Keith Spicer
Photo: Ilona Hurda

Keith Spicer

Bread to Live For

Around the corner from Fred’s place is another place of conviviality, an unusual boulangerie-restaurant for daytime dawdling. And for dégustation – a word implying intensity and a little ceremony. The morning newspapers call for a second bowl of café au lait, or maybe a mind-sharpening (if not heart-stopping) double express. Bread and Roses camps at the corner of rue de Fleurus and rue Madame. Actresses Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuelle Béart have been spotted here, as well as Liliane Bettencourt, key shareholder of L’Oréal and richest woman in France.

We’re only fifty paces from the glorious Jardin du Luxembourg, arguably the world’s oldest and most beautiful park. We enter the little shop, whose English name dismays the language police charged with enforcing French-language sign-laws. The owner, Philippe Tailleur, steps out to greet us. He knows we are foreigners, vulnerable not just to bread and roses, but to bread, roses and poetry. After his “Bonjour, Madame, Monsieur, and a word of welcome, he confides:

“I am not in the service business, but the business of desire. If moist, chewy, sinfully tasty French bread is one of your fantasies, sit down and let me seduce you to a new vision of bread.” A lanky, mop-haired young genius allegedly 52, Tailleur breaks every French taboo of bread-making, business and culture. “Bread” to him is not those mythical bleached baguettes cradled by beret-wearing old men on ramshackle bikes. He doesn’t even sell these long sticks -- except in rare “health-food” versions, plain and multi-grain. He dismisses classic baguettes as either industrial cardboard or, when termed “traditional,” phony relics.

His dozen or so breads are masterpieces of creativity and sensuality. Each uses only organically grown flours, some ground exclusively for Tailleur’s cozy store. “Our bio (organic) bread is not just for health,” he says, “it’s mainly for taste.”

Taste -- and fanatical quality -- are Tailleur’s obsessions. Your taste-buds dance to his baker’s music: dense multi-grains, tangy rye bread, yogurt-based Irish country bread, a huge, succulent loaf called (in English) “le brown bread,” and a lush, grainy French pain de campagne that begs for a wild-boar pâté and a glass of cool Brouilly.

But the menu also lists more complex breads – one packed with figs, apricots and hazelnuts, another with chestnuts and walnuts, two Provençal-style twisted fougasse breads with black or green olives. Another flat, round, medieval-monk’s bread uses rare Spelt wheat first eaten in 9,000 B.C.

Tailleur and his master Breton bread-maker Didier test their recipes like artist-scientists. “At each creation, we gather around the fresh bread, leaning over it, smelling it, tasting it, and asking ourselves: “‘Is it good enough?’”

Tailleur preaches bread as the Dalai Lama preaches peace. To him, it’s man’s ancestral nourishment, the legendary staff of life. You should “never cut it, only break it with your fingers.” His menu builds every dish – soups, fish, salads, foie gras, smoked salmon, deep quiches – around bread, not the opposite.

When Tailleur serves you at counter or table, he may whisper to you, as he did to me of his Marie-Antoinette brioches on my first visit: “This is a dream. It’s for great moments of solitude on rainy days.” Or, of his buckwheat-and-algae bread: “For Japanese intellectuals, this is pure Zen.” Austerity with intensity.

Every food or drink is the best of its kind – a rare Spanish ham, Scottish salmon, English jams. Teas are from Taylors of Harrogate. Expresso is illy’s. Fresh Gillardeau oysters and Billecart-Salmon champagne stand ever-ready for life’s emergencies. Once, Tailleur took me downstairs to his 120-square-meter “laboratory.” He showed me gleaming machines for kneading and baking, and stainless-steel tables for pastry-making. His staff of ten includes three bread-makers. Two pastry-cooks make deep-blue blueberry muffins, maple-syrup-and-pecan delights, and murderous, dark chocolate-cakes. Partner-wife Carole devises salads and mile-high quiches.

Open since April 2004, Bread and Roses attracts artists, writers, movie-stars, cabinet ministers, and trendies who seek out only the best. Exquisitely tailored ladies, charmed by Tailleur’s conspiratorial tips, surrender softly to chestnut-cream desserts. Tailleur’s target clientele, welcomed by a fresh rose at each table, is unashamedly an élite of good taste.

The atmosphere of excellence extends to staff. Unlike many French retailers, they smile. And they seem happy to work as a team. That too is Tailleur’s vision: “Money is not our target; it’s a consequence. We are here to share a passion: to offer enchantment for the senses, and (echoes of Oscar Wilde) to make the superfluous essential.”

Times are always tough for small businesses in France. All conspires to stifle initiative and play to class-warfare mentalities. A special tax police hounds entrepreneurs to pay crushing social charges on top of salaries. Unions fight apprenticeships. Intellectuals and politicians ridicule entry-level jobs. The now-scrapped 35-hour work-week, concocted by an economically illiterate Socialist minister, lowered productivity. Kafkaesque bureaucracy makes initiative heroic.

Still, Tailleur sees his store as the test-bed for a worldwide brand. Already Japanese are studying his formula. But they will have to find a way to reinvent Tailleur.

Tailleur rejects French chauvinism. He’s a cosmopolitan with a weakness for things Anglo-Saxon. Both his menu-cover and front-door flaunt only English: “Welcome,” “Push,” “Pull.” English-only “No Smoking” signs dismissed Gauloises and Marlboros even before the January 2008 restaurant smoking ban. Tailleur managed to convince the Ministry of Culture (which copied Quebec’s French-predominant sign law) that Bread and Roses was really only, well, half-English, “Roses” being French…

What is Tailleur’s ultimate goal? “To make the best bread in the universe!” Sliding an arm around Carole’s slim waist, he smiles: “She keeps me young.” She shoots back fondly: “And he makes me old.”

Ah, the sweet business of desire.