May 5, 2023 | FEATURES | By Lorelei Smillie
Right now, Paris is on the precipice of a pastry revolution.
While the long history of France’s refined baking techniques remains palpable in the elaborate croissants, the mille-feuilles, and the puffy brioches piled high in the windows of the patisseries, bakeries with more modern offerings are slowly popping up throughout the city.
Pastry chefs are increasingly focusing on practices like fermentation through sourdough breads. They’re incorporating whole grains and alternative flours and finding new flavors to revitalize desserts, and bakers are beginning to put their own twist on traditional pastries which have remained stagnant for years.
The culinary history in France is one of rigor, hard work, and precision. To cook like a French chef is to cook with absolute control over every ingredient, every movement, and every outcome. French pastry commands respect and remains the gold standard for baking across the globe. It is the dream of many young pastry chefs to be able to find their way to France to train under the best-of-the-best and achieve perfection.
Since the 1200s, the French have been enjoying dessert at the end of their meals. During years of monarchy and aristocracy, sugar was restricted to those with money, and elaborately built sculptures of sugar for dessert demonstrated their power. Even as sugar became cheaper and more accessible, the standards of pastry-making have remained very high.
It’s only in recent years that bakeries have dared to deviate from tradition and invent new techniques.
Le Tapissierie, located in the 11th arrondissement, is presenting their own take on the traditional patisseries. The owners of the acclaimed wine bar Septime opened this tiny bakery two years ago and there’s been a line out the door ever since. Made with low amounts of sugar, their pastries feel grown up and emphasize subtle flavors.
The sweetest thing is the tarte au sirop d’erable, a tart with a luxurious maple filling and a heap of vanilla cream on top. The pain au chocolat is made with bittersweet cocoa, richer and more sophisticated than a sweeter chocolate which would be typical. The choux à la crème, or cream puff, is filled with a sweetgrass infused cream.
They’re also making a za’atar scone, with nutty and aromatic spices tucked into the buttery layers of pastry. Baked goods which incorporate za’atar seasoning have begun to show up in more and more Parisian bakeries, reflecting the emergence of Middle Eastern and North African flavors in French baking. Ingredients like honey, sumac, sesame, and more are cropping up in the trendiest Parisian bakeries as part of the pastry revival.
This reinvention is complicated. For the most part, these new flavors have existed for centuries in the Maghreb and are just now finding their way into French culinary acceptance.
France has been home to a large population of Maghrebi immigrants for many years, but its long history of colonization has created relationships of oppression and domination with those communities.
Although France is a country containing many nationalities, languages, and cultures, it remains segregated in many ways. The recent political polarization of right- and left-wing groups means that issues of immigration policy have become pawns in the quest for social control. This long history of xenophobia includes negative perceptions toward different cuisines. Similarly, it explains why North African and Middle Eastern restaurants remain subjugated to the realm of fast food in contrast to traditional French fine dining.
The ubiquitous kebab stand, loved all across Europe, is a good example of this. Originally popularized in the ‘90s by Turkish immigrants in Germany, the slowly roasting cones of meat have become a symbol of integration and pride. Even so, they remain a less dignified food in the European consciousness – cheap food that’s eaten quickly, often for an easy lunch or after a long night out.
Now, we’re seeing key elements of Middle Eastern and North African foods emerge in the boulangeries which have long existed as the pillars of French cuisine. Sesame croissants, pistachio creams, and other flavors can be found in these modern bakeries as a seemingly fresh take on an old recipe.
When they aren’t baked by chefs from these regions, however, it seems like a palatable version of their culture is being produced for the white French population. These foods have become chic and desirable when made by European hands.
This is not to ignore the success that some businesses have found. Bachir, a Lebanese ice cream chain, opened two locations in Paris in 2017. Originally founded in 1938 in Bifyaka, they’ve exploded in popularity with their large cones dipped in crushed pistachios. The ice cream is thick and slightly sticky making for a wonderfully rich mouthfeel. They serve an assortment of flavors including rose water, orange blossom, and dark chocolate. Bachir’s success is a testament to what we already know: to trust our taste buds.
The story of any dish is inherently one of cultural exchange and collaboration. It’s worth questioning, though, why things become popular and who truly deserves recognition.