Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Some people feel impassioned about fly fishing. Others about their art. Or camping. I know at least one person who would love to camp every night of his life.

Me, I care deeply about bread.

An email comes just before class (Tuesday). A friend tells me a new bakery has just opened out on the west side of town. The name stops me short: La Baguette.

I have groaned about the state of bread in Madison. There are places that produce a decent loaf. I’ve written about them. But without exception, the crust just isn’t there. (Well, there is an exception, but the loaf is sourdough and good as it is, it’s still sourdough, which is great if you love sourdough.)

It seemed unlikely that suddenly someone would be able to roll out and bake the real thing and so I decided to put off a visit for a slow day sometime in the future.

Today was not a slow day. I had a seminar on the Square and afterwards, I took time to admire the fall colors at the Wednesday downtown market.

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And then I fell into the pre-departure chaos, where work issues are pounding at me from all sides, and Ed and I banter on the phone about what constitutes a decent meal on a hike and how many bottles of water each of us is able to carry.

But by early afternoon, an image of a perfect baguette wedges itself in my mind (that happens in times of chaos, except sometimes it is an image of a perfect pastry). I dial the number of La Baguette (608.827.6775) and wait.


Oh, I haven’t heard that combination of French and English, all in one word, in a long time. It is Olivier Vigy, the owner of La Baguette and he tells me that if I wish, he’ll set aside a baguette for me. There aren’t many left.

I’m there in minutes. But where is “there?” A strip mall across the street from a big mall. On Mineral Point Road. A serious challenge for my red "velo." No rows of poplars here. No lovely cafés, no feeling of neighborhood. So how far along the asphalt speedways will I go to bring home a good baguette? It better be heaven.

I go inside.

Tables and chairs in a spacious, bright room. A glass counter with the classics: tarts, napoleons, flan. And leaning against the wall, the breads.

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Something about my notebook and camera must have given a hint of my excessive curiosity. Olivier comes out from behind. We exchange greetings, then sit down at a table and exhale. I remember that the place has only been up and running for a week.

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... I ask, bluntly: why here?

It turns out not to have been a straight shot. Olivier moved from a suburb of Paris to Minocqua (northern Wisconsin, pop. 4859).
Dunque, yes! (Olivier’s sentences are exquisite composites of English with French accruements.)
We used to vacation up here (French people do that? cool!) and there came a time when I wanted something new in life and so we moved! (“We” means Olivier, his wife Carine, their three little kids and the grandparents. French people travle en famille.)

But, business in Minocqua slows during the off season. And so Olivier moved his family to Madison.

It’s sophisticated town. Multicultural. Too smart to fool with imitations.
Yes, but here?
It’s the perfect spot. On a busy road. Across from a shopping place. Close to home.

Close to home. Middleton home. I’m curious if he misses his Paris home.

I like how I am so close to nature. I love Chicago, but it’s too hard to find the countryside there.
I’m egging him on now. The food, surely you miss the food in Paris?
I did in Minocqua. Nothing there. Supper clubs. Here? We’ll see. We ate at l’Etoile. Nice. We liked the Chinese food in Middleton. And there are steak places. You know anything else around here?

Oh dear. While not Minocqua, the west side of Madison is (almost) a culinary wasteland. There’s Brasserie V – great moules frites (mussels with fries).
He laughs. You don’t need a restaurant for great moules! My mother… (and he goes off on a story about very very good mussels…)

So what about your baguette… (I ask this delicately, because, you know, I haven’t tasted it yet.) Why do you think it’s better than what we’ve seen around here?
Olivier doesn’t hesitate: the ovens. I spent a lot on them! They’re from France and they have the stone for baking bread. That’s what you need for the crust.

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...and for the pastries...

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I’m almost convinced that this place may be the real thing. But I keep going back to the idea of selling bread on Mineral Point Road.

Still, Olivier may know how to succeed in America better than I do. Here, you move by cars, he reminds me. Back in France, it’s all there: three bakeries, the butcher, the grocer, the market, the café bar. You walk from one to the other. You stop, visit with neighbors. It’s different here.
What about selling at the farmers market?

We did that up north. In Madison, they tell me the downtown market has a long wait!
There are other markets! I say this and then I think – oops, the other markets, including my beloved Westside Community Market, have bakers with sourdough loaves and breads with cheese inside. Is there room for a French baguette? Even if it’s the real thing?

As if on cue, Olivier says – I sell a different product. We are not in competition, we respect everyone!

I get up to leave. I pick a few pastries and an epi baguette (one of those where you can break off chunks). The bread feels great: the crust is firm, the texture looks right.

Olivier reminds me to come back for a real chat, over espresso. For sure! A bientot!

I can’t wait any longer. I break off a piece just outside and munch. Terrific crust. Nice. Chewy on the inside. I rush home, tear it into chunks, put a slice of cheese on top and a ripped up tomato from my patio. I take a big bite.