For my wife Melanie and me, much of our life is about searching. Moving to Florence for food and adventure. Coming to Paris for food and adventure…I’m beginning to see a pattern here. Yes, Melanie is here to complete the second of three stages she needs for her Diplome de Patisserie from Le Cordon Bleu, but we are also here because living in Paris affords us the opportunity to visit the many pastry shops here. Seeing the stores and tasting the creations of masters of their craft inspires Melanie, giving her ideas about how she wants her future shop to look, and what kinds of things she would like to make.
Yet our first search here was not for food. Not far from our apartment lies Cimitiere Montparnasse, one of the main cemeteries in Paris. Far from being a purely historical cemetery, Montparnasse is still used today. The layers of the city’s past and present are evident in the different grave markers. Mossy monuments, crumbled and worn by a century of weather, stand watch over citizens long forgotten. Their engraved letters meant to serve as eternal reminder have long since faded away. Smooth, shiny manmade monoliths mark more recent passings. There are sections where headstones are marked with Stars of David, and others where crosses are placed above the names. Some of those who rest there lived long lives, while others were taken too soon by war, accident or childhood disease.
Unlike American cemeteries, where wide expanses of green grass are sparsely populated by headstones, this cemetery is more a reflection of the city in which it lies. Monuments are tightly packed like buildings, the narrow pathways between them like small streets. The bigger, tree-lined walkways between sections resemble boulevards separating different arrondissements of the city. The day we went was sunny and serene, and visitors strolled the gravel pathways in silent contemplation. Others tended to graves, dusting off markers and placing fresh flowers. Throughout the cemetery were posted maps pointing to where the graves of Paris’s better known citizens or visitors were buried. Melanie wanted to look for the influential feminist Simone de Beauvoir. I decided to look for Guy de Maupassant, author of many short stories about nineteenth-century Paris, including The Necklace and Two Friends. He is one of my favorite writers, and I have used his stories in my classes.
Yet despite the guidance from the maps and diligent searching on our part, we could not find them. I was tempted to use my iPhone to look up exactly where they were, but there was something poetic about not being able to find them. The day was pleasant and peaceful, and in a place with so much history it seemed inappropriate to use technology. We decided to leave our quest unfulfilled, possibly to be taken up another day. Besides, we had more important things to seek out.
Last summer we did not have a lot of time to spend exploring the city and its delights. Melanie took the intensive course, at school nine to twelve hours a day, while I was busy with my role of a 1950s housewife doing the shopping and cooking, and constantly cleaning and pressing Melanie’s uniforms for her next class. This summer there is no intensive course, so instead of squeezing forty-two sessions into five weeks, that same number of demonstrations and practicals is spread out over ten. As a result, we have much more time to do what we call “pastry research,” also known as eating lots of delicious food.
In a city filled with a seemingly infinite array of culinary choices, we have decided to concentrate our efforts (at least for now) on two things sold in Parisian patisseries: croissants and chocolates. For the former we relied a couple of our favorite food writers. One is David Lebovitz, a former Chez Panisse pastry chef who now makes a living here writing about what he eats. Um, how can I get that job? The other is Clotilde Dusoulier, a native Parisian who knows the nooks and crannies of the city.
Lebovitz wrote an article on the five best croissants on the Right Bank, finally choosing one from Blé Sucré. So of course we felt duty-bound to try all five as well (adding a sixth for good measure), just to see if we would come to the same conclusion. Our idea is to narrow the choices down to two, do the same with the Left Bank, and then have a Final Four of croissants. The winners of the semifinal rounds for the regions (Right or Left Bank) will then square off in an epic battle of croissant supremacy.
There are two kinds of croissants in Paris. A croissant au beurre is made with only butter, whereas a croissant ordinaire is made with a mixture of butter and margarine. These distinctions are so important they are regulated by the French government. As you might imagine, we tried only the ones made from 100% butter. After all the tastings, we realized our ideal croissant has thicker layers with lots of crunch giving way to a chewy, buttery center. But we still have more searching and tasting to do.
Copyright Axel Schwarz