Friday, October 24, 2008

Baguettes, Croissants and Brioches?

meeting the owner of Pat'a'chou

The majority of Asian countries are not bread fanatics like the West, though we are beginning to see some of that influence creeping in; when I was in Japan, as far back as 1991, the Japanese were having a love affair with sliced bread, but it was sold in packages of perhaps 10 jumbo slices, and somehow they managed to make it taste better than ours. So what's new?

photo: French bakery on the Emeraude Cruise

One of the vestiges of French colonization of Viet Nam was its cuisine, and let me be the first to tell you: you will never miss any French foods while in this country. Especially the bakery part, which is everyone's weakness.

They have learned it so well, that if you closed your eyes, and walked into a bakery, you'd swear you might be in the heart of Montmartre. During our first jaunt to Sai Gon, our hotel, the Indochine, on Hai Ba Trung Street, faced  Pat’à Chou, - a bakery that produced on its premises the stuff of heaven. This was purely accidental, as we didn't have a clue about the street itself, only that it was in District 1, where the "action" is.  At one time, the owner of Pat’à Chou was looking to expand into franchises, but since it's been almost three years, I have no idea if that's still a plan.
Pat’à Chou on Hai Ba Trung Street in Sai Gon
Terminally jet lagged, after a voyage of almost 21 hours, we would wake up at 3 am ready for the world. The world did not return the favor, though, by all standards, Sai Gon does wake up very early. By 5 am, we begin to see bicycles and motorbikes zooming down the street, loaded with all sorts of merchandise to bring to market. The Bakery opened at 6 am, and of course, by that time, we were not only hungry, but salivating as well. The Indochine served a very nice breakfast on the main lobby floor, which we never missed, but sweetened the "pot" with goodies from across the street.

Why would you want to go anywhere else in the world, when the smell of these freshly baked French goodies would tickle your nostrils every morning? Don't panic at the price of the baguette. At the time, and it hasn't changed much since we were there, 15,000VDN was equivalent to one US$. Thus, the baguette is less than US$0.50; this is the price I pay for one Portuguese roll here in New York which is one fourth the size of the baguette. One could load up on brioches, croissants, sugared cookies (something like biscuits Marie, only larger and with more butter), miches and boules,choux à la crème, (cream puffs), madeleines and gâteaux for less than US$5.
The word Pat’à Chou so very interesting in that it can convey more than one meaning; the literal one, and most obvious, is pâte à choux, referring to the very delicate dough used to make cream puffs. The second, and perhaps not as well-known, is Patachou, a French songstress of the ‘50s/’60s who was quite popular in her days. Either way, one cannot escape the intention: this is as French as it gets. Only after we had left Vietnam did I find out that this patisserie is on the must-see list of the elite guidebooks.
photo: Croissants au chocolat, and plain croissants fresh out of the oven

The baguette has become part of the street market experience, which is very telling. I love to shop street markets, because they are one of the principal reflections of any local culture. The baguettes will be offered on the street, along with 1,000 other food items. It's one of those things that can never taste bad. 

And it is not only in the major cities, but just about everywhere we went. On the streets, in the market at My Tho, on the way to the MeKong Delta, you could find baguettes popping up around the Fruit Market, as well as the indoor market they have there.

It's not unusual for French Restaurants to display baguettes and other French bakeries in their windows as they know the kind of attraction this has on potential diners. Here, the woman at the cash register of the restaurant "Le Givral" peers out the window, through baskets filled with French breads. Their whole menu can be seen if you click on the previous link above.

I am not one to miss an opportunity to furnish our hotel room with goodies, just because of force of habit (I do it, no matter where in the world we are), and especially in Asia, where jet lag takes a while to go away, one has a tendency to wake up and feel hungry at odd hours. Below, I found a shop that had fresh baked goods in addition to other foodstuffs.
If you look very closely at the display window, you'll recognize the round containers of la Vache qui Rit cheese. To the right of the tomatoes. Pointing will get you what you need in the event you don't speak the language. And don't forget to smile; everyone here appreciates that.

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