Chasing breakfast

posted 3 February 2005; updated 7 February 2005

Ah, breakfast in France. A chunk of fresh baguette, a pain au chocolat, and café au lait. Demi-sel (half-salted) butter and morello cherry jam. Sometimes we do variations: Tea or hot chocolate instead of the coffee. Chewy country-style bread instead of a baguette. Apple turnovers instead of pains au chocolat. That amazing raspberry jam they were sampling last week at l'Entrecôte (more raspberry than sugar and seeds so tender you can chew them up). Nutella.

Our seven standard-issue French coffee cups are hilariously small--each holds barely 4 tbsp--so we use one as a sugar bowl and a couple to store things like a little left-over gravy and change for the washing machines (shades of grad school). We use their cute little three-inch saucers to collect crumbs for the birds. So we drink our café au lait, as do the French, out of deep, round, pint bowls without handles that in the U.S. people would put corn flakes in.

But breakfast in France is like vitamin C. You can't make it yourself, and you can't store it. You have to acquire it fresh from the source every day. My idea of walking into Beaulieu every morning before breakfast turned out not to fit our schedule, nor does shopping at the minimarket in the résidence, because it opens too late in the day, so we've settled on shopping for breakfast after work each day (not the optimal solution, but acceptable if you reheat the baked goods slightly in the morning). When we first arrived, it was warm enough to walk to the bakeries in Beaulieu in the evening, but lately we've been stopping at a bakery in Villefranche on the way home. The hardest breakfast to cover is Monday, because everything everywhere is closed on Sunday afternoon and evening, when we get back from touring. We've laid in a box of cereal for emergencies, but fortunately, the minimarket carries a dark, chewy multi-grain bread in oval loaves that is billed as "long-keeping"--that is, they brag that in a plastic bag it will stay good for two or even three days!

Villefranche boasts three bakeries. The one known locally as "the one by the stoplight" is the most convenient--you can park right across the street and it's next door to a fruit-and-vegetable shop--but it is that phenomenon decreasingly rare in France, the not-very-good bakery. Bland fruit tarts; chewy pain au chocolat; dry, stale, tasteless bread. The one known as "the one across the street" is only a little farther from the parking, and I like the lady there a lot, but--as we figured out after a couple of days--it's owned and run by the same not very good baker as the one by the stoplight. And both have an annoying tendency to run out of baguettes before we quit work at 6 p.m. Drat. But the third, the Boulangerie de la Paix, down in the old town, is only a little out of our way, though in a complicated traffic pattern. Its dessert pastries are not such a much, but it's bread and pain au chocolat are fine, its apple turnovers are excellent, and best of all, it's closing day is Sunday, when we can fall back on the minimarket! The most important thing to find out about your regular bakery in France is the day of the week that it's closed--that's when you have to seek breakfast elsewhere. Alas, it's two-week annual vacation closure is coming up in a few days--here's hoping the weather warms up so that we can get back to our exercise-and-breakfast-shopping routine and the three bakeries of Beaulieu. We know they're all good, but we look forward to visiting them regularly enough to develop preferences (and learn their closing days).

Boulangerie de la Paix, VillefrancheMost bakeries wrap a thin, tissue-paper wrapper around your baguette for ease of carrying. This is a scan of the one from Boulangerie-Pâtisserie de la Paix, the best bakery in Villefranche-sur-Mer. The drawing is not generic but an actual portrait of the establishment.

Boulangerie du Cap, St. JeanThe surprisingly good bread carried by the minimarket comes fresh each morning from the Boulangerie du Cap in Saint-Jean- Cap-Ferat.

Sansano, Beaulieu So far, the front runner for best tarts and pastries is Sansano, in Beaulieu (again, of the three choices, the one farthest off the beaten track). All the bakeries have these little square business cards, which slide conveniently into slots provided for the purpose on the tops of their generic white bakery boxes.

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