How to give good bread: Buying the perfect baguette

5 Aug

Every day I am faced with at least two or three bad baguette sightings, and it bothers me more than it should, like a niggling sore throat in the morning– every, single, time.

When I say ‘bad baguettes’, I simply mean a Parisian civilian walking along their way, carrying a really crappy, shitty, nasty-looking… baguette. Last week it happened again, and this time it really got the better of me. I watched a Frenchman walk out of an award-winning bakery holding a baguette that looked even worse than what they sell in a Carrefour supermarket.

These days I can detect them from a mile away. My bad bread radar picks up on the tell-tale faux golden colour, the floppy sunken spine and the flourless flaky crust– so thin you can almost see the mesh pattern of the baking tray. They remind me of those awful ‘French sticks’ my Mum used to get from the local bakery in country Victoria, only she had the good sense to make croutons from them, and nothing more.

Parisienne Baguettes

Parisienne Baguettes: The good, the bad and the ugly

And now here I am, living in Paris – the mecca of the baguette, the land of milk and honey, the country of good bread, and I see French people buying and eating so much bad bread that it still to this day perplexes me.

Now, I personally don’t actually eat a lot of bread, since as you may have noticed, I prefer to consume my calories in the form of cheese rather than carbs, (and I am of the belief that grain foods are not good for our health in general) but whenever I DO buy bread, I’m going to make sure it’s the best damn baguette I can get my hands on within my given 1km walking radius.

In my effort to understand this bad bread phenomenon, I decided to conduct a logical retrace of steps in order to figure out where it was all going wrong. So for just one minute, please imagine with me that you’re an average Frenchy in Paris. Ready?

1. You wake up and decide to buy some bread – as you do, to dip it into your coffee, smother it in nutella, smear stinky runny cheese all over it… whatever you do with your bread it doesn’t matter, but you’re French so it’s likely that you eat a lot of it.

2. There is probably a boulangerie within 200 meters from your home. Even if it’s not the best, you’re in Paris after all, so by global standards it’s going to be pretty damn good.

3. You walk in, wait in line, and get your change ready or prepare the coins using the bread money machine (you wouldn’t even think about paying with a note).

4. You cast an eye over at the freshly baked, piping hot baguettes on the back wall, and this is where you would say something like “Une baguette s’il vous plait”. Seems pretty easy, right?

5. And then you pay your 1€ or so and walk out, with your baguette under your arm on your jolly old way.

6. This is the point where if you were walking past me I would probably be sneering under my breath at the sight of your shoddy looking bread. Sorry about that…

bread money machine

No coins? No worries! These bread money machines distribute small change

– Fin –

So, where did you go wrong? Why is that annoying woman frowning at you and your bread?

This challenge was beyond my expertise so I enlisted the help of expert bread buyer, super foodie and most qualified of all: zeee very Meg Zimbeck of Paris by Mouth herself, in order to get to the bottom of it. Lucky me managed to squeeze into a ‘Best of Montmartre’ food tour so I could personally investigate, and of course bring back documented photographic evidence and my newfound wisdom for the rest of us.

This is where you need to hit the play button in this little video we shot below…

Meg Zimbeck with one of Paris' best Baguettes de Tradition

Meg Zimbeck with one of Paris’ best Baguettes de Tradition

Did you catch that? Hear the magic word? It’s a simple as knowing which KIND of baguette to buy. There’s a big difference between what you will potentially walk out with when you ask for a “Baguette” as opposed to a “Baguette de Tradition”. That’s it. Une Baguette… DE … TRAD-I-TION- si’l vous plait. Uh huh. Voila. Open sesame!

Paris' best baguettes in a boulangerie

Devil’s in the detail. “Baguettes de Tradition” sit alongside standard bread at one of Paris’ award-winning bakeries.

Comparing good and bad baguettes

Dead giveaway. A Baguette Parisienne and an award winning Baguette de Tradition are compared side by side.

And there is a very simple reason why. After the First World War, there was a need for high quality bread to be made available to the working class. Baguettes were, at the time more of a luxury item reserved for wealthy Parisians as their long thin shape and lightness meant they only stayed fresh for one day. Real leaven bread (like a sourdough) was cheaper, but took over 8 hours to make, compared to the two hours it took to make a baguette. So, in 1920 the price of a baguette was officially fixed by French law to ensure all citizens the equal right to daily fresh bread.

The baguette price capping legislation was not lifted until 1987, but the legacy stuck. You can imagine how public outrage rose when the cost of a baguette inched past the 1€ mark, so even to this day, it’s still considered unthinkable to pay more than the standard 80 or 90 cents for a standard Baguette Parisienne.

Since the consumer is only willing to pay under 1€ for a baguette, boulangers are forced to ensure their product remains profitable – so quality therefore follows suit. It’s simply not cost effective for a baker to spend eight hours rising and carefully baking bread made from high quality flours and natural yeasts when they can only charge 90 cents for the product, or 40 cents for a demi-baguette.

So this is why you will find BOTH ordinary, inferior ‘bad-guettes’ as well as the higher-end, quality, baguettes made with natural levains and quality flours at the same boulangerie. The latter version must then be labelled as “Baguette de Tradition” “Baguette Ancienne” or “Baguette de Campagne” to differentiate, and cost all of 0 to 50 cents more, but the difference can be enormous – as you have seen.

bad baguettes or french sticks paris

The “Bad-guettes” at a typical Parisian supermarket. Almost sold out, of course.

The prize for Paris’ best Baguette de Tradition is a highly coveted title which began in 1993 and sheds light on the reasons why a boulangerie with this title sells both “bad-guettes” and the best “baguette de tradition” around. Enacted that same year, French law states that the bread must be mixed, kneaded, leavened and baked on premises, never being frozen. They must be additive-free and can contain only wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. The annual prize-winner gains both great prestige and the chance to supply the French Presidential palace with bread for the year. Pas mal.

So now that you know how – you have no excuse to give bad bread.

If you’re visiting Paris, you can check out the best boulangeries, pâtisseries, cheese shops and secret foodie gems with a Paris by Mouth group or private food tour. Tours resume for summer 2012 on August 16th with 2 x 3 hour tours daily at 10.30 and 3.30pm. Book a few weeks in advance and don’t eat breakfast! More info here

Now go forth, and give good bread ☺

Meg Zimbeck comparing baguette quality on tour

Weapons of dining destruction. Meg Zimbeck holds up an example of a bad baguette

Paris by Mouth Food Tour Group

The Paris by Mouth Montmartre food tour group

 

baguette car

I don’t know where this photo came from so I can’t credit it but it was just too good to leave out.

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16 Responses to “How to give good bread: Buying the perfect baguette”

  1. Sur les pavés de Paris January 16, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

    I totally agree with you! and it is really not easy to find good bread in Paris! I usually avoid chains and only try “artisan boulanger” who make bread in their own shop (and not reheat or cook premade stuffs humhum).
    And I also read this blog: http://painrisien.com/ for me, it is my reference to choose a good bakery!

  2. paul October 24, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    Nice article but…i must say i don’t really agree.
    Of course baguette de tradition, campagne, rétrodor et compagnie sure are usually good baguettes.
    But even if we don’t talk about the price, they’re completely different than a normal baguette. They’re somehow heavier, thicker and you don’t always want that with your cheese (sometime you want).
    You need to find a really good boulangerie (trust me there are tons of them, even if, like you are, i’m really pissed with bad bakeries), and their normal baguette should be as good as the tradition ones, and moreover, lighter, less dense.
    It’s really important you can have the choice between a (good!) normal baguette and a baguette tradition, since you don’t eat them the same way.

    • frenchforfoodies.com October 25, 2012 at 4:11 am #

      That’s a good point Paul! Not everyone wants the heavier style sourdough bread I suppose, a lot of it is personal taste. But quality is another thing.

  3. Delia Bourne October 19, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    Really interesting -post – my neighbours here in my little French village love, love, love their French bread. We used to have a baker who delivered fresh bread 3 times a week. And sometimes he would run late on a Sunday – the neighbours would be laying in wait, practically shaking their fists at him for delaying their lunch. Our local Lidl now sells reheated baguettes, croissants and rolls – none of my neighbours buy it – they will drive to find the perfect bread.

  4. coulsoncarla October 9, 2012 at 6:45 am #

    Tradition all the way how fabulous is Meg! Trying to cut back on the bread a little as heading to Australia for summer bikini weather at Christmas!! Great post
    Carla x

  5. Fabrice Ivara (@FabriceIvara) August 23, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    Very nice!
    I have only three remarks:
    -the “baguette championship” is mainly a tourist/foreigner thing. Parisian does not very much care about that . For him, it is more basic (bad, we dont buy, quite good we buy if we have two walk more than 150 meters to have a good one).
    -there is a hudge difference between Paris and the rest of the France. In the south-east, per example, the bred is not good (parisian standard).
    -we usually not prononce the word “baguette”. The baguette is the first level of our bread and not the best. In Paris, you usually ask for a “tradition” (the on of the middle of your first picture).

    Fabrice

  6. sathi August 6, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

    Thanks for sharing the history of the Parisien baguette. Been living here for the last 30years!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. George August 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    Merci Beaucoup! Definitely the most important thing I’ve learnt today!

  8. SarahInParis August 6, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    I have to agree nothing beats a ‘Tradition’. Although I must say not ideal for capped teeth, as I discovered on my last trip to Paris. But hey they are so good it really is worth taking the risk. Great post Rachel!!

  9. Anna August 6, 2012 at 4:27 am #

    love Love LOVE this post, RB!! xoxox

  10. thetravelingpear August 6, 2012 at 3:20 am #

    Well heck…now I know why my Chef bought the “tradition” every few days from our corner boulangerie when we lived in Paris last year! He never explained the difference to me! BTW–Meg is fabulous!

    • frenchforfoodies.com August 6, 2012 at 7:15 am #

      Hahha well now you know! But rest assured you a whole lot wiser than a lot of Parisians themselves are now. Use the knowledge carefully ;)

  11. Lizzie McKenzie August 5, 2012 at 11:28 pm #

    Thanks Rachie! I snagged a lot of GOOD baguettes in Paris and I didn’t quite know what made them so great – but now I do! The little video was really, really helpful – bravo!!

  12. parisbreakfast August 5, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    Isn’t Meg fabulous! Loved her Montmartre tour. It changed me forever fromage-wise

    http://parisbreakfasts.blogspot.com/2012/03/paris-by-mouth-food-tours.html

    Love yr little video – perfection.
    xxcarolg

    • frenchforfoodies.com August 6, 2012 at 7:14 am #

      Yes, Meg IS just fabulous- who else could get a bunch of strangers so excited about the texture of a french stick?!!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Dreaming in French | Carla Loves Photography - October 19, 2012

    […] Buying the perfect baguette? Who is up to the challenge. French for foodies Rachel Bajada teaches us how. […]

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