PARIS: Baguettes – or the legend of the loaf

PARIS: Baguettes – or the legend of the loaf

It was just a couple of weeks ago, I was driving from Charles de Gaulle airport into Paris and spied, shuffling along the street of one of the outlying suburbs a walking cliché, an old. hunched man, wearing a beret and carrying a baguette at 65cm in length.

The ubiquitous baguette – bread of a thousand legends, countless laws and constrained to the perfect, ordained length – this is the stuff and staff of life to the French nation – the symbol of France perhaps.

Fact: an excellent baguette needs to look, sound, smell and feel the part; with a golden-tinged crust and an ivory coloured centre, and the shell of the loaf must ‘crack’ with just a little pressure and a soft, hollow sound must occur when the bottom is tapped. It should have a warm, cereal and caramel aroma with hints of longing – longing for butter.

We were staying down the hill from the Arc de Triumph in a narrow (of course) street and on the corner was a popular boulangerie – a seductive aroma of butter emanated out the doors.

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French bread law

This perfect baton of bread needs protection and the French government did just that in 1993 with the ‘Decret Pain’. This law states that traditional baguettes have to be made on the premises they’re sold and can only be made with four ingredients: wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. They can’t be frozen at any stage or contain additives or preservatives, which also means they go stale within 24 hours.
So, beware, there is plenty of mediocre bread sold in France and separating the wheat from the chaff requires a good nose …

Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash

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Finding a good bakery

  • To be called a ‘boulangerie’, a French bakery has to make its bread on the premises. If this word doesn’t feature in the name of the bakery or isn’t plastered on the window it could be a plain old dépôt de pain selling factory-made bread.
  • Boulangeries are supposed to display a small yellow and blue sign letting you know that your baker is authentic, reading: “Votre boulanger. Un artisan authentique”.
  • These appreciated few often have a tell-tale queue snaking outside.

I took up a stalking position one early evening round about 5.30pm and took a few sneaky snaps of folk going into our local boulangerie and I guessed who would be buying an evening baguette (mornings are full on too).

All 20 shoppers I checked out except for two who picked up a pastry, carried their baguette out of the shop. Normally one loaf but a couple of people greedied up and had a handle on two or more.

The baguette is always in a white paper bag that reaches just over half-way up the loaf. I noticed that everyone carrying the fresh baguette would unconsciously snap the end off the loaf and eat it. A quaint tasting habit that I totally get!

  • The word baguette is feminine so make sure you ask for une baguette (une to rhyme with June), or just get two, deux baguettes, a number that helpfully stays the same for masculine and feminine words.
  • It’s usual to ask for a well or under-cooked baguette: bien cuite for well-cooked and crusty and pas trop cuite for under-cooked and soft.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for half a baguette, une demi-baguette, as most bakeries sell them, and for exactly half the price.
  • Baguettes cost between 1 euro and 1.30 euros. Try to pay with close to the exact amount as French bakeries rarely have change for large notes and may not serve you if you don’t have close change.
  • A traditional baguette is called a baguette tradition, baguette à l’ancienne or baguette de campagne.
  • Look out for interesting varieties such as baguette aux céréales, baguette aux graines de sésame or baguette aux olives.

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Serving etiquette

  • Look like a local and eat the end of the baguette on the way home from the bakery, it’s called le quignon, the heel.
  • Don’t use a bread board. just use the cutting in the air technique or tear off pieces by hand.
  • Traditional Catholics use the bread knife to lightly mark a crucifix on the back of a baguette before cutting it.
  • Serve pieces of bread alongside a main course and then again for the cheese course (served before dessert).
  • Pieces of bread are never served on side plates, instead they’re put directly on the placemat or tablecloth to the upper right-hand side of the dinner plate.\

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Eating etiquette

  • Soften your baguette by dipping it in your morning coffee.
  • Although most French people eat baguette without butter, those from Normandy and Brittany insist on a thick layer of unsalted or salted butter.
  • Day-old bread can be salvaged by using it to make pain perdu, translated as lost bread or French toast.

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There are many stories of the origins of the baguette and all of them probably have a grain of truth in them, but I like this one:

A patriotic tale tells of the possible origin of the baguette (not its shape though) by linking it to the French Revolution. Lack of bead was the principal complaint from the people of Paris and it played a big part in the overthrow of the monarchy. Being the staple of the French diet, the poor watched the nobility eat heaps of fine, white loaves while they faced shortage and even starvation – making do with bread that was almost inedible.

So, after the Revolution, making sure everybody had quality bread was high on the priority list. In 1793 the Convention (the post-Revolution government) made a law stating:

“Richness and poverty must both disappear from the government of equality. It will no longer make a bread of wheat for the rich and a bread of bran for the poor. All bakeries will be held, under the penalty of imprisonment, to make only one type of bread: The Bread of Equality”.

Another story claims that Napoleon Bonaparte passed a law decreeing that bread for his soldiers should be made in long slender loaves of exact measurement to fit in a special pocket on their uniforms. Since those measurements were close to the size of the modern baguette, some folk think this might be when the bread first took on its current form. Maybe it’s Napoleon we have to thank.

These are only a couple of stories of the famous bread’s origins and Mr Google throws up many more. Whatever the reason that this weird shaped bread appeared, by the mid-1800s in Paris, they were everywhere. Merci beaucoup.

Writer, Bev Malzard managed to eat half a fresh baguette every morning. Only half because she had to then eat croissants and pain de chocolat  and an oeuf or deux. . .

Much if this info on the history came from a fab website https://bonjourparis.com which features all manner of wonderful information on Paris, food, wine and everything else – tres bon.

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Extra info: Michael Kalanty is an award-winning author, baker, and sensory scientist. He holds the patent for The Aroma & Flavor Chart for Bread©. His first book, How To Bake Bread: The Five Families of Bread®won the Gourmand International Award at the Paris Cookbook Fair (2011) for “Best Bread Book in the World”. Contact him through www.MichaelKalanty.com

Epicurean Exchange offers their Paris Bread & Pastry Tour each May. Visit www.EpicureanExchange.com for more about their portfolio of culinary explorations.

Featured image at top of page: Photo by Ablimit Ablet on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

How to souvenir: or buy something for yourself

When I started travel writing, folks thought I was taking a holiday. I was often asked to bring back duty free perfume, smokes, booze etc. I did in the beginning and then I stopped buying for anyone else – just a simple “no”, said politely and that was that. (I had my own stuff to bring back.)

I can sit on my couch, in my bed, on the kitchen floor or even sit in the bath, and look around and see familiar items purchased over the past 30 years. I try and live ‘small; but I do like to have and use a few memories that have been collected along the way, and they all have stories to tell.

My first offering  is a pair of Chinese Warriors, small in stature but big of heart. I purchased these two fellas in February 1989, just a few months before the Tiananmen Square protest/revolt.

It was my first visit to China, it was minus 10 degrees and such an exciting place to be, Beijing before the world came to it. These two warriors were from an outdoor stall and were inexpensive and probably two of thousands made. They were covered lightly in brown dust that had blown in from the Gobi Desert, the same grime mixed with air pollution that I wore around my neck, scarves, hair and face.

I’ve had the guys on a windowsill protecting me since 1989 and I have never washed or even dusted them. They are as they were, covered in grit from many battles and their armour wears stains with pride. One of their hands broke off after a spill and that had been superglued on so they can continue their watch over me.

https://travelgaltravels.com/2017/08/10/china-first-encounter

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I have two souvenirs here (below) from Morocco. I haven’t mentioned the scarves, shoes, fabric or spices but I’m very fond of these pieces. First there’s the little glass containers set in a silver base with a jaunty tassel atop. I did buy larger one’s for the ‘present drawer’ but this pair sit modestly on a kitchen shelf and reminds me to add the pungent spice, cumin, to everything. A taste senstationa I discovered in Morocco. A pinch on yoghurt and honey is good and a hefty shake into anything hot and savoury will transport your tastebuds.

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This pair of tumblers were a score from the shop at Yves Saint Laurent Musee in Marrakech. They are a neat fit for my hands and hold enough of a beverage to quench a thirst. Other items in the boutique included clothes, leather handbags, art work, ceramics and sublime fashion accessories. I had previously sold my last kidney so it had to be a modest buy, and the handblown glasses fitted the bill. The museum has a revolving exhibition as there are more than 5000 pieces of wearable fashion to show . . .

 

Tea for two

This lovely rustically oriental cannister is an old tea caddy. I brought two of them back to Oz after my first visit to Macau (now Macao) around the mid 90s. It was before the super structures shot up over night, ie the Venetian et al. It was a quieter place and many of the antique shops were afterthoughts on the shopping route. This is where and when I first tasted Lord Stowe’s perfect pasteis de nata (Portuguese tarts) and invested in my first cashmere wrap. Both excellent decisions.

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These pieces were easy to pack into a suitcase but a companion snaffled up a bargain – a huge Chinese hat box which was the size of an eight year old child, and it wasn’t until she reached the airport coming home that she realised her spatial inadequacy. We got it home – but it wasn’t easy.

Next item is totally utilitarian. In the mid 80s I was holidaying in Malaysia and had a two-day stopover in Singapore. It was my first visit and I ended up in a dusty, higgledy piggledy part of town called Little India. Since visited it’s now a pretty schmick and touristy precinct and my first place to go when I arrive in Singers – I need a curry to start the stay.

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But my wandering took me to a shop that sold cooking implements and this chubby pot took my fancy. It has a copper base, it cost the equivalent of $2 then and it has been cooking rice (perfectly) for me for 30 years. It gets taken off a shelf at least once a week and does its work – we are a damn good team.

The beads below have never been worn, but they were hard won and hold a special place in my heart. In the mid-90s I went on a sensational trip to Kenya. It was first visit to Africa. We had stayed at a couple of lodges and we were scheduled to go to a family compound on the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The night before there was an outdoor fire, wine, music, wine, dying embers and wine. On the way back to my hut I slipped on polished concrete and the pain in my ankle was so severe I almost passed out.

Limping badly, the next day we visited the compound and I had to forego the jumping up and down ritual because of my pain.

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I was suffering a hangover and a sprained ankle and was grumpy. On leaving the boundary of the reserve there was a woman selling these beaded necklaces – she was asking an exorbitant price and I gave the ‘are you serious’ look and she had it in for me. After much screeching, not me, my head hurt too much, we almost had a tug of war – I now wanted it badly and she knew it. I capitulated, surrendered and handed over the money – a lot of it. She was about to hand me the beaded piece and changed her mind and whipped this one off her neck and handed it over with a big grin. I have no idea what the gesture meant but I’ll take it as one of good will.

A peony, not a pony

I love this vase. It has such elegance and lovely peonies painted around it. I was travelling in and around Bejing with a corporate group of event planners and we were given gifts along the way. This was one  them and I have been putting flowers in it for the past 20 years. Our host was the indomitable Helen Wong of Helen Wong Tours (the first person to get journos into China for the Australian Society of Travel Writers conference in 2001 to Shanghai).

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What I remember of that time was the gracious and exciting hospitality put on for the planners. We visited the Forbidden City and as we walked to where we could see the expanse of the great courtyard it was lined with about three hundred actors wearing ancient imperial guard costumes. Just one of the wondeful events put on for us.

One day we all went to a section of the Great Wall. And I gave the wall walk a miss – well, I had walked it before . . . and the low, black clouds looked ominous. So Ms Wong and I sat in a tiny tea shop and sipped and chatted. As the storm broke, the view to the wall was a spectacle to behold – hundreds of people were running along the wall draped in blue plastic raincoats – my imagination took over and what I saw was hundreds of condoms tearing along the wall path. I mentioned this to Ms Wong and she gulped and spat her tea out – first and last time I ever saw her lose her cool.

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Last BUT certainly not the least of all of my treasures is this plump little ceramic elephant vase. At an agm for the Australian Society of Travel Writers, held in Thailand in 1999, I was on a trip after the city meeting and we stayed south in Hua Hin at the Railway Hotel (it may have changed names now). In the gardens were/ maybe still are, gigantic topiary elephants that were startling. As elephants were the theme du jour I purchased this cutie at the hotel shop. Every time I pop a flower in it I recall three exquisite days spent in that, then underdeveloped town and wandering the uncrowded streets at night and eating monster barbecued prawns outdoors.

So how do I categorise these precious if rather ordinary pieces? Souvenirs? Or jewellery snapped up enroute or that rather heavy doona cover I carried back from the Paris summer sales . . .

Who cares . .  I only know that every picture here, tells a story.