‘This bread demands a very slow fermentation and a lot of attention. However the result is worth it; the taste is incomparable, its texture sealed in and honeycombed…an authentic, handcrafted product’ Beck Pain Gris (2010)
The translation is not quite as poetic as when read in French, but this description on the bread paper sachet demonstrates the care, attention and consideration taken to produce that perfect loaf of bread in Belgium and as is often the case, in France; pride brimming from the crust to the crumbs. For me nothing is more sacred than that first bite into a freshly baked (warm) loaf or baguette. Having recently moved to Brussels, Belgium, and rekindled my relationship with the fine exemplars on offer here, has got me thinking about my own bread quest in Japan. I call it a quest since wherever I set foot, I will endeavour to sample the local bakery fare-seeking a ‘Paul Boulangerie’ as a key starting point. I’m a Paul geek, I even have the bag, which before you mock-is beautiful, strong, very practical and once got me a free pain au chocolat from a Paul shop assistant impressed by my dedication.
So it was only natural that I would look up the number (21 in case you were wondering), locations and opening hours of Paul’s before going over to Japan. Some may say that finding out this information 9 months before going out there, and before booking the plane tickets, a little peculiar… but hey, different strokes for different folks…Paul maybe not be the best bakery in the world, though typing that feels somewhat blasphemous, but I feel it is of consistently high quality and will guarantee me real bread wherever I may be. Or so I thought….
Didn’t I break my heart over you…
My first encounter with Paul in Tokyo was disappointing. I pleaded to go to a Paul with my boyfriend, it had been over 24 hours since my last bread fix, and I’d heard good things about Japanese bakeries. We ventured into Shinjuku, and after a 45 minute metro ride, a minor rainstorm, 3 times around the same block, and asking 2 police officers for directions, we conceded defeat. It had been 3 hours and half since we’d left our flat in Higashi jujo. And then, like a beautiful shining oasis in the middle of a desert, we stumbled upon a tiny Paul in an underground station. There were even free fromage bread samples. All was well again in the world.
Then I paid what felt like 3 months wages for 2 baguettes.
And the bread was stale.
I told myself not to fret…Japan is expensive and it’s not a country known for its bread. Sushi yes, bread no. However my ex-colleague who also happened to be moving to Tokyo around the same time as I were there had raved on about the wonderful little bakeries in Japan and I’d always felt there had been a strong link between France and Japan. Indeed when I went to the Paris ‘Salon de Chocolat’ in 2008, a great deal of chocolatiers were Japanese. There is an abundance of (often incorrectly used) French shop names in Japan and from what I understand French tends to denote quality, elegance and luxury- much admired in Japan. And whilst in Japan, other than American tourists, the second most conspicuous occidental tourists appeared to be French. Practically all my French friends and family has either a keen interest, have visited or have a family member who has been to Japan. By comparison, in the UK, I know of one person who has been to Japan. So it seems only logical that Japan has drawn inspiration from the French for their bread.
I was on the whole fairly disappointed with the bread I did encounter- pricey and seemingly chemical laden-much like the packaged bread we encounter in the UK: full of emulsifiers, flour treatment agencies, E numbers. It lacked a crunchy, slightly bronzed crust and the beautiful airy honeycombed centre which usually denotes good quality bread. Most bread there could quite happily be classified under the ‘glorified, preservative laden sponge’ ilk.
But, and this is a giant but (no bad jokes please) – good bread does exist-you just need to hunt it down like a lion to a deer…or zebra. I did discover a wonderful Paul on my way to a picnic in Shinjuku-Gyoen Park on a beautiful May day. If I could actually remember where it is- I would actually be useful…
Again, it cost me about a year’s worth of sushi for a loaf of bread-but for some things in life I manage to fully justify their price (bread withdrawal symptoms?). Another high quality bakery is Kayser – a French bakery present on a few continents, and who produce quite a few unique takes on your daily bread such as Cocoa bread- looks like chocolate, smells like chocolate, tastes like erm…bread. Fauchon was another bakery I spotted, and these all tended to cluster in the food halls of department stores-the type where you demand permission from your bank manager before making a purchase.
Outside of Tokyo, I did have a rather splendid bread experience in the train station bakery/café located in Hakone, which was wonderfully accompanied by one of Owakudani’s famous black eggs (eggs poached Japanese style in the volcanic springs of Owakudani) which I bought that day.
Let’s get historical
It was in fact the Portuguese who introduced bread to Japan over 400 years, from which the Japanese word for bread ‘Pan’ is derived from. Followed later by other European arrivals including the Dutch, French and English. However the real turning point for bread’s establishment in Japan came about in the 19th Century thanks to Kimura Yasubei, who opened a bakery in Tokyo, influenced by his work experience within a Dutch household. Yeast was substituted for sake kasu by another baker Kodo Katsuzo due to his unsuccessful attempts with European breads. This later evolved into a dough married with the sweet aduki paste filling to create an pan which has now become a staple, among the Japanese. Their increasing popularity led to an increasing range of fillings including kuri (chestnut paste), matcha (ceremonial tea), miso (fermented soy bean) and cream cheese. And a favourite with my boyfriend Curry Pan– fried bread with spicy curry inside. I always felt with the sugary variations such as An Pan, to be more of a heavy sweet treat rather than ‘bread’, however cultural differences and historical developments demonstrate the myriad of different breads which have developed worldwide and how Japan now has its own traditional bread.
The increasing popularity of goods which not only include bread, but other Western goods such as pasta and croissants has consequentially had a detrimental effect on rice farmers’ fortunes. However a recently released bread machine which uses rice to bake fresh loaves may reverse farmers’ luck, heralded as a solution to increase Japan’s self-sufficiency rate.
Bread, Pain, Pan, Can?
Adhering to Japan’s fondness for aliments in a can- I present to you canned bread! Joining its friends canned coffee, coffee jelly, cake in a cone, and ramen in a can…Though I draw the line at calling a product ‘bread’ if it presents itself to you in a can.
However despite my views on bread in Japan, one thing I did enjoy was going into bakeries and individually picking out my bread rolls with tiny tongs from the vast array of bread rolls and placing it on a mini tray which I carried around with me until I reached the cashier and paid.
I’ve probably not enlightened you to many of the decent bakeries in Japan, because quite frankly it is a really expensive pursuit. And in a land which offers me fresh fish, ramen, gyozas, takiyakis, onigiris, and sushis among many a culinary delight…my cravings were subdued by other tasty morsels.
- Bread, Bean Paste, and “An Pan”
- Japanese & Bread -It also gives you a recipe for an pan at the end.
- Sticky times for Rice as Japan Breaks Bread
- Canned Bread