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Paris crowns its best baguette

But good luck finding the award-winning loaf

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
5 min

After starting the year beleaguered by protests and trash pileups, Paris is celebrating some good news: the city has announced its best baguette of the year.

Au Levain des Pyrénées boulangerie and baker Tharshan Selvarajah, 37, took first place in the 30th annual “Grand Prix de la Baguette de Traditional Francaise de la Ville De Paris,” the most revered baguette competition. The prize is 4,000 euros and a year-long contract to supply baguettes to the president of France at the Élysée Palace.

“I am so, so happy,” Selvarajah, who moved to France from Sri Lanka nearly a decade ago, told The Washington Post.

The baguettes are evaluated in a blind tasting by judges, made up of experts in the baking community, journalists, previous winners and a few civilians. Each baker submits two baguettes that must be between 55 and 70 centimeters, weigh 250 to 300 grams and contain 18 grams of salt per kilogram of flour. The judges score on five categories: appearance, cooking, texture, smell and taste.

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“They have a fun lottery that any person who’s just a bread enthusiast can enter their name to be part of the jury,” said Meg Zimbeck, who runs the review site and food tour company Paris by Mouth, and was a judge for the competition in 2013.

These aren’t just any baguettes, but “baguette de tradition,” a concept born in the 1990s to differentiate high-quality baguettes from industrialized ones. At the time, France had a price cap to keep baguettes affordable, but it put a financial strain on bakers. To keep production costs low and make baguettes much quicker, some began cutting corners by using chemicals, preservatives and cheaper flour.

The result was a product that’s “big and puffy and edible for four days,” Zimbeck said. “Whereas a real traditional artisanal baguette has a shelf life of about five hours.”

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And so, le Décret Pain (the Bread Decree) was passed in 1993 establishing rules for what bread could be labeled a baguette de tradition. The designated baguette must be made by hand with only flour, water, salt and yeast and sold in the place that it’s baked.

“Bakers could charge a little bit more, and they could use better flour ... they could let the dough rise a long time,” Zimbeck said. “And to highlight this new thing, a competition was born just to celebrate going back to the old ways.”

Though there’s a point system in the competition, it’s still a subjective process, says baker Benjamin Turquier, who’s served as a competition judge in the past. He and his bakery Tout Autour Du Pain regularly place in the top 10. Turquier says bakers tend to prefer baguettes that are well-cooked, “almost black,” he said. “We consider that most of the taste is in the black part of the bread.” Meanwhile, the general public tends to like a lighter, “white” baguette.

With the mixed background of judges “you don’t know if you’re going to be judged by someone who likes a very, very well-cooked baguette, a not-too-cooked baguette,” Turquier said. “But that’s part of the contest.”

Bakers have many more factors to consider beyond doneness. Turquier’s competition preparations began the night before the competition. He prepared his dough, then watched it through the morning to see how it changed with the day’s weather and humidity.

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Once Turquier and his staff believed they “understood the dough” at 11 a.m., they began to bake loaves according to competition specs. By 12:30 p.m., he packed two baguettes in his motorbike and drove them about a mile to the judges. Then he waited. The officials call the top 10 bakers to give them the news. By the end of the day, Turquier got the call he’d come in fourth place.

Selvarajah could relate. He came in fourth in 2018, one year after opening Au Levain des Pyrénées on the eastern side of Paris not far from the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery. “Now five years later, I’m first,” he said.

He believes it was 80 percent hard work and 20 percent luck to beat the 126 other baguettes. (There were actually 175 submissions, but 49 loaves were disqualified for being the wrong size or weight.) He also thanked his religious inspiration, Sri Amma Bhagavan, for the award.

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Zimbeck says it’s not uncommon for an immigrant to win the prestigious award. “Most of the winning bakers have last names and family origins that are from outside of France,” Zimbeck said, pointing to winners from Algeria, West Africa and Tunisia. Most recently, Tunisian baker Makram Akrout won the competition in 2021.

“This is a great example of immigrants making the iconic product and then going to serve it to the president, and I really love it,” she said.

A day after the competition, Selvarajah said the bakery has been much busier than usual with people lining up to try his award-winning bread.

You’ll have to do some legwork to find Grand Prix de la Baguette de Traditional-winning bakeries. They may put up a big sign but are more likely to limit advertising to displaying small metallic decals in their windows. They’re not obvious unless you’re searching for them. Your best bet is to refer to Zimbeck’s website, where she’s been documenting the winners since 2011, then plot the bakeries in Google Maps.

“It’s already hard for French [people] so for travelers it’s even more difficult,” Turquier says.