Pastry Hunt, 2.0

In the comments to my blog post “A Tale of Two Countries, and their Snack Foods,” one commenter asked, “Would you be able to tell us where in Paris you had that memorable pain au chocolat?”

Good question — and I’m using good question the way a politician does, when s/he doesn’t have an answer. When I travel I lean on a guidebook for things like hours, directions and tips, but I also do a lot wandering around on foot, and tend to eat at whatever place looks appetizing.

I learned this tip from my cousin. We were rambling through Seattle one day in search of lunch, and I had my nose in my guidebook. He suggested winging it, and we ended up eating in Chinatown at a place called Uncle Ball’s. The food was just okay, but eating at a place with such a bizarre name was one of the highlights of our trip.

But I digress. I didn’t actually know the name or exact location of the patisserie in Paris, but I did know it’s general location, since I had gone to the Saturday produce market at Place de la Bastille:

Then I wandered down a side street, went by a good-looking patisserie, and bought goodies there. I also remembered it was right around the corner from a Starbucks.

Thanks to the awesome power of Google (and I mean awesome in both senses of the word), it’s alarmingly easy to retrace my steps. I didn’t know the name of the side street,  so I simply mapped the locations of Starbucks nearby.

Place de la Bastille

Detail from a map of Paris, showing Place de la Bastille

From that I knew the Bucky’s I was thinking of was on Rue de la Roquette. I used Google Street View to check out the street corner a half-block away and then panned around, and … voilà:

There’s your answer: La Tradition du Pain, at Rue Duval/Rue Saint Sabin. If you paste the store’s name into Google, you can even see some Italian guy’s photo of the display cases on Flickr.

His photo caption sums up my thoughts pretty nicely: Aspettavo il giorno successivo solo per fare di nuovo colazione lì sperimentando altre squisitezze!

(P.S. – Don’t read Italian? Try dropping the sentence into Google Translate.)

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A Tale of Two Countries, and their Snack Foods

I recently traveled to Paris, which offered me a chance to observe all sorts of things, including the stunningly important issue of the ways airlines differ in feeding their passengers.

On Air France, the morning snack service consisted of the usual beverages (coffee, tea, water, juice, soda). Then the flight attendant presented a plastic tray, which was filled with breakfast pastry and little napkins. I selected pain au chocolat.

pain au chocolat

Pain au chocolat, the morning snack on Air France.

It’s a bit of trouble to get fresh pastry on a plane. Somewhere someone has to actually make the pastry, then it needs to get shipped to the airport and loaded onto the plane — all in short order, or else your snack goodie will be about as moist and chewy as your seat cushion/personal flotation device.

I’m not suggesting that Air France is being all that visionary or altruistic. They’re merely reacting to the cultural norm. The traditional light breakfast fare in France is often coffee and a croissant, so offering the same on a flight is kind of a no-brainer.

With that in mind, what does Delta Airlines offer?

Prepackaged pretzels and peanuts, the snack handout on Delta Airlines

The pain au chocolat was not the best one I had in Paris (after that one, my mouth wanted to spend the afternoon in bed, staring at the ceiling smoking cigarettes). But it was still pretty good.

The pastry was small, tasty, and not many people said no to them. I expect that the flight attendants ran out of them, or came pretty close. It was a little ceremony: the box was presented to you, and you got to choose between a croissant, pain au chocolat, or an escargot aux raisins. The latter has nothing to do with snails; in fact it’s a spiral pastry with raisins in it. They look like this:

The entire Air France morning snack ritual seemed to encompass the French approach to food: It’s fresh; it’s personal; the portions are small; it’s high-quality. When you eat good food, you pay attention to it.

So what do the two plastic packages of pretzels and peanuts say about the American approach to food? Well let’s open that package up a little.

Is it fresh? No, not in the way bakery goods are. It was put in a plastic package, but that could have happened days, weeks or even months ago.

Is it personal? No. There is no ceremony involved, no opportunity to survey the items and select one. The flight attendant reaches into a container, pulls two out, and hands them to you.

Is it high quality? Only if you think you can eat haute cuisine by shopping at the gas station.

Are the portions small? Yes, but if you’ve ever asked a flight attendant for more peanuts or pretzels, they’re all too happy to give you a handful. Since the snacks have almost no worth, no one minds giving you as much as you want.

Put another way, the peanuts and pretzels are mass produced low-cost and last for ages — they’re forgettable food widgets, but you’re welcome to eat as much as you want.

Needless to say, after eating the French way for a week (smaller, local, quality-driven, personal — the French way produces food like mom used to make!), it’s a little hard to come back to a country where so much of the food is bland, mass produced, and wrapped in plastic.

Sigh. Pass the peanuts.