When I lived on the rue Jean Nicot in Paris, around 1990, I lived across the street from a pink-painted bakery. Our street was named for the man for whom nicotine was named. We were very close to the National French museum of tobacco and cigarettes which I never visited but no longer exists. Did you know that France had a state-owned tobacco monopoly until about 20 years ago? SEITA (Société d’exploitation industrielle des tabacs et des allumettes) sold the cigarettes and the tobacco and even the matches, making money for a state whose health care costs were paid by the same state. I always wondered who had the gruesome task of figuring out that cost-benefit analysis.
The bakery was very cute and renowned. It has since changed hands so you can’t go visit the deliciousness of my memory but I hear the dashing M. Poujauran is still making bread and Catherine Deneuve has a standing subscription.
It was not a pastry shop (pâtisserie) but a proper bread bakery (boulangerie) and I was delighted because their specialty was rustic buns which I adore/d. I always needed more than one. In French a bun or a roll is just called a petit pain and the size was a little smaller than my palm. Their specialty was small dark rolls with dried figs and hazelnuts. If you go to Portland, Oregon and the world returns to a place of small loaves and coffees out, the Saint-Honore bakery there does an almost equivalent dark rye raisin nut roll. The dough was almost a sourdough and so intensely alive that the outside had a tight sheen. Gnawing was needed for the first bite and best to have some water or something wet nearby. They were good for putting into pockets for long bike rides or early morning train trips because they could nourish for hours.
A bite of that chewy dense dough could sit in my mouth for a good minute and entertain me. Rawr. Sometimes they ran out of my favorite and I tried other sorts, always two at a time. I was in my twenties and embarrassed at always buying more than one. I was always hungry in those years, for excitement, for real meals, for true love or for late night adventures.
They also had little roast pork sandwiches with garlicky mayonnaise and small pickles on hard chewy buns with tender insides. I always got two of those too, which was too much but the heft and the chew and my desires were sharp in those days. And then sometimes they had little quiches. My favorite was a provençal one which was garlicky ratatouille in a tender buttery pastry shell with a little delicate custard holding it all together. Eating one of those, still slightly warm, was a comfort, such a comfort.
I did not take my mother with me to Paris but she shaped me into someone who sees love in a dense loaf, toothsome and nourishing. And she taught me that indulgence is the permission to eat it warm, right there. I lived on the ungodly eighth floor without an elevator and the bakery goods tasted so much better out in the cold tobacco street than after I went home, panting up the stairs, clutching a greasy crumpled little brown paper bag.