The Best Croissants and Chocolatines in southwest France?

The Best Croissants and Chocolatines in southwest France?

French people tend not to snack much between meals, instead conserving their appetite for 'les repas', but ocassionally it's easy to get tempted by an invitingly fresh pain aux raisins, or a shiny croissant, almost striaght out of the oven, and there's nothing wrong with that! Here’s the last instalment and early morning adventures from Beth, discovering the pleasures of traditional bread baking and patisserie making in the heart of SW France.

Last month I told you about my visit to our award-winning local boulangerie to learn how traditional French bread is made. And what a morning it was. I loved every minute. Watching Malik, the maitre boulanger, and his fellow artisan, Mikel, create endless peerless baguettes was incredibly inspiring.

I could have stayed for hours, but was concerned about outstaying my welcome. Reluctantly, I decided it was time to drag myself away. I thanked them and prepared to leave. Malik looked crestfallen.

“But you must come back. I want to show you how we make our croissants.”

It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse. I left with two baguettes. Only one and a half made it home, and yes, those chunks were yummy!

My next visit was at the social hour of 8 am, a vast improvement on the previous start time which was around 5 am. I arrived to find Mikel looking fresh as a daisy, busily brushing the floor. I asked him when he had started work.

“This morning, it was 3.30 am.”

“Gosh, that’s so early, Mikel. Have you worked as a baker for a long time?”

“Yes, since I was fourteen. I always wanted to be a baker. Look, this is why.”

Smiling, Mikel beckoned me over to the oven, where an infinite number of loaves were waiting for duty. He picked one up with great reverence.

“The aroma of freshly baked bread, there is nothing like it. To make the best bread is a wonderful thing.”

That fresh bready scent, it was cosy, huggable, comforting. It was evocative of all things nice. I understood exactly what he meant.

With that, he began to load the ovens with new batches of loaves. Flawlessly formed and snuggled in muslin cloths, Mikel scooped them onto a special spatula and in they went for baking.

A different area had crates stacked with bread rolls and bags filled with loaves. Malik caught my eye.

“We have baked 1,000 rolls this morning. We supply five schools, so these will be delivered soon. Come, now you must learn how to make croissants.”

In case there was any doubt about their versatility, Malik told me they make various pastries, including viennoise, tresses au chocolat, chaussons aux pommes and chocolatine (a chubby little pastry with dark chocolate in the middle). It was the latter I believed was shrouded in controversy.

“Just what is the difference between pain au chocolat and chocolatine? Isn’t it the same thing?”

Malik roared with laughter.

“This is a long story to this, but you must understand that pain au chocolat is what the northerners bake. They are amateurs! Here, in the southwest of France, we bake chocolatine. We are the professionals.”

Dying to know the history behind this though I was, I would have to wait. Now it was my croissant-making lesson with Mikel providing the demonstration. And it was a loud one. I had no idea there was so much violence and frenzied activity involved in making a croissant.

Mikel gently placed a lump of chilled butter on his work surface. And that’s where ‘gently’ ended. Grabbing his rolling pin, he repeatedly bashed it until it was flattish. Once satisfied, he reached for the dough he had prepared earlier.

A cloud of flour was fanned onto the work surface. Mikel rolled out a fat rectangular wodge and placed the belted butter on top. He folded the dough three times, completely enveloping the butter. The result was a neat parcel with an overlapped seam.

At this point, he told me he would usually refrigerate the pastry to allow the butter to cool down again, but today he continued. We had reached the le feuilletage (puff pastry) stage, and it was a speedy affair.

Using rapid, rhythmic movements, Mikel rolled and folded his mixture several times, creating many delicate layers. I stared in wonder at the multi-laminated result. Another flourish with the magic dust, and we were into the final stage.

The elasticity of pastry always amazes me. Still working quickly with his rolling pin, Mikel expertly stretched the dough and cut out triangles. Each one was hand-rolled into a perfectly formed croissant. All done, they would be left in a temperature-controlled room to ferment before baking.

“Before the croissants go in the oven, we wash them with an egg,” he said. “It gives them that golden colour. Et voila!”  

As Mikel whisked away his newbies, I checked the time. Once again, it had flown. Despite feeling as though I needed to leave, I had a strong sense that Malik and Mikel were happy to continue sharing tricks of their beloved trade for as long as I liked.

The café side of the boulangerie now had new clients, chatting happily as they tucked into a warm pastry. With so many bakeries in our corner of France, it was a familiar scene. But what sets this little bakery apart is that all the products are freshly made by hand. There are only eight others who do that around here.  

Malik has won several awards for his pain, and I’m not surprised. He and Mikel work incredibly hard, with a dedication and love that is obvious for all to see. Baking different loaves of bread, pastries, pizzas and cakes, their daily production rate seems endless.

I couldn’t have been more grateful for the time they gave me. I left with a million thank-yous, and on my way out, I tried to buy some pastries. Malik refused with a hearty ‘Non!’ when I proffered my cents.

Later on, I savoured what was undoubtedly the best pain au raisins I have ever tasted. My two visits had been a true privilege and for me, this really is le best boulangerie in our corner of southwest France.
Thank you Beth for this new enlightning piece (and photo), we look forward to more stories next month. Until then you can see Beth's lovely books and stories on her FatDogs website.

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