not hard to see why they might decide to head for the coast or the mountains.

This week at the Frédéric Comyn bakery, recently awarded for the capital’s best baguette, black shutters were pulled down behind the sign proclaiming: “Official supplier of the Élysée” presidential palace. There was no indication of when the bakery would reopen. (Many French government officials won’t return to the capital before Aug. 24.)

A few hundred meters down the road, a competitor had affixed an image of a beach umbrella with dangling stars to the front door. “Happy holidays,” a sign greeted those left behind.

In France, where bread shortages partially prompted the storming of the Bastille and the end of the monarchy, bread has occupied a special status as both a national symbol and a tightly regulated nourishment. To avoid a famine in the capital, or another revolution, the French government decreed in 1798 that the availability of bread had to be guaranteed.

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In its most modern form, that decree was reflected in the requirement that half of all Parisian bakers stay open in July, the other half in August, evenly distributed across the capital. Bakers who went on vacation were legally required to put up signs pointing people to the nearest open alternatives. Violators risk fines of 11 euros a day.

Even though the average daily diet of bread has dropped from 800 grams in 1875 to around 80 grams, bakeries remain deeply ingrained in the country’s culture. The TV show “France’s Best Bakery,” in its ninth season, draws millions of viewers. During the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, boulangeries were considered essential businesses, and a trip to the bakery was an approved activity.

But France is also a country with a strong workers’ rights movement and reverence for vacations. And in 2014, as part of a law designed to simplify corporate practices, the government scrapped the on-call requirements for bakers.

Sylvie Debellemaniere, who sells dozens of different artisanal breads, was closing her shop on Friday for the rest of the month. She said it was largely a financial decision. Rising costs had already narrowed her profit margins, forcing her to increase the price for her baguettes from 1.20 to 1.30 euros. And in August, she said, bakeries outside of prime tourist locations can’t count on much of a customer base.

“Many people haven’t been on vacation in two years because of covid,” she said. “Everyone wants to leave. All the customers are fed up with Paris.”

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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 the hot ovens while the temperatures outside soared past 100 degrees Fahrenheit. She found it helped to wear looser clothes, and she tried to drink more water. But she said perhaps the most effective coping mechanism was psychological.

“There’s no point in ruminating all day,” she said. “I tell myself that it’s chilly — and that works.”

The summer heat isn’t just uncomfortable. It can mess with the chemistry of baking.

“Butter 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 butter can start melting at 82 degrees — far below the temperatures the capital has recently seen.

Heat also affects the dough, accelerating its rise. If the heat speeds up the proofing process too much, breads can lose their desired texture, becoming denser, or they can develop undesirable flavors. Fast-rising dough is trickier to shape, too, Boutin said.

For some pastry-producers and bakeries, this has prompted difficult choices.

“Some of them in Paris decided not to sell — and not to make — viennoiserie” during the heat waves, Boutin said, referring to products like croissants and pains au chocolat. “If you don’t have a good air conditioner, you have to increase the speed of your work.”

Other bakers have hoped that by working harder and faster, they could outsmart the heat. They’ve experimented with reducing the water and yeast in their dough and abbreviating the kneading and resting phases.

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They’ve researched how to avoid “stringy bread disease” — a bacterial contamination that’s partly linked to heat waves, and that is characterized by the 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 still some bakers were disappointed to find that baked loaves sitting in the heat and humidity became too soft by midafternoon.

Farano said adaptation is key.

He doesn’t use butter in his bread, allowing him to escape some of the problems that have hampered his colleagues.

His Pane Vivo bakeries produce natural sourdough breads from an ancient wheat variety 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 studded with dried figs or dark chocolate.

“Our clients, once they start eating this bread, they can’t go back,” he said, as a steady stream of customers arrived, many of them visibly excited to find the shop open.

Georges Sidéris, 63, said he had little hope when he set off on a mission to find his favorite breads on Thursday. “I told myself: I’ll give it a try, you never know,” he said.

But even in August in Paris, his mission was successful. Sideris bought a “Livia” with olives and rosemary and a “Figata” with dried figs. He flashed a wide smile while holding his loaves tight.

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