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.
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…
— 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…
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!
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.
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 ☺