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.
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.
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?
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?
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.)
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: