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Debunking the Baguette

If only life were that simple...

The Good Old Days...

What is more typically French than biting into that crunchy, perfectly baked, golden brown staple of French society: the baguette?  Even with all of the stress and constraints of the modern workplace, the French still manage to swing by their local “boulangerie” (bakery) every night and grab a baguette to dip into their onion soup…right?

It is true that in French cities with easy pedestrian access and public transportation, there are large lines of people waiting outside their favorite boulangerie to pick up their daily, freshly-made bread on the way home from work.  And in smaller villages there is sometimes a local baker that provides this wonderful service (be sure to know the opening hours ahead of time).  However, what about the huge mass of suburbanites that are required to take their car to and from work?

 

Frozen Perfection

These poor modern workers!  After fighting through traffic jams, last minute business requests and long commutes, many just don’t have the energy to further delay their arrival home and struggle for a parking spot at their local boulangerie.  And isn’t it so much more convenient to just add your bread to the shopping cart during your weekly trip to the supermarket?

Get Out of My Space!!

Get Out of My Space!!

And please don’t forget the people living in the sparse, forgotten villages of France.  Sometimes there is a “bread bus” that will struggle up the mountain side to deliver fresh bread to those needy souls once a week.  With all of these constraints, what can one do to maintain that fresh baguette taste?  An easy way is to simply freeze it!

The Rise of the Machines!

The Rise of the Machines!

The Working Man's Baguette...

The Working Man's Baguette

I may be revealing one of France’s best kept secrets when I say that many people here keep a hidden cache of baguettes in their freezers!  I myself was a skeptic at first, but after 40 seconds in the microwave I swear the bread still tastes like it just came out of the baker’s oven.  Even fine restaurants have bread in the freezer, “just in case”.  On a few occasions while eating out I have had the unpleasant experience of biting into a not fully defrosted baguette that was still frozen in the center.  The unexpected temperature contrast is hard for the teeth!  If freezing a baguette is just too unorthodox for you, make sure to only purchase ones that are marked with the label “pain de tradition française” which, by law, indicates that the bread has no additives and also has never been frozen1 .

Another current trend is the proliferation of bread machines everywhere.  Although these appliances have yet to displace the local boulangerie, they are extensively used for baking loaves of bread for morning toast or special dishes.  They can also make dough that is then rolled out into various pastries or breads.  Many French also love organic food, and bread machines are an easy way to create that “all natural”, grainy taste.

Boring Baguettes

Although the baguette is probably the most widely known type of French bread, there are so many other varieties to choose from it would be a sin not to branch out occasionally.  Below are some of the more colorful types of bread that I have discovered here:

 

Name Description
Baguette Alright, the baguette can be used for just about anything.  If you want one that’s a bit more baked and crunchy, ask the boulangère for “mi-cuit”. 
Baguette Bio This is a baguette made with organic ingredients (in French “bio” = organic)
Ficelle Literally translated as “string”, this is basically a skinny, half-sized baguette.  It’s frequently served with breakfast menus and should be eaten very fresh.
Baguette de Campagne For those of you who do not like disrupting your daily routine, this is basically a baguette with a dark brown, crunchy crust and is a good way to start weaning yourselves away from a regular baguette.
Pain de Campagne This is your “country bread” and is typically a ball shaped loaf with thick, dark, sometimes even charred crust (much like sourdough).  I think it’s purpose is to preserve the freshness of the bread inside (you know how in the “country” they need food to stay fresh for longer periods).
Pain au Torchon This is a fun type of baguette I recently discovered.  It’s rolled up dough that’s literally wrapped in “un torchon” (a dish cloth) after coming out of the oven.  It has a thicker internal texture and a hearty taste!
Pain Bagnat Literally ”Bathed Bread” (”pan” = “pain” in Provencal local dialect), this round bread ”bowl” is soaked in olive oil and filled with the ingredients of a “salade niçoise” (tuna, salad, tomatoes, anchovies, olive oil, etc.).  It’s perfect for picnics on those Southern France beaches.
Fournée A delicious, dark brown baguette made with multi-cereal flour and special yeast.  Really worth the extra 30 cents!
Tresse A baguette-type bread that has the form of a “tresse” (a braid).  It’s easy to rip off the mini sections if you have the munchies.
Pain de Seigle Rye-based bread easily sliceable used for special dishes such as holiday oysters
Pain aux Olives Bread full of black olives best found in the Southern areas of France (and hopefully without pits!)
Fougasse A thick, doughy, web-like bread with olive oil and sometimes fillings (olives, cheese, etc.) good for lunch on the run.
Pain au Chocolat Every American’s favorite chocolate-filled French breakfast pastry!
Pain de Mie In French, the “Mie” is the white part of the bread.  For all Americans who are in France against their will, “Pain de mie” is the sliced sandwich bread you’ve been looking for…

Hey, Where's the Baguette?

Hey, Where's the Baguette?

Helpful Tips

Bread is such an important part of French gastronomy that there are many traditions related to it:

  • If you’re superstitious, never turn bread upside down on the table.  In the past, the executioner’s was turned upside down to ensure that it was kept aside for him.  Upside down bread means that he may not be far away…
  • Bread that’s left on the table is considered bread for anyone’s taking.  Basically, keep your bread on your plate!
  • If you drop your bread into the cheese fondue pot, then you have to pay a penalty.  This can be anything from buying a round of drinks to other more creative ideas…
  • If you’re in the Midi/Marseille area of France, “pain” is pronounced “paing”, so pay attention when you’re ordering!
  • And, most importantly, if you want to find the best bread in town, ask the locals2 and look for the long lines.  In general, it’s worth the wait!

Links

Trailer of “La Femme du Boulanger” - 1938 comedy film by Marcel Pagnol.  What happens when the local baker is so disturbed that he can no longer make bread because his beautiful wife leaves him for a sheep herder?  Of course the entire village mobilizes to find a way to get her back or else they won’t get their daily bread!

Décret n°93-1074 du 13 septembre 1993 - This is the text governing the classification and labeling of French breads.

Confédération nationale de la boulangerie-pâtisserie française - French confederation of bread and pastry makers.  Lots of interesting details on this site about the profession.

La Fête du Pain - The French love bread so much, why not have a national celebration?  During one fun-filled week in May, you’re sure to find that fresh-baked smell and lots of free samples in many schools and villages.


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  1. Décret n°93-1074 du 13 septembre 1993 []
  2. some cities are locally well know for having “no good bread”, despite the presence of several boulangeries []

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