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.
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 …
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.
- 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.\
- 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.
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.
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.