Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Quest for the Best Pain du Chocolat

Lately, I've been feeling very frustrated about being trapped at homeOn Saturday night, my frustration had built up so much that I was in tears, leaving me hell-bent on doing something about it. Who needs a car? I will get out and experience France using my own two feet!

I went to bed with the resolve to get up early the next morning and walk to the local village (about 3km away). Morning time was key, as I had to plan my escape before the kiddies showed up at our door. It's also been very sunny and warm lately, with temperatures in the 90s, so I wanted to get out before it got too hot.

The next day, I shot out of bed around 7:30 am, brimming with more excitement than a kid on Christmas morning. I grabbed my hoodie and snuck out the door, with my trusty travelling companions (a camera and an iPod) in hand.

Ironically, it was one of those mornings that's perfect sleeping weather -- overcast, foggy, and a cool 60 degrees. But as I was bursting with ambition, I took it as a sign that it was a great day for taking photographs.

Wheat and trees on my walk to town.
Walking along the country road, I stopped to take pictures of the wheat fields and vineyards. Even though the countryside hasn't been my cup of tea, I can still appreciate the beauty of this area. One of these days, I'm going to look back on this trip with disbelief that I was actually living here.

I was surprised to see the village buzzing with locals, who were up early to purchase their daily baguettes at the boulangerie (bakery). Who knew that anyone worked on a Sunday in France?

I was quite pleased with myself for making an effort to walk to the village. It was so nice to see some action, as mundane as it might be, and to hear some French words tickle my ear. "Now I feel like I'm actually experiencing France," I thought to myself.

Feeling pleased as punch and wanting to take my experience a step further, I decided to give myself a new challenge: to sample a pain du chocolat from each bakery in town, and conduct a taste test to decide which one was the best! Hey, it's a tough job, but someone has to do it.

I had heard from the homeowners that there were only 3 bakeries in town. Feeling confident that I could easily handle 3 chocolate-filled croissants (clearly, this was my empty stomach talking), I headed off to the first one, Le Réveil Gourmand.

I patiently waited in the main square, hoping for a few more customers to enter the shop before me. Once I was inside, I was going to need a minute or two to look over the pastries, figure out the price list, and practice my order. When it was my turn, I took a deep breath and said, "Bonjour! Je voudrais un pain du chocolat, s'il vous plaît." (Not perfect, but hopefully good enough to get my request across.)

I handed the cashier 0.90 Euro then squealed with delight as I headed outside with my precious French treat.
Round 1! Pain du chocolat from Le Réveil Gourmand (in the background).
Thankfully, I remembered to take a picture of my pastry before it disappeared. "Hmm, a bit flat," I thought to myself, "this should really be more flaky." It seemed like the pain du chocolat was a little underdone, as it collapsed into a flat, greasy mess in its pouch. The flavor was nice, but I was a bit disappointed in the texture.

Full of butter and chocolate, I decided do a little more wandering before I hit the next bakery. About 20 minutes later, I eyed the store windows at my next stop: Mazade. I was a bit intimidated, as I didn't see anything on display for less than 30 Euros. Maybe they only serve pretty cakes here? Would they laugh at me when I asked for an unsophisticated pain du chocolat?

It seemed clear that the shop owner had noticed me oogling the window display, as she greeted me with a mixture of amusement and interest as I walked in. I sheepishly ordered my pain du chocolat, which felt a bit like walking into Tiffany's to ask for a silver-plated paper clip.

Pain du chocolat #2 from Mazade.
This pastry made up for some of the things that the first one was lacking. It was incredibly airy, with a dough-like consistency. While I liked its volume, the pastry tasted more like a chocolate-stuffed baguette than a croissant. Not very flaky. I was once again disappointed and, even worse, starting to feel very full.

I contemplated abandoning my quest as I sat in front of the Hôtel de Ville (town hall). But, I decided that I owe it to this blog to continue, so I pushed ahead!

I decided to explore the local fruit and vegetable market before I headed to my third and final bakery. Much to my horror, I discovered a surprise waiting for me across the street: another boulangerie! Apparently, there were 4, not 3, bakeries in this tiny little town.

As I cautiously approached the Festival des Pains bakery, I noticed a huge line of people inside the store. The bakery ladies were busy taking orders as a young boy loaded dozens of baguettes into the oven.

As I reached the bakery counter, I nervously scanned their picked over pastry selection. Croissants, cookies, tarts... are they out of pain du chocolat? I asked the shop lady for one and she paused for a second, then signaled to me to "hold on." She ran to the back of the bakery, poked around a series of trays,  then triumphantly reappeared with the last remaining pain du chocolat in their shop.

Pain du chocolat from Festival des Pains, a surprise late entry in my pastry taste test.
Not to discount the intentions of the lovely bakery ladies, but I have a feeling that this treat was still on a pastry cart because it was a little overdone for a refined French palette. But for me, the américaine tourist, it was probably good enough.

Actually, despite its overbrowned exterior, this pain du chocolat was clearly a winner. Perfect flakiness, melty chocolate. I enjoyed it even though I really didn't want to eat any more pastries. No wonder why this was such a popular place!

As I finished my third pain du chocolat, I started considering my options for the next round. There was still one more bakery in town (that I knew of), and for the sake of completeness, I decided that I must visit it. What can I say? I value a thorough and complete analysis and was not about to give up on my quest.

I sighed, put my head down, and headed to Maison Barli. Much to my delight, here's what I found:

Bakery #3, Maison Barli.
Finally! Some decent French people who refuse to work on Sundays! Thank you, Maison Barli!

As I headed home, 2.70 Euros poorer but at least 1500 calories richer, I decided that the next time I try a taste test, I must bring Jim along too. I am obviously not very good at counting and need some assistance scouting out all of the boulangeries in town.