I take my pastry very seriously, especially my french pastry. I consider myself a connoisseur of sorts and I have been honing my palate for decades. I have always believed in the medicinal powers of dessert. When I was a small child, I explained to my mother with great exasperation that I in fact had two stomachs. One for savory foods and one for sweets. Therefore when I could not finish my dinner, that did not mean in any way shape or form that I should be deprived of something sweet. This theory was not widely accepted. Now over the years I have worked to perfect my baking and my eating skills.
So when my lovely aunt emailed me, imploring me to try a gluten free bakery in Paris I was skeptical. A lot of people in my family have celiacs, so I have tried the full gambit of gluten free wannabes and mostly they taste like cardboard. But, my aunt is wise and she runs a kick ass food blog, so I figured I would trust her. The results were mixed.
I went to Chambelland one day after work. It is near Oberkampf tucked away on a little side street facing an open square. I went around seven at night, which is always poor planning for bakeries, since most of the products are gone. The inside was a pleasant shade of green, with marble counter tops, and rustic wooden tables. I decided if I was going to go gluten free for the evening I was going to commit, so I ordered a pain au sucre, a lemon tartlet, and a loaf of bread. I asked the woman behind the counter which bread she liked the best, she assured me with doe eyed certainty that the 5-grain bread was amazing.
I am a woman of fleeting self control and constant hunger, so on the metro ride home I tore off a piece of the pain au sucre and dove in. My first thought was morose disappointment. I had hope for all the celiacs in my life that this would be the real thing. I mean don’t get me wrong it was tasty, the top was appropriately caramelized with vanilla and sugar. They got the “au sucre” part right, but the whole “pain” thing was a little off. The bread was dense. It lacked fluff, air, and complex texture. Tasty, but not bread.
While cooking dinner that night, I cut off a slice of the 5 grain bread. The crust was armored in the aforementioned 5 grains and nigh impossible to cut. I coated the slice with a little butter and sampled. It was spectacular. It was a little bit sweet, salty, and incredibly nutty. The bread was aromatic, but once again there was a textural issue. The loaf was dense, so dense it could have been used as a very effective club. The little slice with butter took immense dedication to chew. The next day, when I used the bread for lunch I struggled to eat my sandwich. The five grain exterior was the first line of defense and after that I had to work through mouthfuls of dry bread with bits of meat and veggies tossed in.
The final hope for the gluten free was the lemon tartlet. It was topped with a mountain of toasted meringue. When I tasted it I once again felt confusion. The meringue, delicious. The lemon curd, amazing. It was very tart with little bits of lemon rind, just as it should be. Then there was the crust. It was flaky, the taste was good, but it was incredibly dry. As if someone had forgotten to add the butter. The irony was, it felt like I had a mouth full of flour.
Objectively, these things were good, but compared to glutenous foods they pale in comparison. Its like making a movie version of a book, its just never going to be the same. I think they taste good, but they lose their value when compared to their gluten counterparts. The celiac community and the rest of us would be a lot better off if we just decided to call gluten free foods by another name. The title pastry and bread is dishearteningly misleading. So I would decidedly recommend Chambelland, especially for the gluten free, but do not go there expecting divine reincarnations of gluten foods you love. This is an animal of a different color, accept it for that.