It has been on my mind to write a post about bread for awhile now, and a news story from The New York Times today, entitled “French Baguettes From a Vending Machine? What a Tragedy” finally prompted me to do so! Yes, indeed, it would be a tragedy if vending machines for baguettes became a necessity. No question. Bread in France is a way of life…some would argue that it IS life itself. Before coming here, and even on brief visits over my lifetime, I never realized the importance and iconic status of bread in France.
People back home, when I told them I was coming to live here would quip, “Oh, watch out for the bread!” Funny thing about that, I’ve learned…the bread in France, while it does contain gluten, the types of flour used and the process of making it, especially if done in an artisanal shop, eliminates the problems people have with gluten. I don’t think people with Celiac can eat it, but I’ve heard that most gluten sensitivities are not experienced here in France! Wow! How freeing that has been. So, you folks with gluten sensitivities come on over!
So this is a big subject, and I just have to write something about it as it is truly part of my everyday life. The “traditional baguette” is ubiquitous, and what we all imagine when we think of the French, is someone walking down a quaint little street, baguette in their hand, sometimes without even a bag, going home to enjoy breakfast, lunch or even dinner with a fresh baked baguette. One thing I have discovered since coming here over the last 10+ years is that there is far more to bread than baguettes. I have many times walked into a boulangerie and just stood there, looking at all the shapes, sizes and configurations of bread, upright in their nesting places against the wall behind the counter. What do I ask for? Everyone was getting probably what they usually buy, and I had no idea what to say! It took many visits before I began to try each one…baguette tradition, à l’ancienne or de compagne; baguette complet, aux céréales, aux olives, aux raisins et noix; boule d’épautre, boules des châtaigne (chestnuts), pain noir, pain aux olives, pain sègle, etc.
Just for a little history, bread is so revered in France that is actually regulated by law as to ingredients, and in order to be called a boulangerie, the bread has to be made on the premises and have a designation on the window or door indicating it is “un artisan authentique,” or some such wording. Ingredients for the traditional baguette are what you might expect: wheat flour, water, yeast and salt, with some deviations regarding types of flour. They cannot be frozen, and use of preservatives is not allowed. As I discovered upon beginning my life here, bread only lasts 24 hours. And, as a single person, in the beginning I often was throwing 1/2 of it away! However, I’ve learned that most boulangeries will sell you a half baguette! One would think that with so few ingredients, all baguettes would taste about the same. NOT AT ALL. As a total neophyte in the beginning, I bought my baguettes anywhere I happened to pass by, and then I learned about some very special boulangeries surrounding where I live. Oh, my! The difference is very distinct. What you want to go for is a light and crispy outer crust that cracks and flakes onto your plate or lap when you bite it, and a soft center, almost with a tiny sweetness, which must be the salt. No butter needed! In the morning a little “confiture” on a fresh baguette is divine. The end, or heel, of the baguette is called the guignon and is considered the tastiest part of the baguette. I find it almost too hard to bite and (oh! blasphème) throw it away!
In recent weeks, I am finally comfortable walking into a boulangerie and either knowing what I’m there to buy, or asking for a description of the bread, and sometimes a taste! I have found that I buy traditional baguettes less often and usually get bread made with nuts, or whole grains (céréales), or sweeter varieties with raisins or bits of orange…of course those cost a little more. A traditional baguette typically is €1.20 (about $1.50) and other types of bread around €3.20 (or $3.50). It is a daily, or almost daily, pleasure to visit one of my three local favorite boulangeries. Sometimes, I stay and have “un crème” (espresso with milk) and a pastry. One boulangerie, Les Rêves et Du Pain (Dreams and Bread) is so well-loved, and well-known now, that there is often a line outside in the morning just to get in the door! No one seems to mind. We all just wait our turn, most smiling and chatting, until we have our chance.
So, I pray the NYT story is only a blip on the landscape of French life, and that we will hold tight to this precious facet of it for many years to come.
Vive la France! Vive le Pain!