I make some apology for writing about the Paul chain of French bakeries – some but not much. After all, the first Paul opened in Britain only 11 years ago, and while there are just 29 outlets in the UK to date, all confined to London, you can confidently expect, given the gathering speed of its territorial acquisition, to have a Paul on most high streets within another decade or two.
The Blair government argued for the liberalisation of licensing laws on the grounds that it would facilitate a change in our national drinking pattern. No longer would we be northern horn-heads, knocking down pint after short until we went berserk (or, at any rate, berT-shirt); instead, we would sip vin de pays at sidewalk cafés while gently tinkering with our boules.
But how could major thinkers such as James Purnell have failed to anticipate this development? That, instead of taking French cafés as our model, we would seize upon the bakeries. If anything characterised the Blair years, it was a huge appetite for speciality breads. We began the 1990s as a nation besotted with Ridley Scott’s atmospheric Hovis adverts and stuffed full of Mothers Pride; we ended the decade deftly dipping focaccia in olive oil, our hot heads wrapped in Egyptian flatbread.
In la belle France, many regard Paul rather derisively. It may be une maison de qualité, fondée en 1889, but as it is the largest chain bakery in the land, it has the cachet of our beloved Greggs. My French teacher, Arlette, would often refer with disdain to the branch of Paul on High Holborn next to the language school where she was valiantly attempting to inculcate me with the grammar of Montaigne, the vocabulary of Sainte-Beuve and the speech rhythms of Baudelaire. So often did she employ patisseries and coffee-style drinks from Paul as examples in our conversations that I began to conceive of Paul as an individual, picturing him in my mind’s eye thus: a dapper type with a waxed moustache, sporting a lightly checked suit and sitting in a fake empire saloon – reclaimed wood panelling, chandeliers and so on – awaiting the arrival of some pseudo-salonnières. “Ça va, Paul,” I found myself saying involuntarily, when I popped in to get a coffee on my way to our lessons.
Still, however much we can deride Paul for his – I mean, its – French finish, the fact remains: Paul is the French Greggs! That’s how advanced French gastronomy is, in comparison to that of our own bicarbonated isle. Instead of sausage roll, there’s a “chaud saucisse” (complete with béchamel sauce, Emmental cheese and pain à l’ancienne); in lieu of a polystyrene cup full of tepid tomato soup, there flows a wide variety of soupes du jour; and where Greggs might tempt us with a mere iced bun, Paul enacts a full seduction with his grand macaron framboise, a titbit of such extreme sweetness that I suspect it may be more than 100 per cent refined sugar.
The other afternoon, feeling that life was altogether de trop and finding myself limping through the subterranean concourse of London Bridge Station, I didn’t hesitate to stop off at a dinky little branch of Paul for a tourte aux légumes followed by a tarte aux abricots. “Wow!” I thought to myself, as I staggered towards a table laden with boxes labelled “Paul” in that distinctively neoclassical and austere typeface. “This is a lot of pastry.” And it was – about the most I’d eaten at one sitting in around a decade.
There’s a lot to choose from when it comes to contemporary fast food – within sight of my table at Paul London Bridge, there were branches of the following: Banger Bros, the Bagel Factory, Cranberry, a South African-themed delicatessen called (get this) the Savanna, and a Cards Galore. I suppose some readers might object that Cards Galore isn’t, as such, a food outlet – but as I’d never consider buying a card from there to give to someone, eating them seems a reasonable course of action.
What I’m trying to get across is that, until Paul has secured market saturation, elbowing out Greggs and even taking down Subway, it will remain the thinking man’s – and woman’s – bakery. Apart from me, there were only femmes d’un certain âge at my Paul – at least, I thought this was the case until the longish, dyed-blonde coiffure at the next table turned to expose the careworn features of . . . the former secretary of state for culture, media and, um, sport.