The Re-Rise of la Baguette

What’s up with all the soft, pale baguettes appearing in Paris?

A few years back, when I moved to the Bastille, my local boulangerie made the best baguettes I’ve ever had. Each baguette was a revelation. If I was lucky to get there at just the right time, I would be handed a still-warm, slender flute of bread. I’d rip off the end as soon as I got out the door, and began devouring the loaf, leaving a tell-tale scattering of crumbs back to my apartment.

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Au Levain du Marais, 28 boulvard Beaumarchais

Enter any boulangerie, and you’ll pass on you way in Parisians exiting with freshly-baked baguettes. Once outside, they’ll instinctively rip off a bit of the end, le quignon, as it’s called.
It’s an instant, on-the-spot quality-control check.

(And just in case any of you xenophobes think that English is a simple language to learn, why do we call the end of the bread, the quignon, the ‘heel’…like the bottom of a shoe?
We also say, “We spend time” but also, “We spend money”?
And we “Take Xanax”, yet we also “Take a taxi”…do they both have the same effect? I don’t think so…)

Maybe I need to head to the le pharmacie for le Xanax, since my deep depression started after my bakery closed for their last annual August vacation..

When they re-opened a month later, something changed.

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A Scandalously Wrong Baguette I Recently Purchased (with high-hopes) From Another Boulangerie

Instead of baking richly-dark, slim loaves with a crackly deep golden-brown crust and a meltingly soft, supple and chewy interior, their baguettes which were once so tempting, were now a pale imitation of their former self.
And I mean p-a-l-e!

Each subsequent baguette was soft and doughy. I began asking the saleswoman for “Bien cuite, s’il vous plaît” making her rifle through the basket of upright baguettes to search for a crunchy, well-baked baguette. But now that I’ve been living in Paris for a number of years and speak impeccable French, I hear Parisians utter the sinister phrase that’s bringing down the reputation of French baguettes: “Pas bien cuite, s’il vous plaît.”
At many of the boulangeries of Paris, I’m noticing a trend of baking under-cooked baguettes.
Doesn’t anyone want a delicious, crispy baguette anymore?

Years ago the quality of baguettes had declined to the point that the government stepped in (don’t you wish the US government would spend a little time worrying about improving our food supply?)
Rules were passed that demanded that a proper baguette was made with only three ingredients: flour, yeast, and salt. Each baguette had to weigh 250 grams (about 10 ounces) and cost the same. Go into just about every boulangerie in France nowadays and a standard baguette costs 80 centimes.

This was a good effort to raise the standards of baguettes, although some boulangeries scoot around les regles by sprinkling a few pavots (poppy seeds) or grains des sesame on top, enabling them to get away with charging a few more centimes. There’s also thebaguette traditionelle or la baguette ancienne (country baguette) which are often hand-crafted and made with a bit of sourdough or levain, which enables them to last longer than a standard baguette. They taste better too, in my opinion.

If living alone (or if you’re one of the last fans of the soon-to-be-forgotten Atkins diet…), you can buy half of a baguette for 40 centimes.
Can you imagine anyone in the US even bothering to walk the few steps to a cash register just for a 40 cent sale?
I am so sure….not!

Or you can do as I learned here in France, and wrap any leftover baguette in a torchon (kitchen towel), which will keep your fresh bread just until the next morning when it can be toasted then slathered with butter and spread with fruit confiture then dipped in your bowl of café au lait for your petit dejeuner.

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My Daily, First-Thing-In-The-Morning, Must-Have, Café au Lait…Yes! In a Bowl!

And speaking of coffee, there’s been a lot of talk on food blogs debating the merits (or demerits) of French coffee, but no one’s talking about the common error that most visitors to France make when ordering coffee: a café au lait is not the same things as a caf&eacute crème. The café au lait is served in a bowl, only at home, for breakfast. (Yes, those decorative bowls they sell are actually used for coffee.) That’s why the café waiter will sometimes raise an eyebrow if you request a café au lait.

A café crème is a caf&eacute express served in a large cup and saucer (similar to a cappuccino), with warm, softly-steamed milk. Europeans never rarely coffee with milk after a meal. It’s too rich. A café noisette is a small coffee with a noisette (hazelnut) of warm milk dabbed on the top, if you prefer a touch of milk with your coffee.

So anyways…I’d given up hope for finding the perfect baguette until I had lunch today at a wonderful, small, unknown restaurant (after spending the morning tangling with the frustrating, unending maze of French bureaucracy at the all-powerful, Prefecture de Police… arrgghh….if I had any hair left, I’d have ripped it out!…but don’t get me started…whew!….ok, calme…)

We entered from an unassuming side street in the Marais. I ordered a wonderful Braised Pintade (guinea fowl) which came in a smooth, rich, and slightly smoky sauce of red wine, glossy from just a soupç of butter swirled in at the last moment. It was served with a gratin of potatoes and cabbage scented with smoky lardoons of bacon and a carafe of outstanding wine from the Juraçon.

After bringing the food, the proprietor plunked down a linen-lined basket of the most excellent slices of still-warm baguette that I’ve had in Paris. Each piece had a thick, crunchy, dark-brown crust that shattered reluctantly when pulled apart. The interior was a soft, creamy white with generous holes. I asked for the name of the boulangerie, telling him the baguette was the best I’ve had in years…“C’est magnifique!”

The owner smiled in agreement.

Restaurant Le Felteu
15, rue Pecquay, 4th
Tel: 01 42 72 14 51
Mètro: Rambuteau

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9 comments

  • I think baguettes rule! If I had my choice of a baguette slathered with french butter (it must be French!) and jam or a gooey rich dessert, I would pick the baguette (unless the dessert is profiteroles).

    The art of baking a proper baguette can be a success or a crime. I don’t know why there are so many bad ones. When I lived in San Francisco I lived off those big puffy sourdough loafs (is that called a boule?) sold by the Columbo bakery in Oakland. When I moved to Los Angeles I though I would never have a good bread again until I stumbled on the La Brea Bakery who make their baguette crust so chewy you’d think your teeth might fall out. Each morning I had the same workout, a Starbucks coffee and a La Brea “demi” baguette with butter and blackberry jam (seedless of course). One day Starbucks got smart (or stupid) and decided to sell a lessor quality baguette at the same price which tasted more like a sandwich roll. It was like eating a rubber ball. Eventually it disapperared from their case and I bet the corporate executives scratched their heads and wondered why no one in LA was eating baguettes anymore. One answer, you replaced it with CRAP.

    Luckily I was still able to get my La Brea in the local market.

    A few years ago I moved to New Jersey and though I would never see another good baguette again. Would I have to settle for the east coast bagel? Well I have to say bagels are delicious in New Jersey, maybe the best in the world but its not a baguette. Can you imagine having a bagel with your steak frites?

    One day I wandered into a local Italian bakery in the blue colar town that I live in. Behind the counter were warm loaves and loaves of Italian breads in big baskets ready to be purchased. No matter who came to the shop, they always asked for at leat 1 loaf (if not 3 or 4) with their cannoli, crumb cakes, black & whites and Italian butter cookies.

    The Italian loaf was $1 (a La Brea loaf can cost around $2.50)and a little different, but just as good. Of course the Italian loaf is the staple of the Italian East Coast diet and it is a little fatter than the West Coast French style baguette but just as good. A later learned that this little bakery in an ugly little plaza bakes their loaves in a coal oven. That might explain the unique flavor which is like the difference in cooking your meat over a charcoal BBQ vs, a gas grill. Besides for the flavor these Italian loaves have that chewy crust (but not as crisp as the La Brea versions) and tender insides. They are also equally as tasty the next morning toasted and spread with butter and jam. Half for dinner half for breakfast.

    It’s always good to know that there is a good loaf right around the corner. Long live the baguette!

  • I wonder if the reason for pale baguettes is that people want to finish them off in the oven at home? That’s the only explanation I can muster. An undercooked baguette is, well, as we day in English “icky”.

  • I was told that a lot of older folks in France like softer baguettes, since they’re easier to chew. Plus I’ve never seen anyone finish off baking a baguette in the oven—warm bread (which implies freshly-baked) doesn’t have the cachet here like it has in the US (perhaps because most of the bread is freshly-baked!)

    And often people here don’t mind eating cold toast in the morning, a habit I haven’t adopted.
    In fact, it’s quite common. As they say in French, ‘C’est comme ca’ (“It’s like that”)…

  • Wow…that’s very unusual to find pale or par baked baguettes now in the boulangeries in Paris or among France. I did noticed pale baguettes when I was browsing the markets like Franprix when I was in Paris, and they were smaller and wrapped in plastic.

  • Its the end of civilized Paris

  • I have been whinging about the underbaked baguettes in Pittsburgh, which have driven me to attempting unsatisfactory amateur baguettes of my own. It is unnerving to discover that this is also occuring in the home of the baguette.

    If you ask local bakers about it, they say that their customers think the darker, more flavorful breads are “burnt.” I assumed this was because we were unsophisticated and provincial. I really don’t like to think it is a sinister international tide in favor of the limp, pale loaf. Ack.

  • It’s interesting that you briefly bring up the whole “cafe au lait – cafe creme” issue. When I was in Paris recently, I ordered a Cafe Creme and the waiter corrected me by saying “Non, cafe au lait.” And I thought ‘well, whatever gets me my coffee with milk, so be it’. But now I read (and have heard since then) that it IS cafe creme you’re supposed to ask for. Either way, I get my coffee with milk in the morning. LOL

  • I agree with your comments about the rise of the pale doughy baguette in Paris. I am so wary of the baguette blanche, encountering too many of them that could have come from your average American supermarket shelf, so I stick to the flute ancienne / baguette tradition.
    BTW, what was the name of the bakery which provided the amazing bread for the restaurant, or was it made in-house?

  • i’ve been so disappointed by the extinction of the real baguette too and wrote about it. a REAL baguette is not tough and definitely not in the slightest hard to chew but since the slow growing plague of “banette” baguettes, perhaps people have simply forgotten the real deal and just accept the inferior version. though, since they ARE harder to chew, perhaps ppl do prefer to finish them off in the oven at home (as amy mentions above). it’s all very sad, indeed. (fyi: here’s the link to the story about banette baguettes invading france: http://www.whytraveltofrance.com/content/view/39/1 )