In France, there’s a strongly held belief that the most talented boulangers (bread bakers) are not generally equally gifted at producing top-notch pastries. Similarly, pâtissiers (pastry makers) tend to fall into a class of their very own, and wouldn’t generally claim to be bread specialists– even though plenty of bakeries advertise themselves as both boulangeries and patisseries.
Confused, yet? One of the reasons bread and pastry maestros in France are awarded separate top prizes for their craftsmanship (and are thereafter known as “meilleur ouvrier de France” in their respective categories) is because very different expertise is required to produce exceptional baguettes than the sort needed to make a perfectly buttery, flaky yet chewy pain au chocolat.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently stumbled on Farine & O, a Parisian address situated near Bastille in the increasingly trendy Charonne neighborhood.
I happened to be staying in the area at a generous friend’s place, and my nose told me to check out the place with the unassuming facade (probably because divine, fragrant smells of yeast, chocolate, sugar and almonds were wafting out to the street, beckoning me inside).
Incidentally, “O” refers to eau (water), while farine means flour: the two simple ingredients, aside from yeast of course, needed to make good bread.
Headed by Olivier Magne, the baker who won accolades as the 2015 Meilleur Ouvrier de France (best craftsman) for his innovative, delicate yet distinctively flavored pastries, this relatively recent addition to the 11th arrondissement in Paris has quickly become a neighborhood staple.
Part of the secret is that Magne is equally a master bread baker: he teaches traditional French bread-making at the National Institute of Bakeries and Patisseries.
That double mastery comes through when tasting a cross section of his superb creations. The first time I visited, I came away with a thick square of focaccia and a “Pain d’Antoine”: a traditional pain au chocolat laced with candied orange.
The focaccia struck the perfect balance between fluffy, airy moistness and a crisp, deliciously oily finish. It had just the right smattering of rosemary and salt, too. A good focaccia should be delicious on its own, and this version certainly is.
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Meanwhile, the orange-laced Pain d’Antoine might have easily disappointed me, since I’m not a fan of messing with a good thing (a perfectly baked pain au chocolat).
I was pleased to be proven wrong: the delicate strips of candied orange that decorate the surface of the pastry add just the right note of citrus, without detracting from the dark, bittersweet chocolate that’s dispersed through the inside.
Visit #2: Wherein I discover the seeded baguette, and more divine pastry
It wasn’t long before I found myself back at the bakery for another late breakfast, this time tempted by the multiseeded baguette (shown in the pic at top) and a pain aux raisins spun with pistachio paste and bits of dark chocolate (seen just above).
This time, I was so greedy that I didn’t even wait to sit down to taste both: instead, I stood at the kitchen counter, gasping to myself at the incomparable flavors and textures in both. The seeded baguette, intensely nutty from the toasted seeds, had the perfect bite and chewiness/crunchiness ratio.
Meanwhile, the pain aux raisins was a buttery, flaky marvel that pulled apart like delicate crab might, revealing perfect, balanced layers of raisins, pastry, thin pistachio paste and chocolate.
I (unfortunately) haven’t had a chance to sample the other delicious-looking breads that line the shelves and windows of the bakery, but the pain de campagne (country bread) and delicate fruit-laced loaves are reputed to be excellent, too.
Visit #3: Wherein I regale friends with gorgeous tarts & madeleines
For my third visit in less than a week, I settled on tarts and madeleines to bring along to a small dinner party that evening. I’m a huge fan of lemon cakes and tarts in any guise, so ordered one, along with an apricot tart and a few madeleines in various flavors, including chocolate and lemon.
Needless to say, all were a hit with my hosts. We all agreed that the lemon tart– sharply, delicious and packing an intense citrus punch– was the best among our tastings, with a perfectly defined lemon custard and a rich, buttery crust.
It was also simply beautiful, presented in a perfect square dotted with meringue at the sides.
In short, look no further than this place if you’re too lazy to find a bakery where the bread and pastries are equally impressive– and simply delicious.
Farine & O
- Address: 153 rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, 11th arrondissement
- Metro: Faidherbe-Chaligny or Ledru-Rollin
- Tel: +33 (0)1 43 07 77 58
- Closed on Tuesdays– avoid disappointment!
Exploring the French Capital, One Bite at a Time:
If you’re interested in getting a taste of some of the city’s best gourmet spots, you can book a popular food tour here (via TripAdvisor).