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A Sri Lankan Baker’s Baguette Conquers France

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Most mornings, around 6:30, Tharshan Selvarajah arrives at the Élysée Palace, seat of the French presidency, and unloads around 30 baguettes into the security scanner.

The bread that is synonymous with France is sacred, but not to the point that it can pass unverified into President Emmanuel Macron’s mouth.

Nor is the baguette, in its highest expression, the exclusive domain of French bakers. Mr. Selvarajah is a Sri Lankan immigrant who has lived in France for 17 years but not yet applied for French citizenship, even as his bread has reached the summit of Gallic gustatory acclaim.

This year France marked the 30th anniversary of the “Grand Prize of the Traditional French Baguette,” organized by the Paris City Hall. Mr. Selvarajah, 37, an intense bearded man with a fierce work ethic, won, with his creation edging out 126 other baguettes.

His prize? The honor, for the next year, of delivering those baguettes to Mr. Macron and his staff. He also received some $4,250. The baker’s notoriety is now such that long lines form outside his boulangerie, Au Levain des Pyrénées, on the fringes of eastern Paris.

One Saturday morning, Mr. Selvarajah explained what made his bread special. Seated in a nearby cafe, he held up his hands.

“God gave us all different hands,” he said.

A smile broke across his face. “My mother’s chicken curry and my wife’s chicken curry may use the same chicken but they do not taste the same,” he said. “God gave me the hands to make the best baguette in France! I am never angry with the flour as I knead the dough.”

A “baguette de tradition,” or traditional baguette, is made from flour, water, salt and yeast. Period. Sounds simple, and on one level it is. Yet so much depends on the perfect baguette and the perfect baguette is elusive.

A crunchy deep golden crust must encase a fluffy, slightly salty interior, punctuated with the small air sacs, known as alveoli, that produce a mildly chewy consistency. Appearance, taste, texture and smell must find a delicate harmony.

This requires hard work. Mr. Selvarajah was a little irritated because his store assistants had not appeared. Always, he said, there’s some excuse. He works six days a week, up to 10 hours a day, and thinks such industry — typical of immigrants trying to get a toehold in a new land — may explain why several winners of the baguette prize over the past decade have been of Tunisian or Senegalese descent.

The competition itself is anonymous. “Baguettes are numbered after being deposited by candidates, then touched, smelled and tasted by a jury of experts,” Olivia Polski, the senior City Hall official who oversees the contest, said in an emailed response to questions. The best baguette, she suggested, should be “well-baked, light and airy. It should crackle in the mouth.”

Immigration is an explosive political issue in France — Mr. Selvarajah said he had encountered occasional racism and prejudice — and the many success stories among the failures tend to be obscured by the polemics. Immigrants often do jobs the French have begun to shun.

Baking is “a tough profession,” said Charlotte Quemy, as she ate a croissant she described as “top” outside Mr. Selvarajah’s bakery. She lives across town but likes to stop off on her way home from her job in the tech sector. “The French view is: To hell with getting up at 3 in the morning!”

Mr. Selvarajah arrived in France from Sri Lanka in 2006, and began work in an Italian restaurant making salads and desserts. Through a regular client at the restaurant, Xavier Maulavé, the owner of several bakeries, he was offered a job making bread. “I knew nothing about baguettes,” Mr. Selvarajah said.

Slowly, Mr. Selvarajah learned the art, becoming the chief baker in 2012. In 2018, he participated in the baguette competition for the first time, coming in third. Business picked up. By 2021, with Mr. Maulavé pursuing other interests, he bought one of his stores.

“And now,” he beamed, “the president of France is eating a Sri Lankan baker’s baguette every morning!”

He loves his batons of bread. They are about 25 inches long. They weigh about 10 ounces. The baguette’s optimum shelf life is no more than a few hours, often necessitating return visits to the boulangerie in a single day.

So it is that, around this instantly recognizable stick of bread, French life still revolves.

Of course there are other fine breads, and the rhythms of life have accelerated, as elsewhere. But some things do not change. Any unctuous sauce, say for a blanquette de veau or boeuf bourguignon, must be mopped off the plate with a chunk of baguette. Not to do so would be sacrilege.

No oozing Camembert or delectable cured ham can go unaccompanied by a baguette. No breakfast at a cafe counter is complete without a “tartine beurée” — the divine butter of France thickly spread on strips of baguette. The fruit and tannin of a good Burgundy linger in the mouth as a baguette is chewed, finding in its texture at once crunchy and pillowy, and its mild saltiness, the perfect cradle.

Mr. Selvarajah came to Paris, where a cousin and brother already lived, because he could not find work in Sri Lanka. He has taken a small apartment five minutes from the bakery so that he can keep the grueling hours of early-morning and late-afternoon shifts, while his wife and young children live in a larger apartment across town.

“I had no choice,” he said. “I see them when I can.”

He makes two or three pilgrimages a year to Chennai in India, where he meets Sri Amma Bhagavan, a contested cult leader whose religious movement, initially called Oneness, inspires him. “Everyone is so tense today and thinking about money in a selfish way,” he said. “He helps me to be happy inside my heart.”

Still, in his line of work, some tension is unavoidable. Mr. Selvarajah smokes. “Too much stress,” he said. He has a cough. “It’s from the flour, 100 kilos of it every day.” He is restless. “You have to prove yourself every day.”

The baker’s Sri Lankan wife, whom he married in France, has become a French citizen, and both his children are also French. Will he follow suit? “Maybe one day,” he said, “but right now I don’t have time.” His 10-year residence permit is enough.

Mr. Selvarajah is, however, not altogether happy over what the prize has meant for him so far. He has not been invited to meet Mr. Macron, who had a selfie taken with some previous winners. He feels he has gotten less French media attention than others in the past.

Nor was he invited to a party this month organized by the confederation of French bakers marking the anniversary of the creation of the “traditional baguette,” defined with great detail in the 1993 “Décret Pain,” or Bread Decree, a quintessentially French edict laying out the procedure and characteristics required to be deemed “traditional.”

The baker attributes these perceived sleights to the fact he is the first winner who is not from France or a country with a colonial connection to it. He also believes his decision not to become a French citizen is resented. “It’s not pleasant, but I don’t give a damn,” he said.

He thought for a moment. “I’m thinking about expanding the franchise in Dubai and Sri Lanka, promoting French baguettes made by a Sri Lankan. There are big possibilities.”

Asked if the Élysée had paid him for all the baguettes delivered, he said with a shrug: “Not yet. Maybe at the end of the month.”

Roger Cohen

2023-09-29 09:11:48

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