The Sri Lankan Baker Making Paris’ Best Baguettes
Image Credit: Tharshan Selvarajah

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ON the decidedly functional website for the Au Levain Des Pyrénées, located at 44 Rue des Pyrénées in Paris, a small notice alongside the photos of brightly-coloured desserts and confections neatly arranged in trays, informs customers that the bakery will be closed on 13 May. With no accompanying fanfare, the message states the reason, while apologising for the inconvenience: “Aujourd'hui notre programme de cérémonie pour la Meilleure Baguette Paris 2023 (Today, it is our ceremony for the Best Baguette In Paris 2023)”. 

But anyone who knows about the prestigiousness of this annual contest that awards the baker of the best traditional French baguette in Paris (“Meilleure Baguette de Tradition Française de la Ville de Paris”), will look beyond the unassuming message and appreciate its heft.

2023’s winner, the resident baking genius of Au Levain Des Pyrénées, is Tharshan Selvarajah, a Tamil Sri Lankan who came to Paris 16 years ago. He comes across a lot like that message on the bakery’s website: unassuming, low key, but exceptional at what matters most — the baking of baguettes. 

As part of his award, Selvarajah has the honour of supplying fresh baguettes to the Élysée Palace — the home of the French President, currently occupied by Emmanuel Macron — and the kitchens of the Hôtel de Ville (where the Mayor of Paris officially resides), for a year.

Customer reviews for Au Levain Des Pyrénées wax eloquent over the baguettes, croissants and other breads. One enthusiastic fan, for instance, notes: “You'd never think a baguette could be exquisite. But it is. Crisp on the outside and snaps, crackles and pops when you tear it apart, and then — surprise! — soft and chewy but light as air on the inside.”

Selvarajah takes out a batch of baguettes every 20 minutes or so, to ensure their freshness. His bread, he avers, is “always made with love”.

It’s also important to note that the baguettes Selvarajah bakes — and which the contest honours — are “baguette de tradition”. As The Washington Post reports, this differentiation was established in the 1990s to set apart high-quality loaves from assembly-line ones, and has its roots in the price cap France had instituted to maintain the affordability of baguettes. 

To keep their enterprise profitable, some bakers began to incorporate “chemicals, preservatives and cheaper flour” in their baguettes. Thus, a need arose to recognise and reward the ones who were adhering to the time-honoured/traditional practices. 

Selvarajah said he had spent hours perfecting the four main varieties of traditional baguettes. He was not formally trained but gained hands-on experience working in Italian restaurants, reports DT Next. “I cried, because we’re foreigners and came here to learn how to make traditional French bread,” Selvarajah told interviewers of the moment he found out he’d won the top prize.

Here’s a look at Selvarajah’s feat, in numbers:

30: Number of years for which the baguette contest has been held in Paris.

175: Total number of baguettes submitted for the contest this year.

126: Number of shortlisted baguettes (after 49 were disqualified).

5: Basic number of parameters on which each baguette is rigorously assessed. These encompass its dimensions, weight, salt content, baking, taste, crumb, honeycomb and aesthetic appeal.

62: Number of baguettes sampled by each of the jury members to decide on the winning loaf.

4: Number of hours in which the jury members must finish their assessment.

5: Optimal shelf life of a traditional baguette, in hours.

2: Number of baguettes each participating baker must submit.

55-70: In centimetres, the size of each baguette.

250-300: Weight in grams of each loaf in the competition.

18: Grams of salt used, per kilo of flour, in a traditional French baguette.

4,000: In Euros, the prize money awarded to Selvarajah for winning the top spot.

1.35: In Euros, the price for one of Sevarajah’s baguettes.

500: Number of baguettes Au Levain Des Pyrénées makes in a day.

3rd: Selvarajah’s previous highest ranking in the contest, in 2018.