Thursday, December 15, 2011

Out Of Bread!

No, not like that. I'm still broke, not poor, but I'm also a little bit poorer today, as is everyone in town. Here's what's happened.

One of the few nice things about living in The Slum here is that, dazed with sleep, I could still throw on some clothes, walk to the corner, and buy croissants and other pastries for breakfast. Very good croissants. Made by the people who also made very good bread, which I bought whenever soup or salad was going to be the main dish for dinner, or when I felt like a sandwich and would buy a loaf, halve it, and freeze the other half. Ortholan is a local chain, with a big store down south on the Avenue de Toulouse which fabricates and half-bakes the stuff, and two other stores, one of which is on my corner, and the other of which is across the Comédie, which finish the baking and perfume the air here between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. And here's what it's looked like for a week:

The only difference is, today, as I was out shooting pictures, the orange sign you can see there went up:

This is good news: evidently, once the "repairs" are finished, the bakery will re-open, being open on Sundays until Christmas, of which there's only one left. I was concerned for the neighbors: I only patronize the bread end of things, but the bakery's main source of income seems to be fancy stuff, and they have a loose-leaf book of seasonal things you can order -- and people do. There are a lot of traditional sweets at this time of year, just like everywhere, and Ortholan makes several levels of bûche de Noël, and king cakes of every diameter, among other things. People pre-pay for these, and having your bakery plotz right before Christmas is a nightmare.

But at least I'm getting my bakery back, or so it seems. There's other bad news for Montpellier bread-lovers, like this poor woman.

Le Vieux Four Sainte Anne was the first bakery I saw in Montpellier when I came here early in 2006 to look around. There was a plaque on the wall just to the left of the woman there which indicated that the baker had come in second in the nationwide baking contest in 2005. My lord, the second-best bakery in France? That had to be good. Unfortunately, every time I went there, there was a line out the door.

Eventually, I moved here, and was able to go there when I wanted. It isn't exactly in the back yard, but there were days I would be walking back from the market and I'd stop in for some sandwich-making material, which was often sold to me by an exuberant West Indian lady. Through the door to the left, one could see the baker going about his routine, with his wood-burning oven and wooden peels and cooling loaves stacked up. I once got a loaf fresh out of the oven, and it was so hot I had to keep switching it from hand to hand so as not to burn myself. (Unfortunately, it was summer; you kind of hope for things like that around this time of year.)

It was very, very good bread. I never tried any of their other things, the pizzas and tarts and so on, but I did manage several loaves of bread. I also love the Ste. Anne district, and hope to get an apartment there one of these days, and was fantasizing having this place as my local. But no: here's what that woman is looking at:

It's hard to read in that picture, I guess, but what it says is "Starting today, the Vieux Four Ste. Anne is closed. Thank you for your understanding." And yes, that's a real Michelin sticker there, from 2004. Bakeries almost never get them (the Petit Fute guide is a pay-to-play deal).

"It's a real loss," said The Other Ed when I mentioned it the other day, and I hope someone knows what happened here. And it's got me wondering, with all the bakeries here, how many really good ones are left. Bread is central to French life, there's no doubt about that, but as with everywhere else, the mass of people are content to buy so-so stuff. There's a big chain called Paul that's made a fortune by making bread that approximates traditional stuff, and to tell the truth, if you're in a railroad station or Charles de Gaulle Airport and you're hungry, their sandwiches hit the spot, but their baguettes are only slightly better than what you get in Mononprix.

Here's wishing Ste. Anne's baker a good retirement, if that's what it is, and here's hoping the spirit of what he accomplished settles on the shoulders of a young baker somewhere here in town and inspires him to open a worthy successor.


  1. You're right, most bread is at best so-so. Local boulangeries are no better than supermarkets and can be worse. Carrouf's baguette à l'ancienne is very tasty and much better than the average baguette you get down the road.

  2. Awww, I really liked that place! I had been meaning to go back lately. I loved their chocolate-almond croissants...


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