Paris Brest – The Breakfast of Champions
With Great Britain’s most successful Olympics for a century a year behind us, and Beijing no more than a fizzled-out firework in our memory, the efforts of our Olympic heros seem all but forgotten as another summer of sports hype grips the nation. Behind world record football signings, 2020 cricket and Andy Murray, all the Great British public now see of our Olympic champions are the sun faded messages beamed from the billboards of those companies wiley enough to snap up the medal winners in lucrative contracts before they had peeled off their lycra. After all nothing works better than a muscle-bound athlete to persuade the public to spend more of their ‘easliy-borrowed’ cash on new socks and energy drinks.
One such message that exploited an abnormally fit looking Chris Hoy, endorsed the gold-medal-winning abilities of Kellog’s Bran Flakes. In the advertisement, our pouting Olympian strides before a Union Jack, with all the charm of a BNP flyer, touted Kellogg’s Bran Flakes by saying “I believe the French have pastries for breakfast.” A bold confrontation from the cycling Scotsman and hid chums at Kellogs, especially seeing as the French are the patrons of the greatest cycle race on earth as well as being the self-proclaimed guardians of the culinary universe. And lucky French if you ask me! Why any athlete would want to start their day with a bowl of milk-soaked shredded cardboard is beyond me.
On a recent cycling trip to the French capital, I decided to research what Sir Hoy was on about. Taking to Parisian streets on my Bickerton fold-up bike I soon discovered that Hoy’s wanderings were indeed true. The French do eat ‘patisserie’ for breakfast, but far from being an affliction I soon discovered that one such ‘pastry’ had its origins deep in cyclings’ oldest competitive race.
Peruse any respectable Parisian patisserie, and lined up next to the pretty tartlet’s, lurid macrons and coulees-drizzled petit-four and you will find a rather disheveled looking cake called a Paris Brest. But do not be put off by this ‘ugly duckling’ of the pastry shop. It consists of choux pastry topped with baked almonds, split and filled with a praline-flavored butter-cream and despite what Chris Hoy thinks, in my well-fed opinion is the perfect cycling breakfast and as I also discovered, the humble Paris-Brest has been the choice of hungry cyclists for over a century.
In 1890s bicycles were at last becoming popular. Advances in gearing systems meant the cumbersome ‘high wheel’ and ‘penny farthing’ models of the late 19th century were being fazed out and new ‘safety bicycles’ were fast becoming ‘le mode’. The development of the pneumatic tyre, by an ingenious Irish vet called Dunlop, at last meant men and women could ride in comfort as well as style and the unconfined attributes of bicycle travel were soon the talk of Paris and London.
But although the bicycle was perfect for a trip around the park or a pop down the shops, the European public remained skeptical about the long-range attributes of this new pedal -powered machine. Determined to change this popular conception, a few entrepreneurial Frenchmen decided to showcase the potential of their beloved bicycle, and what better way to display these new machines’ range and durability than a race from Paris to Brest. The grueling event, the first of its kind, would require the riders to complete a 1200 km (750 miles) ride from Paris to Brest, and back within 90 hours!
A daring feat by today’s standards, this superhuman effort was unheard of at the time, so much so that the medical establishment didn’t think it was possible, universally condemning the event as suicidal and sheer lunacy. “The bicycle in such overdoses will kill the rider just as surely as an overdose of arsenic” wrote one quack at the time, but defying medical advice, at daybreak on Sunday, September 6, 1891, 206 brave riders left a cheering crowd in front of the Le Petit Journal offices in Paris and took part in the first running of the Paris Brest bike race, the longest running randonnée bike race in the world.
The race was a huge success and as well as becoming a celebrated fixture in the European Cycling calendar, it also demonstrated to the world the long range advantages of cycling.
“For the first time we saw a new mode of travel, a new road to adventure, a new vista of pleasure. These cyclists averaged 80 miles a day for 10 days, yet they arrived fresh and healthy. Even a skillful and gallant horseman could not do better. Aren’t we on the threshold of a new and wonderful world?”
gushed Pierre Giffard, publisher of the French newspaper Le Petit Journal, who went on to sponsor the event, but Giffard was not alone in his admiration of the men and machines that took on this daring feat.
One crafty baker, on seeing the brave cyclists race past his window on the first running of the Paris Brest, was so inspired by what he saw, he created a calorie-laden confection called the ‘Paris-Brest’ in honor of the committed riders attempting this demanding ride. His tire-shaped choux pastry was piped full of a huge amount of calorific praline cream, perhaps mimicking the newly invented inner tubes of the day and traditionally baked almonds and iceing sugar decorated the cake, imitating the tread of the tyre and dust from the road.
These energy-packed treats soon became a favorite amongst the riders on the Paris Brest and are now regular in windows Patisseries all over France. The Paris-Brest-Paris race continues to this day as the oldest long-distance cycling road event in the world and as the food or fuel argument rages amongst cyclist, I hope that when Sir Chris powers to further glory in the velodrome of London in 2012, instead of celebrating with a bowl of shredded cardboard he opts for the pastry of champions. The Paris Brest.
- See a recipe for Paris Brest
- See some of my photos from a fold up bike in Paris
- Find out more about the Paris Brest race