‘‘Which,” I asked the nice young man in Le Pain Quotidien, “is the most daily of your breads – by which I mean the most popular?” To his credit he wasn’t fazed: “The baguette,” he replied, “absolutely – we sell many more of the baguette than any of the others.” This seemed a shame to me, because the other loaves had a pleasingly rustic air about them – great cartwheels of golden pain ancien, reposing on equally golden wooden shelves, the whole reminding me not so much of a boulangerie in La France profonde, as of a BBC television adaptation of a Marcel Pagnol novel.
Because that’s the shtick with LPQ: a cod-rustic vibe cultivated with cold-hearted commercialism. There are 175 of these fakeries in 17 countries – and 22 in London. If you’re reading this out in the sticks and thinking: Well, that’s just the sort of bollocks those dumb metropolitan pseuds fall for … then I concur. But should a branch of LPQ open up on your clone high street, it’s high time to slather a heel of stale Hovis with dripping and head up t’cobbled hill or down t’decommissioned pit.
I lacked such foresight and so found myself being ushered into the woody interior. I eschewed la table communale and sat next to a couple of ad-man types. Once the waiter had taken my order for a smoked chicken salad (which came, he assured me, with complimentary bread), and a fresh lime and mint drink – I had plenty of time to examine the decor. Walter Benjamin said of art nouveau that it “represented the last attempt at a sortie on the part of art imprisoned by technical advance within her ivory tower”. For the late, great Frankfurter, such a sortie “mobilised all the reserve forces of interiority”, forces that “found their expression in the mediumistic language of line, in the flower as the symbol of the naked, vegetable Nature that confronted the technologically armed environment”.
Frankly, if Benjamin could’ve seen the branch of LPQ I was sitting in, he would have found it more terrifying than the Gestapo: on the ceiling, duff track lighting was boxed in by rag-rolled boards, while above this frottage squatted metal ventilation ducts. Meanwhile, nailed to the lemonscumbled wall was a collection of Arts & Crafts windows – frames and all – their flowery stained-glass motifs winking complicity at the bourgeois diners.
My salad had some leaves, a few tomatoes, quite a lot of pinkish strips of what appeared to be meat and some croutons. Is there anything more useless than a crouton? I sometimes wake up in the small hours with a start and realise that what’s roused me is an overpowering urge to visit violence on its originator. I often buy ready-made Caesar salads from supermarkets, because they come with the croutons in a separate little bag and I can then experience the delight of throwing them straight in the bin. What was worse was that these LPQ croutons were extra-large – an ordinary sized crouton is merely a crunchy impediment, but a big crouton is a piece of stale fucking bread. If I wanted bread I had plenty to hand – and it was complimentary! I turned my attention to the smoked chicken: it had the plastic texture and slightly tangy, chemical sweetness of smoked ham bought in an all-night petrol station.
I was so appalled that I turned to the ad man on my right and asked him to try a piece. He obliged and I tried not to prejudice my tiny focus group by grimacing as he chewed. “It’s not very nice,” he said, after a short length, “it rather reminds me of the sort of ham you get in petrol stations.” I almost kissed him. The waiter reappeared: “Is your food all right?” he asked. “Um, well,” I chose my words judiciously, “no – it’s not really, I mean this food is quite … unpleasant.” The waiter was suitably nonplussed, so I expanded: “This chicken is … grim – where do you get your chickens from? I mean, is this organic? Free range?” The ad man chipped in: “It doesn’t taste organic.”
Perhaps fearing that the Bastille was about to be stormed, the waiter hurriedly offered to replace the dish or refund me – but I wasn’t having any of it: I didn’t want the social conditions obtaining in Le Pain Quotidien to be smoothed over, I lusted for the antagonism that leads to revolution! £15.81 was way too much of my daily bread to pay for this daily bread – there will be blood!