Baguettes

As you probably have guessed by now, I’m quite different from the other Parisians. Aside from my less-than-stellar command of the language and a rather bizarre desire not to walk right into others on the sidewalk, I don’t buy that many baguettes.

baguette&jam2.jpg

It’s not that I don’t like them. (Baguettes, I mean—although I like Parisians too…except when they walk right into you.) It’s just that we eat so much bread around here and I have a preference for heartier, more rustic breads, often loaves riddled with seeds, and heavy with les multigrains. And lately Apollonia Poilâne has been spearheading efforts to wean Parisians off baguettes too, although from the looks of things, she’s not having much of an impact: Locals still line up before lunch and then return before dinner for their fresh, crackly baguette at their local boulangerie.

Baguette & Knife

Did you know the word ‘baguette‘ means ‘stick’ or ‘wand’ in French and if you want chopsticks in an Asian restaurant, you ask for “les baguettes, s’il vous plaît”? And I can’t tell you how many dinners I’ve been to where the discussion about which bakery, and where, has a better baguette caused nearly violent disagreement. There’s even a contest with a Grand Prix in Paris to come up with a winner every year.


But every so often I have the urge to pick up a slender, golden-bronzed loaf, especially if I found some interesting cheese I want to try, have a meaty bit of nice pâté or plan to make un sandwich for a long (or short!) train ride, since a baguette ordinaire is pretty hard-to-beat for any of the above.

La baguette ordinaire by law, can only have three ingredients: flour, yeast, and salt, and must weigh 250 g. These guidelines were set up a decade ago to prevent the quality of bread from deteriorating and to maintain the standards of this all-important staff of French life. But in spite of the fact there’s literally a bakery on every block in Paris, it can be difficult to find a good one. Some of the fault lies with the bakers since the price of baguettes are also controlled by the government, and there’s not much profit to be made in something that costs a pittance, around 80 centimes. And a half a baguette is 40 centimes. Can you imagine getting someone in America off their duff for a fifty-cent item?

Sliced Baguette

Another is the fault of the public, who often requests their baguette “pas trop cuite”, or “not too baked”. So consequently many of the baguettes you come across are pale and listless. I suspect people just got tired of constantly vacuuming up after all those flaky breadcrumbs which go flying all over the place so they want softer baguettes. For the life of me, I can’t imagine any other reason to want a soft, doughy baguette.

Just about any bakery in Paris has baguettes and you’ll see many different kinds, from the slender Parisian baguette ordinairestanding on-end in baskets behind the counter, to the hearty tradition, ancienne or compagne, which are distinguished by their pointy-ends and hand-crafted appearance. (And slightly higher price.) Often some levain is added, which gives a nice earthy flavor to the bread as well as making them last a bit longer than the one-day window one has with a standard baguette. French people wrap their leftover baguettes in linen towels, which is the best way to preserve their freshness without making them soggy.

So what does one look for in a good baguette?

Baguette

Well, first thing to know is how to spot a crummy baguette. If you see little raised Braille-like dots on the bottom, the bread’s been cooked industrially. Avoid those as much as possible. A good baguette should be sturdy when you pick it up, not light for its size—although I can’t imagine the looks you’d get if you asked the vendeuse at the counter if you could lift the baguette first. Lastly, a inferior baguette will have a smooth appearance with lots of tiny, too-regularly spaced little holes when sliced. It will taste cottony and bland and will dissolve in your mouth rather than challenging you to give it a good chew.

A good baguette should have large, irregular holes and will likely have uneven coloration on the outside from being baked by an actual person (instead of just inserted into a baking chamber.) One bread expert described a good baguette as having an “apricot-like aroma” which I find an apt descriptor as well.

The interior should be pale-ivory colored and give off the scent of flour with a touch of yeast. The mie, or the interior, will be chewy and light-but-tough from a well-developed network of gluten. And it should make you happy when you exit the bakery, yank off the quignon, the little crusty end of the baguette, and stuff it in your mouth, which Parisians invariably do on their way home. (And I just know this is just asking for trouble, but it’s pronounced keen-yon.)

Homemade pate

When in doubt, check to see if the boulangerie displays the words or the symbol Artisan Boulangerie somewhere, a sign the bread is baked on the premises. Another clue is the bakery either has a persons name affixed to the awning or is displayed somewhere rather prominently on the window or elsewhere.

So be scrupulous which baguette you buy and eat. There’s a decent amount of lousy baguettes out there and we certainly don’t want to encourage the production of them, now do we?, and it’s well-worth your while to seek out one of the good ones.

Here’s a few previous posts about breads and boulangeries in Paris:

The Re-Rise of the Baguette

Moisan’s Ficelle Apéritif

The Grainy Breads of Paris

Boulangerie 140

Gérard Mulot

le Boulanger du Monge

blé sucré

Au Levain du Marais

Pain Auvergnate

Du Pain et des Idées



28 comments

  • After seeing all of these photos, how could you not like baguettes? A friend of mine is OBSESSED with French baguettes and on her recent trip to Paris – that was all she ate! However, she first became hooked on the industrially-made (holes on the bottom) Americanized French baguettes – I wonder which she liked better! Ha.

  • Don’t get me started on baguettes. I’m not a big bread fanatic or nuthin’ but a decent baguette makes me jump up and down. Probably because I know cheese and paté will be in my future. Or just some butter. What was I saying? Oh yes, I love that rustic knife in the shot. It’s really nice!

  • When I was walking home from the boulangerie I could never decide which was better: the crunchy outside of my fresh baguette or the soft interior. Sometimes it took a lot of samples to decide– I occasionally got home without a baguette at all!

  • I was just trying to explain to someone my utter joy and excitement when I bought my baguette this morning and it was fresh-out-of-the-oven warm. Maybe more to do with my excitment than the fact that it is quite chilly here at the moment, but I hugged that baguette all the way home.

  • Amy: Yes, there really is something satisfying about walking out of a bakery with a golden-crunchy baguette in hand, wrapped in that little skip of paper they give you to hold it with.

    And when it’s warm, that’s dangerous: then I eat most of it in the elevator on the way up to my apartment!

  • I don’t live in France but even if I did I don’t think I’d adopt the baguette habit for the simple reason that the shelf life of a baguette is so very short. Do French people really go through a whole baguette in a day, or come up with enough uses for the stale bread? Even when my roommate and I tried sharing a weekly baguette, we’d end up having to throw half of it away. If I were a baker, I’d start making baby baguettes for single people.

  • Forget the bread! Where’s the recipe for that yummy looking pate!

  • French baguettes are best. The last time I was in Paris I brought back a baguette plus a round loaf in my carry-on. The place was right off Rue Dauphine, a famous baker and it was great bread. Customs remark: “You bring bread, the rest bring wine back home.”

  • Oh, for a good baguette here… okay, we now have one, count it, one, French bakery that produces an acceptable sourdough type baguette.

    And we call chopsticks “palitos chinos”… “Chinese toothpicks”.

  • Kill me now! You are tempting me with my favorite carb! Oh a good baguette and fois gras! I will eat forever!

  • I was in Paris for the first time this past June and had the best baguettes at Gosselin bakery.

  • Sometimes a charming typo steers a reader down a whole new path of thought. Here we have some ‘nice earthy flavor to the beard,’ and I couldn’t decide whether a baguette should be ‘sturdy’ or ‘studied’ when picked up, but both sort of make sense!

  • Caroline: They do sell half baguettes, but any leftovers are eaten for breakfast the next day, or I freeze them and use them for croutons.

    And some bakeries sell ficelle, which are slender, mini-baguettes that are super crusty.

    Burnt Lumpia: Gosselin does have great baguettes…glad you found ‘em.

    Steve: Oops. I keep saying that I’m going to stop writing and just post pictures from now on…

    Dan: The Chinese people where you are must have pretty large teeth!

  • I was like you in Paris and tended to buy the heartier breads, but when I finally went and ordered un baguette, I got a tongue lashing from la vendeuse, telling me it’s une baguette.

    I apologized profusely for mangling her beautiful language and walked home muttering, “baguettes are girls, baguettes are girls” over and over again. Won’t make that mistake again…

  • David, what is it about the added levain that allows bread to stay fresher for a longer amount of time? I’m intrigued by that concept.

  • Hi Katie: During the mixing and fermentation with the levain, acetic acid is produced and that acidity helps retard the growth of mold and the bread stay fresher longer.

    Here’s this article explains it pretty well.

  • I just read the article about you in the Boston Globe. Nice press!

  • Hi David,

    I love baguettes, yum. One of my favourite lunches is fresh baguette with ham and coleslaw!!
    ohh, I am hungry and I have just eaten lunch : )

  • I find myself partial to rustic breads myself, sparse as good ones here in Manila are. and I don’t particular enjoy crusty breads as much as I do soft rolls. recently though, I’ve been endeared to baguettes when paired with a healthy heaping of ratatouille. I topped this with a teaspoon of cottage cheese and a touch of pesto, and it was a hit during my birthday dinner amongst my picky guests.

  • Now my problem with baguettes in France is that I’m just so spoiled by sourdough. Acme sourdough baguettes, to be specific. Not that my own rustic, seeded sourdough boulles aren’t wonderful (they are). But then I have “sweet” French bread (even in Paris) and my taste buds are let down. Go ahead, flame away.

  • Ulálálá

    visit me! kisses!

  • Maybe I’m not a real Parisian because I’m really not into those dry baguettes found almost everywhere, I much prefer Apollonia’s bread. Still If I have to do with French bread I’d take a tradition ou a Retrodor; I like the aeration of the mie combined with the almost pastry-like softness of it..

    By the way I love your blog , I love the way you talk about Paris in it, and the places you make people discover! Thanx a lot!

  • Sigh. My parents live in St. Martin (on the French side) and I just love, love, love baguettes. We get them daily from a little place the next village over. Nice and warm and so delicious with excellent butter. Good times.

  • What a timely post, I’m in a baking/pastry program right now and have been making quite a few baguettes the last couple of weeks.
    For something so simple, just three ingredients, there is sure a lot that goes into a really good baguette. Of course there is also my secret fourth ingredient….love.
    As for what to do with all those baguetts I have practically coming out of my ears; I could build a baguette “log” cabin for very small people.

  • One thought on buying them “pas trop cuite” is they might heat them up in the oven at home. I have no idea if people do this in Paris, so forgive me if that is some great sacrilege. But, I’ve seen them sold that way here in the States for the purpose of finishing the cooking at home.

  • I’m with you on the grainy bread team.
    I found the BEST grainy bread everywhere in Belgium. Maybe it’s all those Flemish paintings by Pieter Bruegel that make them long for the rustic life…
    I’ve had good pain de seigle(sp) in French country markets, but I’ve yet to try Poilane’s.
    Next trip! New York scores zero in the good bread category :(

  • I love bread too, but baguette’s are not my favorite.

  • i love bread in all its incarnations, but i do struggle with what they want to pass off as a baguette (or french stick) in the UK… not enough air, much too dense and chewy! more like a baguette viennoise but without the subtle sweetness.
    i’ve always wondered what the difference was between a baguette and a flute… they use it interchangeably in french bakeries around here – but then they don’t sell the really long baguettes, more the pointed “tradition” type. any ideas?
    caroline in DC, i find that the french just do eat a lot of bread – with every course! when i stay with friends in france, they have bread with a starter of pate, some more with the main course and of course with the cheese and salad… so i have rarely seen a leftover baguette!