PARIS -- Spring in this renowned city means rainy and gray and then suddenly, the glare of sunshine from the tall apartment windows when the clouds break. It also means keeping the baguettes dry.
For my recent visit, I carried the requisite guide books, camera, notebook and a sightseeing plan. Of course, art and food were high on the list, but not, as you might think, in visits to the Musee d'Orsay or an Alain Ducasse restaurant.
Instead, I combined art and food to organize a tour of the city's boulangeries (bakeries). I've been baking bread at home for many years, using a variety of books by American bakers. My object now was to experience the essence of Paris in its traditional bread, the baguette, made by French hands.
Even cranked out on a large scale, the loaves are an artistic creation, from the exacting demands of milling French wheat to the management of the oven, first the injection of steam for moistness, then exhaust fans to dry the crust.
Like great art, the Parisian baguette arouses passionate, at times bitter, debate. Times and temperatures are checked obsessively with precision instruments, ingredients analyzed by chemists, flavors judged like vintage wines. Fierce factions have formed of millers and bakers, millers vs. bakers and yes, bakers vs. bakers.
The government is involved as well, imposing in 1993 "the bread decree," specifying the various designations of bread. Size and price are also controlled. This is France, after all.
My initial guide for this contentious world was one by professor Steven Laurence Kaplan, a Brooklyn native who has appointed hiMr.elf the supreme arbiter of French bread, but in some corners is dismissed as the "ayatollah."
Food anthropologists, such as my traveling companion, recognize him as the world's authority on the social history of bread in Paris before the French Revolution with his book, "The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1770-1775."
Mr. Kaplan, who holds a post at a French university as well as at Cornell, now is focusing on the contemporary Parisian bread scene and appears regularly on French radio and TV.
Along with my standard Paris guides, I packed his 2006 book, "Good Bread Is Back," (Duke University Press, $28.95). It's both a history of the French bread industry and a highly personal account of the 21st-century Paris bakery scene.
Mr. Kaplan's gimmicks include bringing his favorite brand of baguette to a new restaurant in case its bread does not meet his standards, and using such descriptions for the taste of bread as "a hint of dried apricots and almonds" and "symbiotic play of chiaroscuro." Once he compared the shape of a loaf to Brigette Bardot's backside.
"In the process, [Mr. Kaplan] has become the conscience of French baking," wrote wine writer Michael Steinberger in his new book, "Au Revoir to All That" (BlooMr.bury, $25).
Mr. Kaplan's most favored bakers are Eric Kayser and Dominique Saibron, "les boulangers de rue de Monge," a street favored by bakers since the 18th century and where these rivals operate their bread ateliers.
These shops were the starting place for our baguette tour, launched on a misty Saturday afternoon from the Metro station at the busy Place d'Italie in Montparnasse. In a typical neighborhood of apartments above stores, the rue de Monge branches off from Avenue des Gobelins. That's where we found Mr. Saibron's unpretentious establishment, le Boulanger de Monge.
At 4:30 p.m., the shop had a line reaching the sidewalk. Inside, the usual pastries competed with the racks of artisan breads, including the traditional baguette.
Along with one, I bought a twisted batard (a shorter baguette) sprinkled with bran, and a round sourdough or pain levain for about $7.
In the baking room behind the cash register, four young bakers in white paper hats were kneading and shaping baguettes in front of vertical ovens with rows of shelves designed to bake the slender loaves.
On we walked in a mix of showers and sun, soon finding another boulangerie where I came upon a treasure -- a kilo (2.2 pounds) of Type 55 organic French flour, or farine biologic, exactly the kind used for baguettes.
"How do you say it in English?" the saleswoman asked me as I paid about $5 for the bag.
"Organic flour," I answered, thinking how much nicer it sounded in French.
Most Parisians don't bake bread at home since a boulangerie is usually just around the corner, so it's not easy to find Type 55. It was une bonne chance.
It was raining harder at that point, necessitating a visit to le Petit Cardinal. The bistro is named for the cross street, rue de Cardinal Lemoine, a crooked steep way that leads to the building where Ernest Hemingway and wife Hadley first lived in Paris in the early 1920s.
Behind the bistro is rue des Boulangers, the street of bakers, the center of bread-making in Paris 200 years ago.
Refreshed by pate, cheese, bread and a foamy glass of Leffe, a wheat beer, we marched on in search of Mr. Kayser's shop, the ne plus ultra of Mr. Kaplan's bread universe.
Near Place Maubert in the Left Bank, the bakery with its illuminated brown signboard is easy to find. Another tip-off was the line of about 15 customers waiting on the sidewalk to get in.
Mr. Kaplan's book prepared me for the elegant, upscale decor, a view dedicated to the display of Mr. Kayser's bread-making talents, but I was not expecting the almost perfume-like aroma from the ovens and the products.
Unlike Mr. Saibron's shop, the workroom and ovens are out of sight and no photos were permitted.
I bought the signature Kayser baguette, pointed sharply on both ends, and a half tourte, a bitingly sour round loaf made with white and whole wheat flours.
The march was over, but the bread campaign unexpectedly went on. At the end of the street loomed the familiar shape of Notre Dame, where a miracle occurred. Our baguette tour ran smack into La Fete du Pain, the annual Festival of Bread celebrated in the cathedral's plaza, filled with apron-clad bakers and smiling people cradling bread under their arMr..
Sponsored by the city of Paris and its bakers, the nine-day event is held around May 16, St. Honore's Day or "Baker's Day" in France. It showcases the making of traditional baked goods, from the baguette to the buttery croissant, in a large temporary structure that filled most of the plaza.
The festival was closing for the day, so we returned early Monday to connect with a delegation of bakers from Quebec, this year's special guests. Our guide, however, was not a Canadian, but an American: James MacGuire who once owned a restaurant and bakery in Montreal. He was helping to run the Quebec delegation's bread-baking operation in the main building and greeted us in baker's whites dusted with flour.
When I mentioned Mr. Kaplan's book, the hearty Mr. MacGuire turned serious and snapped, "He was here the other day, you know. We call him 'the ayatollah.' "
It was then that I encountered the bread factionalism, disagreements prompted by techniques, ingredients and, in Mr. Kaplan's case, a yen for publicity.
Mr. MacGuire writes for the food quarterly, "The Art of Eating," and consults with King Arthur Flour, the Vermont miller and baking supply store. He's also a supporter of the late Raymond Calvel, a legendary baker and bread expert whose methods are credited in some quarters with saving the baguette from mass-produced mediocrity in the 1950s.
Mr. MacGuire translated Mr. Calvel's classic treatise, "The Taste of Bread," a technical work mostly for professional bakers. And Mr. Calvel devised Julia Child's recipe for baguettes, adapted to fit American kitchens.
It doesn't take much to get a rise out of Mr. MacGuire, who knows Mr. Kaplan has been dismissive of Mr. Calvel in favor of the "purer" approaches of Mr. Kayser and his trademark pointed loaf.
"Anybody can pinch dough into a point-like sword after a machine does the rest," he remarked. But Mr. MacGuire was a gracious guide to the baking operation going on inside the festival tent. There, dozens of bakers were preparing varieties of bread for the hot portable ovens, using the various tools, including machines that weighed and cut dough into individual pieces, then to be formed by hand.
He let me touch the traditional French bread dough, stickier and wetter than I expected but with a texture essential to creating the proper baguette, and I dipped my hand into a bag of flour to feel its silky, unique nature.
"The flour is essential. It's pretty absolute to the making of bread in France," Mr. MacGuire said. "The mild climate here produces a wheat that's 'softer' or lower in protein than American or Canadian wheat. Our wheat has too much of a good thing, too much gluten."
For grinding, the wheat is steeped in water to remove some of the bran and milled "gently" by rollers, a several-step process to "extract all the white stuff" or the fleur de farine, he explained. "Here, milling is an art."
Mr. MacGuire went on to describe the series of important steps that transform the Type 55 flour into the perfect baguette -- hydration, minimal mixing and kneading and long, cool fermentation or "pointage."
"Knead a little, ferment a lot" is his mantra. His other advice: When forming the loaves after rising, you need "an iron fist in a velvet glove." That means a hand strong enough to work the dough without deflating the bubbles of gas that produce those distinctive holes beneath a hard crust.
His impromptu instructions were cut short when he was forced to help another baker transfer dough into the ovens.
Surrounded by the steady ballet of professional bakers mixing, turning and forming dough in a cloud of flour dust and the heat of ovens, I experienced, if only briefly, the magical artistry behind one of the symbols of French culture.
Maybe it wasn't quite Rodin's workshop, where dozens of copies of his masterpieces were stamped out, but it was close enough for a lover of authentic bread to watch artists at work.
Correction/Clarification: (Published 12/17/09) Baker James MacGuire was incorrectly reported as being associated with the Culinary Institute of America. The institute reports that he is not. Bob Hoover can be reached at 412-263-1634 or email@example.com . First Published November 5, 2009 5:00 AM