Back in 1891, newspaper editor Pierre Giffard wrote a book called La Reine Bicyclette about the (less than a 100-year) history of the bicycle. Hoping to encourage bike riding, he started a bicycle race from the capital city of Paris, west to the Breton port of Brest. The race was 1,200 km (750 mi) and the challenge for riders was to complete it in under 90 hours. In 1910, hoping to build attention for the race, Giffard asked a local Parisian pastry chef, Louis Durand, to create a dessert to help promote the race. Patisserie Durand is still there, in the village of Maisons-Laffitte, to the northwest of Paris. It still features the pastry as its signature item! This year marks the 50th anniversary of the last time the actual race was run, in 1951. Fortunately, although the bike wheels stopped turning, bakeries around the world—including ours—continue to turn out the beautiful pastry that was created in its honor back in the early 20th century.
Giffard clearly liked long-distance events. In 1892 he started a 380-kilometer running race between Paris and Belfort. Two years later, he founded the world’s first automobile race from Paris to Rouen. In 1896 he got the Paris Marathon going. In a more controversial context, Giffard was a big defender of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French Army officer falsely accused of treason. In a story that is not all that distant from other controversial cases, Dreyfus was twice convicted despite evidence to the contrary. (In a classic example of the influence of the filter we all have because of our beliefs—what we believe alters what we see—prosecutors seized on the fact that the handwriting on captured pieces of evidence did not match Dreyfus’ previous letters as proof that he was trying to falsify the writing to hide his identity!). To save face, the French government pardoned Dreyfus—he was set free, but was still “guilty.” Finally, two years later he was officially exonerated by a military tribunal. Over a hundred years down the road, the Dreyfus Affair remains a study in social biases and show trials.
Coming back to the wonderfully tasty pastry which Giffard had the good marketing sense to have made, essentially it’s a giant circular cream puff, created by the baker Durand to resemble a bicycle tire. We’ve been making it at the Bakehouse for over 20 years now, and it’s long been one of managing partner Amy Emberling’s favorites. This past year Amy had the thought of making more seasonal versions of it. Later this spring when the local strawberries are in season, you’ll probably see those in the Paris Brest. Right now, we’ve gone with lemon cream (homemade Bakehouse lemon curd gently blended with pastry cream) for a refreshing and lovely after-dinner treat. Great too for afternoon tea. Last year Eater called Paris Brest “the New Crème Brulee!”
Take note that although most of us around here will unconsciously say the name in English and pronounce the “s” as we would here in the U.S., in France, where the pastry originates, “Paris” rhymes with “we,” or you might say in French, “oui.” Which is exactly what I would say to the opportunity to partake in a piece of this French classic. With its light pastry “crust” and its lovingly luscious lemony cream filling, it’s a wonderful way to lighten and brighten a lovely spring day.
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- Give us a call to reserve your Paris Brest: 734-761-2095