The temptationto binge on bread increases rapidly when one is in Paris
Before a visit to France, I’m filled with anticipation and dread. Anticipation because of all the delicious croissants, baguettes, and pain au chocolat so easily available, and so hard to resist. And dread because the very same croissants, pain au chocolat and baguettes inevitably derail my dietary regime. If there’s one place in the world where I can’t resist bread, it is in Paris. If I have time I’m happy to just wander the streets, feasting my eyes (at least) on the utter deliciousness on display at Poilâne or Jean-Pierre Cohier.
So what is so irresistible about well-made bread? Paris-based celebrity patissier David Lebovitz, a go-to source for food in Paris, admits to the lure of a well-made French baguette, and even explains how to select the best baguettes, differentiating between boulangeries that make baguette de tradition and the mass-produced varieties. After all, and hear this – baguette-making is even regulated by law in France! (They have laws for all the important stuff.)
Back home and pining for good French bread, I was thrilled to chance upon a photograph of Nitash Lalkaka’s sourdough walnut bread. I called him immediately. What does bread mean to you? I asked. “I’ve always loved bread. Growing up in a Parsee home in Kolkata, it’s been part of my life.” Now as a professional patissier and baker, he restricts himself to making only small quantities of bread on occasion and only on pre-orders, as it requires time and energy as well as a wider popularity it has yet to acquire. “Baking bread is so satisfying but somehow the monetary aspect was never rewarding. If I had my way, I’d concentrate only on bread – whenever I do bake, it’s out of passion.” (Check out Poilâne or another of Nitash’s favourite boulangeries – Maison Kayser when in Paris next.)
Bread-making is a science, and requires precision, labour and patience. If quality ingredients are used, it’s not cheap as many imagine it might be. Nitash starts two days ahead with his fermentation and uses three ingredients – salt, flour and water, along with a natural levainor sourdough starter. He’s particular about the levain as well as the wheat – using T65 French flour, along with top quality local flour, and long-grained heirloom wheat that comes from Punjab, which, he says, imparts a deliciously cheesy, nutty flavour to the bread. He buys the whole grain and grinds it, and the result is evident when the loaf comes out of the oven. “Bread is something that’s alive – a good loaf sings and crackles coming out of the oven. My sourdough walnut emerges a dark chestnut colour – only then will real flavour come through.” Other favourite breads he makes include oatmeal and dill bread, and a sesame and mustard seed-filled loaf. Not to mention the popular potato and rosemary bread, a rustic bread from Italy’s Puglia region. “Soft and juicy, with chunks of potato,” he explains. I’m sold.