The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Where it all began - for me

alfanso's picture

Where it all began - for me

Anyone who has been around TFL long enough and is suspiciously odd (or bored) enough knows that my baguette journey began with my baking the Anis Bouabsa baguette.  For the uninitiated, M. Bouabsa is a bread baker in Paris who won the quite prestigious annual city-wide competition in 2008 for the Best Baguette in Paris, and with about 30 competitors it was no small feat.  His rewards included accolades, bragging rights and a meeting with the French President.  Oh, and supplying the presidential palace with baguettes for a year.

My wife's cousin celebrated her 90th birthday with a party last weekend.  Just about a lifelong resident of Paris she invited local relatives and friends as well as her American family, my in-laws included. As our favorite travel partners and nonogenarians themselves, the in-laws asked us to chaperone them to Paris for the event.  Our main goal was to ensure their safety every step of the way.  Literally.  So when folks gush at our vacationing in Paris I have to stop them right there.  It was not a vacation.  Although we had a good time with family there.  And no matter what, we were in Paris, for-cryin' out loud.

We had our free time in the mornings as their day often doesn't begin until 11 or so.  This past Monday, the only rainy day of the trip, we clambered down the Paris Metro steps and headed up to M. Bouabsa's boulangerie.

When he came out to see who was asking for him, I showed him a still from the video I posted a few years ago on the making of his baguettes.  To our utter surprise he said that he recognized me and "knew who I was".  He invited me in to see his workshop and I asked if my wife and cousins could come in also.  Yes.

And then we talked shop.  I don't know more than a few words of French and he doesn't understand English.  But he spoke in French, I spoke in Spanish and we seemed to be on the same page.  I guess shop talk and some hand gestures make a conversation a little more universal.  Unbeknownst to me Cousin Paul videoed about a minute of the encounter. Also unbeknownst to my wife, as she hogged the picture frame during part of the encounter!

The boys talking business


Baguettes after their long cold retard

A huge Pain de Campagne on the loader just after coming out of the oven.

T65 flour waiting to become baguettes

The Tzara Tradicion baguette.  M. Bouabsa's boulangerie is on Rue Tristan Tzara.

A peek into the workshop from the storefront.

We picked up cups of expresso and cafe creme, croissants, a pistachio & chocolate chip "stick" and an incredibly flaky custard filled "cup".  And of course a pain de campaigne batard and a pair of baguettes.  What a delightful experience.

Here's old Morris and me strolling down Rue St. Severin

And the lunch for the American contingent.  That's BD girl Dolly sandwiched between my in-laws, themselves book-ended by my wife and me.

And the same dopey rabbit seems to still get his hand caught in the Metro train doors, just as he did the first time I rode the Metro back in '89.



Danni3ll3's picture

This is one experience that you will cherish for a long time! Now tell us about the baguettes! How do they compare to yours and how do they taste?

alfanso's picture

I was surprised that the baguette coloration was so light.  The crust was thin and crispy, the crumb was sweet and open - but not nuts open as a lot of folks on TFL are aiming for.  A delight as a fresh baguette, and also as toast for the evening and next morning.

The croissant, I neglected to say, was wonderful.  Both croissant and baguette are significantly less expensive in Paris than in the U.S.

As far as the experience, I didn't even think about going until Friday, our first full day.  His boulangerie is closed on weekends, so that left our last full day, Monday, to head up there (18th Arr.).  And that left the door open to have our U.S. cousins, who we see all too infrequently here, tag along with us. 

Ru007's picture

It's so nice to see where your baguette inspiration comes from. I must have been really special for you to go back there, I'm so pleased for you! 

The video was cool too, language barrier or not, us bread bakers always get on the same page! LOL!! 

Were the baguettes as good as the last time you had them? 


alfanso's picture

I'd taken on the Bousabsa baguette after reading about the collaborated write up by Janedo and dmsnyder after Jane visited him a decade ago.  They get full credit for me even knowing his name in the first place.  So this was a first time visit to his bakery.

I'm so glad we went, and it gives me a satisfying memory and worthwhile experience in Paris to tell.  For all of our traveling, the more special moments seem to come from touching the people and not necessarily checking off the list of monuments and historic sites.  Although pulling out and leisurely eating our bagged lunch while sitting high up in the Colosseum in Rome, and taking in the rest of the folks rushing through to get to the next site, is also right up there.

DesigningWoman's picture

It looks like you got along like a house afire. The sound on my machine is a bit dicey; all I could make out was T55 and pastry, and strong flour (in response to what I assume was your comment about bread).

I hope you had a marvelous time, despite your primary role as chaperons, I know how challenging that can be at times.


alfanso's picture

M. Bouabsa also has a patisserie.  We were comparing the protein levels in pastry baking vs. bread baking and touching on elasticity vs extensibility in flours used for bread baking.

As mentioned, the in-laws have perennially been our favorite travel partners, having traveled numerous trips with them.  We thought for sure that our last excursion, to Ireland 5 years ago would be the last.  But the difficulties of navigating anywhere with a 95 and 90 year old, where balance and arms having to be held at almost all times created logistical issues themselves.

DesigningWoman's picture

Had travel buddies well into their 90s until last year. They were a hoot and I miss them terribly. Hope you can continue with yours for a good, long time.

Thanks for sharing these moments.

PalwithnoovenP's picture

I love everything about it; the story, the inspiration, the photos! To us home bakers, people like Anis are celebrities; that's a one of a kind experience. Thank you for sharing it with us.

The video was super cool, you know I love videos like this. They are both romance languages so there might be many cognates! I notice it too when I study because of the lone words left in my mother tongue. I had no idea about this skill of yours. How did you learn it? I wish they had not abolished Spanish in our schools so we would be automatically trilingual. My great grandfather spoke Spanish since it was the everyday language back then. It stopped during my grandfather's generation. We found old love letters of my great grandfather for my great grandmother and they were all written in Spanish! I wish we could understand them so we know what they talked about or what is the norm in writing love letters, do they speak so formally or casually. Hey, it's never too late to study it! :)

alfanso's picture

I was an inattentive student as a child and never cared much for school, and especially had little tolerance for foreign language way back then.  Well, I do now, although the learning isn't anywhere near "sponge-like" as when our brains are wired to be much more open and absorbent as we navigate through our early years.

But my sabbatical from work in 2002 drove my desire to spend the two months in Italy.  And therefore I decided to take Italian language classes in the few years prior in anticipation of the trip.  When I retired and we lived in too chilly for me Portland OR, we "needed" that winter getaway and spent our last three winters there in Buenos Aires.  Hence, the desire to start learning Spanish.  I'm pretty rusty now.  As an aside, we went to Guatemala for a week plus in Feb. with a young couple we know who run a small tour called Origins of Food - the name reflective of the focus of their work.  I was surprised at how a lot of arcane "forgotten" words popped into my mind over the week.  Even stranger was that after a few days, our hosts, who are fully fluent in Spanish, occasionally looked to me for a word that they were unfamiliar with.  That was a strange notion.  Ex: nutria=river otter.  Yeah, my vocabulary is a bit nerdy in that way.

I had my hair cut yesterday by my regular - a Haitian woman.  She said that, aside from the native Creole, students had to take English, Spanish and French.  And she also said the she was lucky as schools had recently phased out Greek and Latin before she was a student at the elementary public schools there.  I'll leave my obvious comment about education requirements for foreign language in the U.S.A. to your own imagination. 

PalwithnoovenP's picture

Including lots of foreign languages in the curriculum will only favor a few. I'm sure many will wish to remove those additional burden.

I'll leave some words that have been integrated in everyday talk here, perhaps you'll understand some. Just for fun! I just realized we have so many.

Trigo, harina, lebadura, masa, pan, mantekilya, keso, kalabasa, mansanas, kabayo, loro, kusina, kutsilyo, kutsara, tinidor, bintana, silya, eroplano, trabaho, banyo, asul, berde.

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

What a great story.  Thanks for posting it.  Now I'm kicking myself even harder:  My wife left yesterday for a week's biz trip to London and then to Paris via Eurostar.  I was too cheap to spring for the inflated summer season air fare to accompany her.  Eurostar arrives at Gare du Nord, just a few blocks from Au Duc de la Chapelle.  Your post's timing would have been perfect.  Alas, I've saved Bouabsa's spot on google maps and ... next time for sure.  And your post was encouraging in other ways - we travel with octogenarian in-laws.  I'm sure they've got a decade or more left of travel in 'em!

Safe travels and happy baking,


alfanso's picture

opportunities. And we can rightfully kick ourselves, but hopefully there's always a next time.  But there have also be those serendipitous encounters or timings where we just hit it right purely by accident too.  The travel logistics were troublesome.  When my father in law stated a few times to me that he was okay and that I didn't have to physically escort him at just about every step, I reminded him that if he falls and winds up in an ER or a doctor or dentist office, that it will have been my fault.  If they wandered out on their own and couldn't find the way back, the onus was on my wife and me. 

Next time loosen the purse strings and take the trip too ;-) .  At the worst, you'll wind up getting great fish and chips and real ales in the UK and some outstanding pastries in France.

thanks, alan

dmsnyder's picture

Gee! Next time you visit, I can shake the hand that shook the hand ...

Thanks for sharing. I'm envious.


alfanso's picture

along with Janedo.  If not for your postings years before I made my way to TFL, I'd never have heard of the gent.  I notice that the esteemed M. Gosselin was a grand prize winner in 1996, the third year of the annual event.

Maybe give Mike a jingle.  You can at least get the handshake one more person removed before next Spring! ;-)

thanks, alan 

not.a.crumb.left's picture

and that is probably most of my French unless you want me to continue in German...:D

I love the family photos and how you looked after them! Very special and then topped by meeting M. Bouabsa, himself in his bakery! Were you tempted to ask for his starter?

Imagine getting that on the plane!  Thank you for sharing! Kat

dabrownman's picture

I bookmarked it for Lucy and her comment was why don't you look after me like Don Baggs does for his in-laws. I just turned 98 too!  I told her that the in-laws don't up chuck on your toes on purpose.

That huge batard looks like a meal for 10 but not for your huge crew - it probably was gone in a flash.  What a great 90th b-day party - special indeed.  A bakery that doesn't work on the weekend has to be really profitable.  I thought the French didn't like day old bread because it is stale and hard in a day.  Do they not eat bread on the weekends to try to work off the carbs?

I will make the comparison though.  I bet your SD Baggies taste and look better than the masters....and blisters - he ain't getting - plus no SD :-)  Blisters were always a flaw in French bread making so I can see why he he would not want them.  I find them being pale weird though.  Brown bread tastes good!  Weird wild open crumb is considered a flaw too don't you think!  I bet his crumb was just like JH's.

What a great trip and experience to meet such a nice master baker in Paris.  For a baguette maker like you it had to be extra special.

Happy baking Don Baggs

alfanso's picture

"I told her that the in-laws don't up chuck on your toes on purpose."  Don't bet the milk money on it!

That batard wasn't the one we purchased, we picked up the standard "football" batard from the shelf.  As far as weekend work, for bakeries to be profitable they generally have to sell bread to more folks than just over the counter sales, meaning commercial accounts.  And frequently have a cafe menu as well.  I will take a guess that he supplies local businesses and restaurants with bread 7 days a week, but has no counter service on the weekend.  We saw a delivery truck loading up while we were there.

I believe that there are differing levels of baguettes in France, with the least expensive and most basic called the Tradition.  Boulanger Eric Keyser, who has branched out to well beyond his native shores, sells a "Baguette Monge", which is a levain baguette.  As his business is based in Paris, his first bakery (located on Rue Monge in the Latin Quarter) probably sells the Tradition as well.  And M. Bouabsa also offers a brown, meaning whole grain, baguette, if not others.

I don't have a snapshot of the crumb, but as I mentioned in an earlier comment, the crumb is moderately open, but not crazy open as a lot of folks on TFL seem to strive for.  Same for the Pain de Campagne, which also had a most modest open crumb.

And yes, it was pretty cool, but the thought of visiting there didn't seep into my little cranium until we were already planted in Gay Paree for a full day.  Certainly a pleasant and memorable outing, providing some of my own bragging rights and a story to tell, but nothing life changing.  The best moment was when he said that he recognized little ol' me.  Now that was a highlight.

alfanso's picture

who has a poorer knowledge of French than I do!  Actually not at all tempted.  I'm quite content to work with my own levains, which I've been babysitting since first raising the rambunctious little dears using Debra Wink's Pineapple Juice Solution method 4 years ago.  Besides, after a few iterations of refreshes the local flours and ambient yeasts crowd out the original from his environment and I'd have the same anyway.  A fun thought although it never occurred to me.

thanks, alan 

isand66's picture

Very jealous :).  Always so nice to get to meet a master baker and try his wares in person.  Thanks for sharing and I know what you mean about not a vacation....


alfanso's picture

The trip came up out of nowhere in late April when my in-laws declared that they wanted to visit the cousin one last time.  So this wasn't even on our radar until maybe 5 weeks before we traveled.  Being retired has its advantages!

thanks, alan

Floydm's picture

That is really fantastic. Thank you for sharing.

alfanso's picture

we were satisfied that we could help my in-laws travel, instead of just travel with them.  But we all agreed this was the last time they would be traveling by air.

A few galettes, onion soups, breads and pastries didn't hurt the cause either!  Plus, just as with other locales these days, the pub scene for draught beers seems to be in full swing there.

thanks, alan

leslieruf's picture

thank you for sharing with us, what a great memory to have! I can just imagine how good the bread was!


alfanso's picture

we'd head around the corner to the local boulangerie and get a croissant or other enriched breakfast pastry, a cafe creme and I'd get an expresso (they don't spell it espresso as we do).  As I find the typical French coffee on the weak side for my taste, I just immediately dump the expresso into it.  After the elders have come around to consciousness and are ready to eat something breakfast-like, "we'd head around the corner to the local boulangerie" again!  A life I could comfortably get used to.

The basic baguette - the Tradition, if I have that correct, while no longer government price controlled - if I also have that correct, is quite inexpensive and very tasty indeed.  Just FWS&Y.  My understanding is that there are differing levels of baguettes, depending on the baker and the price point.

thanks, alan

Cedarmountain's picture

Alan, thank you for sharing this post!  The glimpse into your life and passion for baking is wonderful not only for the baguette connection with Monsieur Bouabsa but for your adventures with the in laws.  My parents are 95 and 93 this year and although still healthy and active, their last trip with us was  8 years ago and they decided after that trip that their  travel days were done.  As you no doubt appreciate from your recent trip with your in laws, it can be a daunting challenge for them just to move some days. I admire their spirit for yet another adventure with you and your energy and commitment to ensuring their safety and well being on the trip, as you say, literally every step of the way!  The simple humanity of your post is what makes it sing Alan, thanks for reminding me life can be good.  And, heretical as it may be, without tasting them, I think your baguettes are better...just saying.

alfanso's picture

wanted to go to Paris for Dolly's 90th and have us chaperone them, there were some conditions that I set which they would have to abide by.  Wheelchairs on both ends, from front door to gate and back - both ways.  My mother in law, who would have been quite comfortable as a frontier woman, was reluctant, but the ground rules were agreed to in advance.  When she balked at getting into the chair as we debarked in Paris, I told her that if she didn't, I'd be on the next plane back.  And I meant it.    With few instances, they were gems and understood that navigating the crowded narrow and sometimes cobblestoned streets were too daunting without our assistance.

And even if my baguettes are in some weird way "better" - I almost never make a pure simple FWSY baguette, so comparisons to their basic Baguette Tradition are futile.  And I'm not one for comparisons or competitions.  I'll leave that to the big boys.  I'm happy in my little niche as is.  But thanks for the thoughts and continued encouragement.


Bread1965's picture

What a great post.. very happy for you..

It's a classic example that life is about experiences rather than possessions.. thank you for sharing!

alfanso's picture

possessions own you and not the other way around.  Yes, as I mentioned somewhere above, our more memorable travel moments have been when we've touched the culture and people, in however a small way.  I can always look at our pictures of the Eiffel Tower or Great Buddha of Kamakura, etc. and recall the enjoyment of those moments.  But they don't compare to the unique cultural moments, intimate places and people that we have met.

thanks, alan

Filomatic's picture

Thanks for sharing this.  I traveled to France with my parents after my high school freshman year.  I remember like it was yesterday all the amazing food experiences, including especially the croissants I had almost every day for breakfast or a snack.  Simple lunches of baguettes and cheese (best obtained before stores shut down in the middle of the day!) were also a favorite.

alfanso's picture

of mine brought back and elicited pleasant memories of the past for a number of folks.  I never had the luxury of travel with my parents, unless you consider a ride to upstate NY from NYC to visit Cooperstown*, which I'm quite certain was not my mother's idea!  My H.S. summers consisted of local play or working to have spending money come Fall.

As stated above, I could quite comfortably exist on the breads, pastries and assorted other delights.  Which would entail spending twice the time at the gym as I do now :-/ .

Seriously, next up in the Fall may well be our search for some local basic French language skills and conversation classes.  We can foresee ourselves renting and spending a few months somewhere in that country within the next few years.  Solvency in retirement does indeed have its perks!

thanks Phil, alan

*Cooperstown is where the Baseball Hall of Fame is, for the uninitiated.

Janedo's picture

Wow! Incredible how things can live on. Your story brings back so many memories. Next time I'm in Paris I'll have to go up and bug him! See if he remembers me!

You're comment about the crumb is interesting. You're absolutely right, a very good baguette tradition in France will have an open crumb but not those big holes that you get with the american flour. The butter and jam would just drip out!!!

Where I live now, I can hardly get a few holes in a loaf. It's very frustrating! No good structure development. So seeing those pictures of beautiful baguettes is painful! Sigh...