Pierre Hermé, Fetish Ispahan. ©Pierre Hermé
The siren’s call that brings us back to Paris is different for each of us. For me, it’s the bread. To borrow a Michelin Guide barometer, the breads of Paris are, alone, worth the journey.
It’s hard to go wrong with any boulangerie in Paris though it’s true that some—Kayser, Paul, Gérard Mulot—are better than others. There is also no doubt in my mind, and in the writings of the many Parisian gourmands who led me to him, that the breakfast pastries of Pierre Hermé have no equal. He was awarded the Legion of Honor by French President Jacques Chirac in 2007, and Vogue has anointed him “The Picasso of Pastry.” How could a foodie be in Paris and not find her way to his door?
Finding his door is easier said than done. Armed with his address and assured by our hotel’s concierge that it was within walking distance, we set out for 72, rue Bonaparte in the sixth arrondissement, Saint-Germain-des-Prés. We then walked past the shop twice before we realized we were there. We have been drooling at the windows of Parisian boulangeries for years—those hard-to-resist artisan loaves and boules nestled into each other on one side, those delectable desserts on the other; warm, fragrant places that invite you in and entice you to stay. Not so at Pierre Hermé. At first pass-by, we thought it was an upscale hair salon. Nothing in its window hints at the wondrous confections within.
Be forewarned: This is not a friendly place. Locals and tourists alike pass through these hallowed doors quietly, respectfully, as if entering church. Kneeling was not required, though I would have been willing. One queues patiently, touches nothing, and prays that the answer to “May I have…?” will be “Oui,” decreed by one black-suited clerk who bags your selections, and another who accepts your inflated Euros, which you are happy to pay without ever asking “Combien?”
The shop is not large. The queue inside is single file. On the left side of the aisle are glass cases displaying exquisitely glazed and iced cakes and tarts bearing the elegant PH logo. We walked quietly past these; we snubbed the lavish display of macarons said to rival those of Ladurée.
We focused, instead, on the right side of the aisle where shelves were laden with what we came for, the viennoiserie, or morning pastries: heavenly buttery croissants, “which alone were worth the visit;” the shop’s signature breakfast offering, Kouign-Amann, Breton for “buttercake,” glazed with caramelized sugar, so light and luscious that you want another before finishing the first; the Bostock, a flat disk of a brioche soaked in an almond and orange syrup and filled with almond cream. We thought we’d bought too many, but devoured them all. We did the same on a second visit, justifying our shameless indulgence by asking, ”Who knows when we’ll be here again?”
One buys these delicious treats at Pierre Hermé, but one doesn’t eat them there. Thanks to David Lebovitz for The Sweet Life in Paris, his book about his expat experiences in Paris, we knew just where to take our bag of goodies. Lebovitz put us on to the Café de la Mairie, just around the corner from the bakery, in front of St. Sulpice Church. Waiters there, he assures, are receptive to people bringing their Hermé pastries to eat at the café’s tables. “Buy lots of coffee,” he advises.
He was right. Our waiter not only welcomed us, he brought plates and lots of napkins, which we needed because one bite into the croissant sent an avalanche of crumbs cascading down our jackets, onto our laps, and down to the ground—where the luckiest (and plumpest) pigeons in Paris diligently cleaned up the mess.
About that coffee. While it may be true that France has the best food in the world, it may also be true that it has the world’s worst coffee. To begin with, before you leave home you need to take a course on how to order coffee in a French café; you’ll get no help from your waiter. When you think you’ve nailed it and know what you want, your waiter will bring you what he thinks you should have. It will be vile, and you’ll pay dearly for it.
Lebovitz has a solution to this problem, too. If you want good coffee, he says, go to Italy.
Tél: 01 4354 4777
72, rue Bonaparte, Paris 6th
Open: daily 10am; closes at 7pm Mon-Wed + Sun; open until 7:30pm Thursday + Friday; open until 8pm Saturday
Café de la Mairie
8, place Saint-Sulpice, Paris 6th
Photos: window + Café de la Mairie by Cathy Fiorello; all others are publicity photos courtesy of ©Pierre Hermé
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