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A Sri Lankan Baker’s Baguette Conquers France

Most mornings, around 6:30, Tharshan Selvarajah arrives on the Élysée Palace, seat of the French presidency, and unloads around 30 baguettes into the safety scanner.

The bread that’s synonymous with France is sacred, but to not the purpose that it may pass unverified into President Emmanuel Macron’s mouth.

Nor is the baguette, in its highest expression, the exclusive domain of French bakers. Mr. Selvarajah is a Sri Lankan immigrant who has lived in France for 17 years but not yet applied for French citizenship, whilst his bread has reached the summit of Gallic gustatory acclaim.

This 12 months France marked the thirtieth anniversary of the “Grand Prize of the Traditional French Baguette,” organized by the Paris City Hall. Mr. Selvarajah, 37, an intense bearded man with a fierce work ethic, won, along with his creation edging out 126 other baguettes.

His prize? The honor, for the subsequent 12 months, of delivering those baguettes to Mr. Macron and his staff. He also received some $4,250. The baker’s popularity is now such that long lines form outside his boulangerie, Au Levain des Pyrénées, on the fringes of eastern Paris.

One Saturday morning, Mr. Selvarajah explained what made his bread special. Seated in a close-by cafe, he held up his hands.

“God gave us all different hands,” he said.

A smile broke across his face. “My mother’s chicken curry and my wife’s chicken curry may use the identical chicken but they don’t taste the identical,” he said. “God gave me the hands to make one of the best baguette in France! I’m never offended with the flour as I knead the dough.”

A “baguette de tradition,” or traditional baguette, is constituted of flour, water, salt and yeast. Period. Sounds easy, and on one level it’s. Yet a lot depends upon the right baguette and the right baguette is elusive.

A crunchy deep golden crust must encase a fluffy, barely salty interior, punctuated with the small air sacs, often called alveoli, that produce a mildly chewy consistency. Appearance, taste, texture and smell must find a fragile harmony.

This requires exertions. Mr. Selvarajah was somewhat irritated because his store assistants had not appeared. Always, he said, there’s some excuse. He works six days per week, as much as 10 hours a day, and thinks such industry — typical of immigrants attempting to get a toehold in a latest land — may explain why several winners of the baguette prize over the past decade have been of Tunisian or Senegalese descent.

The competition itself is anonymous. “Baguettes are numbered after being deposited by candidates, then touched, smelled and tasted by a jury of experts,” Olivia Polski, the senior City Hall official who oversees the competition, said in an emailed response to questions. The best baguette, she suggested, ought to be “well-baked, light and airy. It should crackle within the mouth.”

Immigration is an explosive political issue in France — Mr. Selvarajah said he had encountered occasional racism and prejudice — and the numerous success stories among the many failures are inclined to be obscured by the polemics. Immigrants often do jobs the French have begun to shun.

Baking is “a tricky career,” said Charlotte Quemy, as she ate a croissant she described as “top” outside Mr. Selvarajah’s bakery. She lives across town but likes to stop off on her way home from her job within the tech sector. “The French view is: To hell with getting up at 3 within the morning!”

Mr. Selvarajah arrived in France from Sri Lanka in 2006, and started work in an Italian restaurant making salads and desserts. Through an everyday client on the restaurant, Xavier Maulavé, the owner of several bakeries, he was offered a job making bread. “I knew nothing about baguettes,” Mr. Selvarajah said.

Slowly, Mr. Selvarajah learned the art, becoming the chief baker in 2012. In 2018, he participated within the baguette competition for the primary time, coming in third. Business picked up. By 2021, with Mr. Maulavé pursuing other interests, he bought considered one of his stores.

“And now,” he beamed, “the president of France is eating a Sri Lankan baker’s baguette every morning!”

He loves his batons of bread. They are about 25 inches long. They weigh about 10 ounces. The baguette’s optimum shelf life is not more than just a few hours, often necessitating return visits to the boulangerie in a single day.

So it’s that, around this immediately recognizable stick of bread, French life still revolves.

Of course there are other positive breads, and the rhythms of life have accelerated, as elsewhere. But some things don’t change. Any unctuous sauce, say for a blanquette de veau or boeuf bourguignon, should be mopped off the plate with a piece of baguette. Not to achieve this can be sacrilege.

No oozing Camembert or delectable cured ham can go unaccompanied by a baguette. No breakfast at a restaurant counter is complete and not using a “tartine beurrée” — the divine butter of France thickly spread on strips of baguette. The fruit and tannin of a superb Burgundy linger within the mouth as a baguette is chewed, finding in its texture without delay crunchy and pillowy, and its mild saltiness, the right cradle.

Mr. Selvarajah got here to Paris, where a cousin and brother already lived, because he couldn’t find work in Sri Lanka. He has taken a small apartment five minutes from the bakery in order that he can keep the grueling hours of early-morning and late-afternoon shifts, while his wife and young children live in a bigger apartment across town.

“I had no selection,” he said. “I see them after I can.”

He makes two or three pilgrimages a 12 months to Chennai in India, where he meets Sri Amma Bhagavan, a contested cult leader whose religious movement, initially called Oneness, inspires him. “Everyone is so tense today and enthusiastic about money in a selfish way,” he said. “He helps me to be completely satisfied inside my heart.”

Still, in his line of labor, some tension is unavoidable. Mr. Selvarajah smokes. “Too much stress,” he said. He has a cough. “It’s from the flour, 100 kilos of it every single day.” He is restless. “You need to prove yourself every single day.”

The baker’s Sri Lankan wife, whom he married in France, has develop into a French citizen, and each his children are also French. Will he follow suit? “Maybe in the future,” he said, “but right away I don’t have time.” His 10-year residence permit is enough.

Mr. Selvarajah is, nonetheless, not altogether completely satisfied over what the prize has meant for him to date. He has not been invited to satisfy Mr. Macron, who had a selfie taken with some previous winners. He feels he has gotten less French media attention than others up to now.

Nor was he invited to a celebration this month organized by the confederation of French bakers marking the anniversary of the creation of the “traditional baguette,” defined with great detail within the 1993 “Décret Pain,” or Bread Decree, a quintessentially French edict laying out the procedure and characteristics required to be deemed “traditional.”

The baker attributes these perceived slights to the very fact he’s the primary winner who shouldn’t be from France or a rustic with a colonial connection to it. He also believes his decision to not develop into a French citizen is resented. “It’s not nice, but I don’t give a rattling,” he said.

He thought for a moment. “I’m enthusiastic about expanding the franchise in Dubai and Sri Lanka, promoting French baguettes made by a Sri Lankan. There are big possibilities.”

Asked if the Élysée had paid him for all of the baguettes delivered, he said with a shrug: “Not yet. Maybe at the tip of the month.”

Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle contributed reporting from Paris.

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