Flavors of France
Since biblical times, bread has been referred to as the staff of life. According to Psalm 104, bread "strengthens man's heart." Although my grandmother never went quite as far as King David, she always insisted the family eat the crust, claiming it promotes strong teeth. On a gut level these concepts are difficult to grasp, particularly in a country where most of the bread is so unsubstantially airy it can easily be squeezed into a nub the size of a golf ball, and the only differences between the crust and the center are the color and its texture, which is slightly less like foam than paper.
The first time I became aware of bread as food rather than filler was during a trip to France circa 1980. Admittedly by then a lot of French bread was not what it had been during less industrialized times. Tasteless albeit elegant-looking bleached white flour became chic in France after World War II. So did convenience-cooking shortcuts, such as quick-rising agents. Although fast leavening produces fashionably fluffy bread, a longer fermentation process reduces oxidation, and oxidation is largely responsible for killing taste. The result of postwar modernization was puffy, bland bread with wimpy crusts and little nutritional value. However, even the worst French loaf was not nearly as awful as the American version, since it was still customary in France to buy fresh bread rather than the preservative-packed, mass-produced supermarket stuff. But when Lionel Poilâne spearheaded the revival of artisan bread making in France during the Seventies, one didn't need an experienced palate to identify a boulangerie that, like Poilâne's, followed traditional labor-intensive standards.
Paul is one such place. Originating in Croix in 1889, the small boulangerie was acquired in the Sixties by baker Francis Holder, who has since expanded throughout France. Today Holder and his two sons own 300 shops worldwide, including their first American outpost, located in the newly opened Biscayne Commons mall. Although the shopping center is still haunted by construction dust, Paul's space has an odd but pleasant French café circa the Twenties look: rustic, wooden beams and copper kettles in the interior dining room and sleek, square black umbrellas shading its outdoor tables. Although service during two recent visits was spotty at best, truly tasty sandwiches and salads, authentic French pastries, and especially the good honest breads made all gaffes forgivable.
Except perhaps the one when the server forgot to pack part of my take-out order of fruit tarts. After sampling, during a return visit, a tarte aux quetsches ($3.45) with a buttery, flaky crust and remarkably fresh-tasting plums -- bracing rather than oversugared or drowned in gelatinous glaze -- the loss of the first visit's luscious-looking tarte au citron (lemon tart) and flan Normand (an almond-topped apple/custard tart) seemed a guillotine-worthy offense. Several signature macaroons -- large almond macaroons sandwiched with coffee, pistachio, or chocolate butter cream -- were also wonderful. (Vanilla is allegedly also available but wasn't during either of my visits.)
In addition to bakery items, Paul serves typical light French café fare: breakfasts (continental bread/croissant baskets or more substantial items like eggs Benedict or crêpes) plus lunch/dinner quiches, charcuterie or cheese plates, salads, and sandwiches. Especially recommended: the Parisian ($5.95), the capital's classic sandwich of savory sweet French ham and tart cornichon pickles on "Paulette" bread (an aromatic, slightly nutty rustic baguette, crusty outside and chewy inside) spread with rich French butter. A roast beef sandwich ($6.45) on country farm bread (a tangier sourdough peasant-style loaf) was also good, though the meat was beautifully rare on one occasion and unappealingly gray on another. All plates come garnished with mesclun greens -- and vinaigrette, so the leaves aren't just for show.
Whatever you order, be sure to take home some bread. There are several dozen varieties, and almost all are crafted from custom-grown/milled flours, using more traditional labor-intensive methods (the average loaf takes seven hours to make), but allow for a longer shelf life. A superthin, particularly crusty ficelle; a black olive-studded fougasse; and a niçoise olive oil bread were my favorites. But French-style white bread was the revelation: a visual dead ringer for a normal American loaf but with a denser crumb and briochelike savor.
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