Why you should care
Because it turns out this is actually good.
The first time I walked into LBH, a pink and white bakery on a prominent corner in Montparnasse, I saw a sign saying “sans gluten,” and I laughed and walked right out again. Why on earth, I reasoned, would anyone without an actual life-threatening allergy, the kind that gives you face rashes and palpitations, eat a gluten-free baguette? And honestly, what’s so bad about face rashes and palpitations? Bread was my favorite food before moving to France, and now it is my singular joy. I am the person buying a delicate baguette and ripping into it with my teeth the second I walk out the bakery door.
The second time I walked into LBH, it was to buy a gluten-free baguette for my friend, who has the face-rash-and-palpitations kind of gluten allergy. I bought one gluten-free sarrasin baguette — that’s the same buckwheat used to make traditional Bretagne crepes, which are also gluten-free if you get the good ones — and one regular old glutinous one. And when I got them both back home, the normal one went forgotten: Sarrasin was, dare I say … better? This is not like that gluey, gluten-free pasta you buy in New York and London. This was bread, made for people who can’t eat bread, by people who really, really understand that there’s nothing more important in the world than bread.
The French think gluten-free is a fad. Like Botox.
Baker Catherine Bossard
Gluten-free is past fad status in the U.S. now, so ubiquitous that it’s like having a vegetarian option. But France doesn’t operate like that. Catherine Bossard, the baker behind the five-year-old LBH, estimates there are maybe two gluten-free establishments in Paris now, including hers. Bossard herself isn’t even gluten intolerant, though she’s allergic to just about everything else — tomatoes, milk, grapefruit — and so she knows what it’s like to not be able to find food that won’t make you sick. “The French think gluten-free is a fad,” she says. “Like Botox. They think it’s bobo.” Bobo is French baby talk for a certain sort of trend-driven yuppie for which the best English translation is “hipster,” in terms of both contempt and vagueness about what it actually means.
Et voilà, un bobo — or actually, a very nice and pretty young French woman stopping in to scan the shelves and stock up on gluten-free brioche and tartes. She has a lot of trouble finding food she can digest in our part of the city, she explains, especially since even places that have a gluten-free option often use lots of chemicals, which LBH doesn’t, or they sneak some flour into their baked goods to help with the texture. “Here, it’s so easy,” she says, grabbing tiny, individually wrapped cakes. “And everything’s GOOD!”
Not to be found in the gluten-free section, though: croissants. The more delicate French pastries, or viennoiserie, are impossible to make without gluten. “Sometimes they look the same,” Bossard sighs, “but they just don’t taste the same.” Instead, I buy a sarrasin baguette and, as I step out into the sunshine, rip it apart and devour it, buckwheat and all.