How to Navigate Paris Bakeries Like a Pro
If you’re visiting Paris for the first time in a while (or ever), the simplest of shopping can be intimidating. Small spaces, curt salespeople, and a different language? It’s enough to keep me – and maybe you – curled up on your Airbnb bed sometimes. But venture out we must, for it is Paris! And when it’s time for your first of many, many, many trips to bakeries while you’re here, I have tips for how to order and eat at a Paris bakery like a pro.
1. Demystifying French bakeries: Boulangerie vs. Pâtisserie
In English, we only have one word for places that sell baked goods: bakeries. But the French have two. Boulangerie and Pâtisserie.
Confounding, yes. But also, once you get it, it starts to make a very French kind of sense. In France, the profession of bread-making – boulangerie – is a very different practice from that of fine pastry – pâtisserie.
Boulangeries are the domain of fragrant, crackly crusts; of craftsmen and -women slapping dough on the table; of lots of waiting and time as the dough ferments and rises. Bread is a rhythm unto itself. Pâtisseries, on the other hand, are full of artists of a very different kind: trained pastry chefs whipping up mousses and meringues, caramelizing hazelnuts and almonds, and simmering scented glazes to pour with practiced precision over éclairs, confections, and entremets.
All of the above may still scream bakery to you. Why can’t it all be one and the same?! But now that I’ve gone through French pastry school, I have an appreciation for how these are considered separate crafts. Dessert people, bread people. And I have a (completely unproven) theory as to why, at some distant point in the past, it was decided that these needed to be two different kinds of people, working in two different kinds of shops.
My theory goes that the rhythms of bread – the dough’s rises and attendant intervals of waiting – created a different operational tempo than was needed for making pastry. Perhaps it just made sense to divide the two types of tasks out. But regardless of how it came to be, at the end of the day you still need to know the same thing: If you walk into a pâtisserie looking for a baguette, you may not find it. And if you waltz up to a boulangerie counter looking for a slice of tart, you might walk away empty-handed.
Now, to complicate matters further, boulangeries and pâtisseries are kind of a Venn Diagram. Viennoiserie – the flaky pastries like croissants and pain au chocolats – are often found at both establishments. And it’s also true that many bakeries you walk into in Paris will sell a smattering of all of the above. But keep these basics in mind, and you’ll seem like a seasoned Parisian, whisking into a butter-scented building knowing just what you’re going to find.
Ordering the Best Baguette and Croissant
This is a vocab lesson, plain and simple. If you’re ordering a baguette, I highly recommend you order une baguette tradition. “Tradition” indicates it was made with natural yeast, rather than commercially processed yeast. If it’s just called a Baguette, it’s commercial yeast. And trust me – when you hear the 10 Parisians in line in front of you all ask for “une tradition, s’il vous plait,” you catch on pretty quickly.
For croissants, the lesson is simple: You’ll sometimes see two ostensibly plain croissants in a bakery: croissant ordinaire, and croissant au beurre. The au beurre, as you might guess, is made with butter, whereas the ordinaire is made with margarine or a vegetable oil. That can be a helpful way for vegans or the lactose-intolerant to get a French pastry, but if you don’t need to avoid dairy, I’d recommend the croissant au beurre. Lamination – the layering that happens when you stack dough and butter in a steamy oven – works best with animal butter.
3. Have exact change!
Parisian salespeople can be, well, downright rude, and they often expect exact change if your transaction is less than five euros, and especially if the shop is small and individually-owned. Trust me, you don’t want to be caught off-guard and have to rifle through a coin purse filled with unfamiliar Euro coins will a bunch of hungry Parisians tap their feet behind you, muttering << C’est impossible ! >>
4. Look for a place with a line.
Plain and simple. It tends to be a good sign. Even better if you’re on a small-looking side street and there’s no one else around but you, this bakery, and a bunch of people standing outside a door out of which a waft of butter floats.
5. Finally, some bakeries to try on your next trip to Paris.
- For delicious cakes, babkas, and a wonderful Galette des Rois in January, head to Liberté Paris (several locations, including one on Rue des Vinaigrieres in the 10th).
- For pitch-black charcoal baguettes and black sesame flavored éclairs (deliciously nutty-flavored!), head to Boulangerie Utopie in the 11th. (A great example of a boulangerie that sells a smattering of pastries and desserts, too.) Take whatever you get and go have a leisurely sit along the Canal St. Martin.
- For an all-around delicious pastry of any kind you could want, go to Stohrer Pâtisserie on Rue Montorgeuil while you shop up and down that fascinating street. Although if a Saint-Honoré pastry is what you’re craving, walk four blocks south to Boulangerie Julien – theirs is better. (1st arrondissement)
- For an authentic taste of Austria in all its appley, spicey glory, head to Pâtisserie Viennoise near Metro stop Odéon. Get the hot chocolate, too. (5th arrondissement)
- For the perfect after-lunch treat, stop by Tartelettes in the 2nd arrondissement for a single-serve, upscale tart in delicious flavors like pistachio or vanilla-pecan. (2nd arrondissement)