Paris Brest

The Famed French Dessert Created in Honor of the Paris-Brest-Paris Bicycle Race

Typically, one does not associate bicycles with food; however, in the case of the famous French dessert, Paris Brest, the history of cycling surprisingly goes hand in hand with the history of this famed pastry. In 1891, the bicycle was slowly becoming more popular across France, especially as different styles were being invented and tested against one another. Pierre Giffard, in order to promote the practicability of one of these new bicycles, known as the “safety bicycle,” started a 1200 km race, which was the most strenuous and difficult race anyone had thought of thus far.

 

The Race

Beginning in Paris, cyclists would be tasked to ride to Brest, and then back to Paris, carrying all of their own supplies, and stopping to rest based only on their own physical needs. The first time the race was held, the cyclist Michelin Charles Terront managed to finish the race in 71 hours and 22 minutes, passing his strongest competitor as he slept the third night. From that point on, the Paris-Brest-Paris race, even though it had proved to be the ultimate cycling adventure, was deemed to be held every ten years, as the organizational and physical difficulty of the race proved too much to be held more often than this.

After its initial success, the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race became the largest known race across France, with over a hundred bicyclists returning in 1901 to compete in the race again. Following the 1901 Paris-Brest-Paris race, Géo Lefèvre, a well-known sports journalist who worked at the famous sports newspaper, L’Auto, suggested an even bigger race that has arguably become the most well-known bicycle race around the world, the Tour de France. In 1903, the Tour de France was born under the leadership of Henri Desgrange, a man who had also been at the forefront of the “audax” movement in France, which was a cycling movement focused on long-distance cycling and physical determination.

 

Origin of the Paris Brest Pastry

Nineteen years after the first Paris-Brest-Paris race, right before the 1911 edition, Pierre Giffard wanted to commemorate the twenty year anniversary of the race he had started in 1891; thus, he reached out to Louis Durand, who at the time was known to be a high-quality pastry chef, to create a pastry that could represent the race, and this is how the famed Paris Brest pastry was born. With a shape that is meant to resemble a bicycle wheel, and a high calorie content that made it perfect for bicyclists trying to build up energy during the race, the Paris Brest pastry quickly became extremely popular among bicyclists who competed in the race, and eventually found a home in nearly every pastry shop around France. Made with a delicious choux pastry, and filled with a sweet praline-flavored cream, the Paris Brest dessert became the perfect addition to a race that had already captured the hearts of every French citizen.

 

The Paris-Brest-Paris Today

While the last time the Paris-Brest-Paris race was taken on by professional cyclists was 1951, when Maurice Diot took first place with an incredible time of 38 hours, a time that has yet to be beaten, the Paris-Brest-Paris slowly became a more frequent race after this, being conducted every four to five years, and focusing more on the tradition of cycling, rather than being seen as a race. Instead, it is meant to celebrate the physical prowess of cyclists and their determination to prove themselves capable of such an extraordinary physical feat.

While the dessert remains a staple French pastry, as well as representing the beginning of a growing love for cycling across France, the true love for cycling began with the race that the dessert was based on—the Paris-Brest-Paris. Today, cycling still has a strong place in the hearts of the French people, with a long list of cycling events taking place every year, the love for the bicycle and the personal test of physical determination is still obvious.