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food / travel

The Humble Brioche Goes Haute Cuisine

Every French region has its own version of brioche, which has a solid but modest history. But now in some corners, this lightly sweet breakfast bread is taking on a high-end air.

Tasting brioches from Guy Savoy's new Paris shop
Tasting brioches from Guy Savoy's new Paris shop
JP Géné

PARIS — On Oct. 5, 1789, when Parisian women, who were suffering from bread shortages, marched on Versailles with revolutionaries, Marie Antoinette supposedly said, "If they have no bread, Qu'ils mangent de la brioche," or "let them eat cake." Though this is a very famous utterance, it's also apocryphal. Book 6 of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, where the quote prefigures, was printed in 1782, a full seven years before Marie Antoinette could have said these words.

In truth, very little separates bread and brioche. In addition to the bread's flour, yeast, salt and water, making brioche requires similar techniques under virtually the same conditions and only the addition of butter, sugar and eggs. Brioche bread, a product halfway between the two, is perfect proof of their harmony. The leap from bread to brioche is the first step of social mobility in the baker's world. It's the humblest of cakes.

Couque, fouace, fallue, cramique, etc.

Brioche exists everywhere in France, and it has its own special characteristics in each region. It is believed to have first appeared in Normandy during the 15th century and was called brier, an ancient Norman word for broyer (grind) that meant molding the dough with a wooden rolling pin. The suffix "oche" would then have been added to designate the product of this work and, like its bread ancestor, the number of different brioches grew from there.

The varieties are numerous: Normandy's runny brioche (fallue), the Saint-Genix praline brioche, the Vendée orange-blossom-flavored brioche, the Metz weaved brioche, the Vosges brioche stuffed with hazelnuts, raisins and dried pears, the Gannat cottage cheese brioche, the cougnou or Flemish couque (which looks like a swaddled baby Jesus), the Paris ball brioche, the Provence sugar and candied-fruit brioche, and of course the fouace, the pomp, the cramique and other koeckbotteram from Dunkirk.

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Brioches in Rouen, northwestern France — Photo: Frédéric BISSON

From breakfast to desert, sweet to savory, brioche is represented at all intersections of the good food and of social gatherings. In eastern France, it is customary to share brioche after a funeral. In the north of the country, like in the south, it's usually during Christmas. In the Vendée region, it's prepared for the traditional brioche dance. Its quality is indicated by the gold of its crust, the softness of its dough and the taste of butter.

Now on restaurant menus

Next time you leave the Tours train station, turn your nose towards the Grand Hôtel. For more than 100 years, behind an unassuming front window, the Lelong Briocherie — better known as "the station's briocherie" — releases the buttered exhalations of its latest batches at regular intervals. Small, large, round or rectangular, plain or with chocolate chips, brioche is the only product sold here, and for just a few euros.

The ultimate "people's pastry," brioche has stood out in particular over the past few years. For a long time, a poor person's Sunday dessert was bread pudding, made with stale crusts leftover from the week, dipped in eggnog (egg, milk and sugar beaten together), glazed with butter in a frying pan and rolled in powdered sugar. Now, brioche pudding stuffed with the best ingredients is on the menus of starred restaurants.

Chic choux pastries are in vogue in Paris right now. And restaurateur Guy Savoy, a great enthusiast of his childhood's brioche — the Bourgoin variety, filled with pralines, sugared almonds and sprinkled with red and white sugar — just opened Goût de brioche, a shop exclusively dedicated to these.

As head of the bakery, Savoy has appointed his pastry chef Christian Boudard, who has created a collection of puff pastry brioches: with crystallized fruit, pink pralines, chocolate, caramelized hazelnuts, pistachio-apricot, clafoutis-like seasonal fruits, parmesan or mushrooms.

They are meant to be enjoyed immediately. As French poet André Suarès once said, "Luxury is the bread of those who live for brioche."

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