Of all the things I once took for granted while living in France, finding tasty fresh bread when I stepped outside is what I miss the most.
In the kingdom of French bread where le bâtard (the bastard, literally,) rubs shoulders with la flûte and la ficelle (the string) at the boulangerie, la baguette, the long, thin French loaf, reigns supreme. It accounts for 80% of all bread consumed in France every year. 27 inches (70cm.) long, and about 2.5 inches (6cm.) in diameter, la baguette weighs 9 oz. (250 g.) and is made of flour, water, salt and leavening.Just like le béret, or la marinière, it has come to symbolize France, and the French way of life. Illustration.
|Easy question: What country is Snoopy visiting today?|
|Trying too hard?
A French soccer fan
|Oh, la la! This must be France!
La baguette‘s origins are unclear, but long loaves of bread were being made in France as early as the 18th century. It seems the name “baguette” appeared in the 1920s. This French word can refer to a magician’s wand, or a conductor’s baton. France – and Paris – promptly adopted it. Due to the baguette’s short shelf life (it gets stale quickly,) French customers had to purchase a fresh loaf daily. After World War II, bakeries multiplied and could soon be found at every street corner.
Movie makers, writers, and tourists took notice and started depicting French people with a baguette in hand. An enduring French stereotype was born.
|Robert Doisneau, 1953|
|In Paris, tourists carry cameras. Locals carry baguettes!|
|A good French citizen exercises his right to vote… a baguette in hand!
(Robert Pratta, Reuters)
Why do I miss my daily baguette so much? As in entered my favorite boulangerie, it looked and smelled so good, with its golden crispy crust and pale, chewy interior, winking at me, ever so tempting.
La baguette and I made a great team. We would walk home together every evening after work, and as I held it in my hand, warm and fragrant, I would indulge in a bit of nibbling. By the time I unlocked the front door, le quignon (the tip) was gone! At the end of dinner, I would use a small piece to soak up the sauce, even if I knew that saucer son assiette (wiping the plate clean with bread) is a big no-no in proper French homes.
Late night cravings? My friend was by my side again. While preparing a fresh soft-boiled egg, I would slice thin strips of baguette, les mouillettes, and slowly dunked them in the rich, creamy yolk.
|Oeuf à la coque (soft boiled egg) et mouillettes
In the morning, what remained of the loaf would be sliced and toasted, garnished with butter and jam, then dunked in a large bol (bowl) of steaming black coffee.
|Les tartines du matin (morning toast)|
When things got to busy at work and there was no time to take a two-hour lunch, the local café (coffee shop) or boulangerie was happy to prepare my all-time favorite sandwich, le jambon-beurre (ham and butter) in a baguette, bien sûr.
My friend was versatile and eager to please: It would delight vegetarian palates dressed as a sandwich-crudités.
In short, we were inseparable. La baguette knew all my secrets, including a long-time addiction to Nutella.
|French Girl has never met a Nutella jar
she has not fallen into!
Is this to say all native French baguettes are tasty? Mais non. The price of bread was regulated by the French government until 1978. To cut corners and save money, many boulangers allowed quality to decline in the 1960s (using commercial yeast for example.) It was the time of mass-production as cheaper pain industriel (mass produced bread) was sold all over France. The French were no fools, and consumption dropped. To top it all, they started watching their diets as carbohydrates got a bad rap. Ironically, French bread was exported quite successfully at the time. Japan and other European countries became profitable markets for French bread manufacturers.
La restauration rapide (fast food industry) “à la française” took off in the 1980s thanks to several innovations including the use of frozen bread dough. Who has never purchased a sandwich chez la Brioche Dorée, the fast-growing French fast food chain?
|As of 2011, la Brioche Dorée is represented in 23 American states!|
If the French consume less bread, all-American McDonald’s has not received the memo: En route to world domination, the fast-food giant made another culotté (ballsy) gesture in the French market this fall, introducing “le breakfast à la française” in all of the chain’s McCafés. To top it all, as always, their products are crafted in France by local producers. We should all brace for the first McDonald’s sandwich made out of baguette in 2012. You have been warned. If you are surprised by all this, be aware that France is the second most profitable market in the world for the American company(*). Incroyable! (incredible)
|Coffee served in a real cup? Check!
Jam? Butter? Crispy baguette? Check!
|Clever “McDo”: French macaron or hamburger ?|
It seems la baguette and her little friends still have their best days ahead. For one thing, quality improved drastically once the government stopped regulating bread prices after 1978. A new generation of breadmakers emerged, delivering quality products made “à l’ancienne” (following traditional methods.)
Lionel Poilâne was one of them. He was followed by bakers like Basil Kamir or, more recently, celebrity baker, pastry chef, author and consultant Gontran Cherrier.
|Hey Gontran, don’t be afraid to quit your day job:
There might be a career for you in movies!
Being a baker is back-breaking work, and hardly a glamorous job. Still, each year, talented artisans toil to create the perfect baguette loaf. In 1994, then Paris mayor Jacques Chirac created the renowned “Concours de la Meilleure Baguette,” a challenging competition. In May, the winner goes home with a generous cash prize. Most importantly, he becomes the official supplier of the Elysée Palace, the French president’s residence, for a year.
|And the winner is…|
So, stereotype or genuine French icon? It seems la baguette is both, a celebrated part of France’s national culture – recognized instantly by foreigners and idiolized by the French.
That’s fine with me. If Gontran Cherrier, the up-and-coming celebrity baker and pastry maker, opens a boutique in my little corner of American suburbia, I will be right there, applying for a job as a professional bread taster. In the meantime, I will look forward to my next trip to France, when I can be reunited with my long lost friend, la baguette.
|Willy Ronis, le petit Parisien, 1956|
(*) Recommended reading: Mike Steinberger. How McDonald’s Conquered France. Slate Magazine, June 25, 2009.