11 February 2007

Paris food trivia

A couple of months ago, a question about the number of boulangeries (bread bakeries) in the 15th arrondissement in Paris came up on an Internet forum I like to participate in. Somebody was going to Paris and planning to rent an apartment for a week.

Would he be able to find a good bakery in one of the "outer" arrondissements of Paris — the Fifteeth, let's say — if he rented an apartment there? Getting a fresh baguette and a couple of croissants or pains au chocolat in the morning was one of the points of going to Paris, after all.

The city of Paris, by the way, is divided into 20 arrondissements or districts, wards, neighborhoods . . . whatever you would call them in English. The First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth form the core of the old city. The others are all farther from the historical center. Notre Dame cathedral and the Louvre are in the center, for example, along with other monuments.

The dark blue line running through the city is
the river Seine, with two islands in it.

The arrondissements (which means "roundings" — the neighborhoods are "rounded off") start at the center and are numbered in a snail-shaped spiral moving gradually to the edges of the city. How appropriate, right? Administratively, Paris is one great big escargot. Things can move slowly there, that's true.

Americans planning to spend a week or more in Paris normally try to stay in the "central" arrondissements — the First through the Seventh. Or even the Eighth, which contains the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe, after all. But some seem to consider the ones numbered 9 and above to be a kind of no-man's-land.

That can be a big mistake, really. The central arrondissements are the touristy areas. It's nice to stay there if your main activity will be seeing the most famous Paris monuments, of course. But you will pay a price — literally. Apartments, hotels, and restaurants in the center are expensive. Everything is. And you'll probably see as many foreign tourists as French people on the streets and in the shops and restaurants.

The outer arrondissements are more residential. That's where most Parisians live. But these neighborhoods aren't residential in the way American neighborhoods are residential — that is, devoid of shops and retail businesses. Paris residential neighborhoods are full of cafés, bakeries, butcher shops, grocery stores, and restaurants. It's a city.

The man on the Internet forum who was planning to rent an apartment had found one in the Fifteenth (very close to the Eiffel Tower, in fact) and wanted to know whether there would be bakeries in that arrondissement. Since the mid-1970s, I have always had friends who lived in the Fifteenth, so I know that neighborhood. There are bakeries there, believe me. And all kinds of shops and markets, including street markets.

Armed with that knowledge and personal experience, but to make the point, I pulled up www.pagesjaunes.fr — the French yellow pages — on my computer and searched by category for boulangeries in French code postal 75015, which is the Fifteenth arrondissement of Paris.

Then I got even more curious (I guess I have a lot of time on my hands) and I searched all the arrondissements. Here's the result. This count includes only retail boulangeries-pâtisseries and the very few places listed as selling pains et viennoiseries at retail. In other words, all retail but not wholesale bread-and-pastry shops.

Here's the list. The first number is the arrondissement number and the second is the number of bakeries in that arrondissement.

Total number of boulangeries in Paris:

When you think about it, it's not surprising that the Fifteenth arrondissementhas more boulangeries than any other district in Paris — 75 of them. The Fifteenth, after all, has the highest population of all of them. Bakeries and other shops are in the neighborhoods where a lot of people live.

So there are 838 boulangeries in Paris, if I did the arithmetic right. On the Right Bank there are 574, and on the Left Bank 264. How's that for some good trivia?


  1. Well, I can top your tourist's "Would he be able to find a good bakery in one of the "outer" arrondissements of Paris" question with my nephew calling us in Paris and asking "Are there any romantic places in Paris where he can propose to his girlfriend?"

    But to be honest, your guy asked for a "good bakery" so you'd have to cut your number in half, at the least. We lived in the 7th, bordering on the 15th and even though we had a bakery in our building, we walked an extra 10 minutes each morning to get the real light, crusty, not burned, not underbaked baquette!
    Now, see what you've done - you made me drool and there is no smell of baguette within 1000 miles of Naples, FL ;-)

  2. In Montignac where we buy our baguette each morning, there is one bakery that seemed to always burn the bottoms, and yet they had a thriving customer base. "Why do people buy such over baked bread?" I asked my neighbor Mr. D. He thought about it a minute and decided that they must be older people. Why? because they are used to bread being the real basis of their diet and they often put in into their soup, and this "burned" bread had stronger taste. He thought that younger people got their intense flavors more from meats and sugary drinks. I dunno. They advertise themselves as a Viennese bakery.

  3. You must've counted the islands on the right bank, eh ?

  4. W., I did count the islands as Rive Droite because I did it by arrondissement (1er and 4e being mainly Rive Droite).

    Dennis and Isabella, I think the choice of a baguette and a boulangerie is highly personal and subjective. And I like my baguette bien cuite myself.

    Isabella, while I agree that not every boulanger makes excellent products, there's not much in the US that compares even to the "worst" French boulangeries. You get very picky about bread when you live in France.

  5. I live in the 12th and within a block there are 2 boulangeries, then 4 more within 4 blocks and that's just in one direction. My husband gets so upset when the bread is mass produced. He can tell in one bite. He can't find really good bread in Provence either. He has driven to every town with thirty minutes of us without much luck. I think Paris has the best bread anywhere.

  6. I'm no authority on French bakeries, but I know a little about wood-fired bread baking. Some bread bakers in France use wood-fired ovens and one of the characteristics is a chared crust. That's different than burnt bread. It's more intense carmalization of the crust, but the inside is not overcooked.

    I don't know for sure, but it could be that the places that have a chared crust use wood or coal fired ovens. They have a subtle, but distinct taste that's impossible to duplicate with a gas deck oven. Could be that people prefer that taste and that makes those bakeries so popular.

    How's a Polaine baquette? He's famous for using wood ovens.

    I prefer a little charring of the crust as long as the inside is not overcooked.

  7. This is amazing work, should you get the Nobel prize?

    I'm actually surprised that some of the arrondissements have so few bakeries.

    It would be interesting to see the same statistics for cafés. Maybe you can get to work on that!

    Fun post...

  8. Betty, I'll get right on it, LOL. Do you think I can get a grant to finance the research?

    Tom, the boulanger whose shop is up in the vineyards, just a mile or two from our house, bakes his baguettes and pains in wood-fired ovens. He makes an amazing variety of breads. Too bad he doesn't deliver.

  9. What great information! I'm using this as a question at my next Quiz Night in Paris (if you don't mind).

    I live in the 15th and there are no less than 10 boulangeries with in a 5 minute walking distance!

  10. Hi Vicki, I certainly don't mind if you use my "research" in your quiz. I used to have good friends on the rue de la Convention and spent a lot of time there. Great street market.


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