How the French stick changed my life

Creative CommonsYou are looking at one of the reasons  we moved to France. Bread, aka le pain. It’s a quality-of-life thing: we figured that even if we had to put our careers on hold, at least we’d be able to enjoy fresh bread every day. Lovely, crusty, light-as-a-feather baguette right out of the oven. Sans preservatives, as I memorably informed my late mother-in-law.

There is a boulangerie on every street corner in Paris and at least one in every village. In thousands of mom-and-pop shops from Nantes to Nice, the baker is at the ovens in the wee hours every morning, and you can buy a warm baguette from about 6:30 a.m. Such unfailing devotion is encrusted* in the very fiber* of le boulanger.

One of my first challenges in France was being able to go into the local bakery and buy what I wanted. There are so many kinds of bread, often with no labels at all to help you identify them. Like so many things in France, il faut savoir. The classic French stick, la baguette, seemed like the safest bet. At least I knew what that was called. And was able to pronounce it.

Despite this, I would experience a sort of stage fright when going to the bakery. I’d rehearse the words in my head and get my change ready in advance so as not to be caught unprepared.

‘Je voudrais une baguette, s’il vous plaît,’ I would say primly, attempting a smile.

The baker-woman (inevitably the baker is a man, and the woman who serves you his wife), would look at me impassibly, then pass me a French stick with the words: ‘Deux francs cinquante.’ No smile. I handed over the money (we still used French francs back in the day) and exited stage left. That was the sum total of my interactions at the bakery for several weeks.

There were other, friendlier places in our quartier. But this small bakery with barely a sign on the door had the neighborhood’s best bread (very likely why the woman felt no need to be friendly.)

Then the day came when I dared to take it a step further. I’d noticed that most people didn’t bother formulating an entire sentence, so I dropped the ‘je voudrais’ (which my husband was always telling me was just this side of polite). More importantly, I observed other customers asking for a particular ‘cuisson’ – ‘done-ness’ of the bread: bien cuite (crusty), peu cuite (pale) or, my preferred in-between state, pas trop cuite.

‘Une baguette, pas trop cuite, s’il vous plaît,’ I ventured.

The woman really looked at me for the first time, seeming to register a person attached to the request. She reached for a perfect, lightly bronzed baguette and added, “Deux francs cinquante.” The rest of the exchange was as before.

After several weeks, a couple of things changed. I would enter the bakery, start to ask for a baguette and before I could complete the request, she would hand me a ‘pas trop cuite.” With the tiniest glimmer of a smile. I was a regular.

Later I would graduate to asking for other kinds of bread: un pain (a full-size, broader loaf), un bâtard (half way between the baguette and le pain), a boule, flûte or pain de campagne. Seigle (rye) or levain (sour-dough).

I also learned the proper way to ask for croissants, or ‘viennoiseries.’ That’s the generic word for the category of baked goods that includes croissants, pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, brioche and a host of other calorie-laden breakfast treats. Yet even when I could say all those things, it was sometimes hard to choose, and they always seemed to expect that you knew exactly what you wanted as soon as you walked in.

‘Madame?’ the baker-woman asked. ‘Uhhh….je voudrais un pain au chocolat, et puis…’ I raked my brain to decide what else and blanked. ‘Je vais réfléchir,’ I concluded. I’m going to think about it. She looked at me like I was a few centimes short of a franc, then moved on to serve the next customer while I pondered my life-changing choice of croissants.

Here are a few things I learned about French bakeries:

  • There are two kinds of bakery: boulangeries for bread and pâtisseries for cakes and pastries. Most do both but almost always specialize in one thing more than another. Hence, the best bread will not be found at the same place that sells the best cakes.
  • The name ‘Boulangerie’ may only be used by a professional baker whose bread is baked on the premises; anything else must be called a ‘Dépôt de pain’ (bread depot).
  • ‘Maitre Artisan’ is an additional sign of quality and your guarantee that the bread is baked with care by a qualified boulanger or his apprentice.
  • The price of bread is not regulated per se but a complex set of rules governs its production and selling price; the bakery must display a price list including the types and weight of each kind of bread sold.

These days I almost never buy plain old baguette. In recent years, the French have gone whole grain, introducing a much wider range of organic, whole wheat and multigrain breads. My current favorite is a ficelle aux céreales (thinner than a baguette so you get more crust).

But the humble baguette de pain remains the staple of the French bakery. And perhaps my most humble memory of those early stumbling steps in French.

So, what’s your favorite loaf? French or otherwise?

*The pun is the lowest form of wit, just as the bun is the lowest form of wheat.

111 comments

  1. Food,Photography & France · February 6, 2014

    Boule cereale is my favourite at the moment….but each boulangerie makes it differently, so it’s la boule cereale in Vouvant that is the one that does it for me…or maybe un bucheron from La Chataigneraie…and so it goes on:)

    • MELewis · February 6, 2014

      So lovely to have the choice, n’est-ce pas? Bread-lovers, unite!

  2. Wife After Death · February 7, 2014

    Thinking this very thing this morning actually as I exhumed a flaccid slice of bread from a three-day-old sliced brown loaf. The French have it right, I think – buying fresh every day. When I lived over there I LOVED la ficelle too. Bon appetit. X (And I recall too being stage-struck in the boulangerie – those wimmin are FEARSOME!)

    • MELewis · February 7, 2014

      Indeed, French women so often wear the pants despite their feminine allure. It’s a real role reversal with the men at the ovens… Hope you make it back to France for some fresh ficelle again soon! Bzzz

  3. 365thingsiloveaboutfrance.com · February 10, 2014

    Oh…I remember the days of being afraid to go to the boulangerie and practicing my sentences and memorizing different types of bread…thank goodness I’m beyond that. My current favorite bread is “Sport”. Do you know it? Un petit pain (whole grain) with walnuts. So delicious…and healthy.

    • MELewis · February 10, 2014

      Not exactly, although sounds similar to my favorite round rye loaf with walnuts….’Sport’ must be a fancy marketing name for you sophisticated Parisians! 😉

  4. Maison Bentley Style · February 12, 2014

    I’m jealous of your boulangeries…I can’t even pretend to compete. But my favourite bread is a sour cherry one..just disappears! xxx

    • MELewis · February 12, 2014

      You Brits sure win points for innovation – never tried a sour cherry loaf. Sounds scrumptious! Bzzz

  5. Britt · February 22, 2014

    Now I’m starving… and wondering why I live in a country that shuns and fears bread that sounds this delicious. Lovely post! Merci!

    • MELewis · February 23, 2014

      Mais de rien 😉 I’m still amazed how the French get away with so much bread without becoming doughy themselves!

  6. cassafrasswrites · February 22, 2014

    My mouth is watering.. Thanks for the lovely descriptions, and the French lesson! Personally, I am partial to San Francisco sourdough

  7. ronfeir · February 22, 2014

    Reblogged this on ronfeir and commented:
    Enjoy this blog with a high quality olive oil and a nice bottle of wine!

    • MELewis · February 23, 2014

      Thanks for reblogging! Santé!

  8. Derek Pietras · February 22, 2014

    Oh man, this post made me hungry. I am such a sucker for freshly baked bread, and yet, there is so few options near where I live. I’ve taken to the local Panera and the the supermarket bakery, which is better than nothing (but not by much).

    You make a compelling argument to hop on the next plane to France. 🙂

    • MELewis · February 23, 2014

      Well if you factor in the cost of the plane ticket, the baguette might seem a bit pricey (but probably worth it if you add in some wine and cheese.) Merci!

  9. Greg Urbano · February 22, 2014

    can’t think of a better excuse to move than fresh french bread!

    • MELewis · February 23, 2014

      You have your priorities straight! Cheers.

  10. Francesca Maria · February 22, 2014

    I know what you’re going through…I am Italian and I have studied French in high school and college (I grew up in the Bronx) and I still can’t put a sentence together in French. Recently I bought a Moulinex bread machine and was surpised to see that it has a program to make baguette. I haven’t tried yet, can’t wait to see if it works.

    • MELewis · February 23, 2014

      I would never even attempt to make my own baguette with so much freshly baked bread just around the corner. Good luck with the Moulinex…I’ll be interested in hearing how it goes!

  11. davidstrachan611 · February 22, 2014

    A great read! Have you done a companion piece on le pain and le fromage?

  12. davidstrachan611 · February 22, 2014

    Of course I meant ‘le vin’!

  13. rly1987 · February 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on Panoramics.

  14. Taylor · February 23, 2014

    I love that you mention how you have to know exactly what you want as you walk in. How do they do it?? Everything always looks amazing and its not even always the same!

    • MELewis · February 23, 2014

      It’s still hard for me to make up my mind even after 20 years, but it’s true that the French always seem to know just what they want. Cheers!

  15. thebufferzoneday · February 23, 2014

    Add to bucket list-Fly to France and sample every type of bread possible. Thanks for the loaf lesson.

  16. MintWebNg · February 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on Mintwebng News and commented:
    Bakeries have always been a place of joy to me, next to everything that is divinely greater, God, Family, Heaven. We tend to forget the magnificent efficacy derived in the satisfaction only a freshly made loaf can give us. I do anything for freshly served le pain.

    • MELewis · February 23, 2014

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for reblogging!

  17. cheergerm · February 23, 2014

    Fab post, evocative and informative. My current fave bread is an organise spelt sourdough from a bakery here in Sydney called Brasserie Bread. Unfortunately it’s my 9 year olds fave as well…we almost have to arm wrestle over the last slice…

    • cheergerm · February 23, 2014

      Ha! That should have said organic, not organise!

      • MELewis · February 23, 2014

        Well, at least the arm wrestling helps burn off the carbs! Glad to hear that you have a worthy French bakery in Sydney…

  18. Cyrus Quick · February 23, 2014

    How terrible! You mean to say there is no supermarket? You still have to rely on the old-fashioned family shop? I recall in Fulford, York, UK, in the 1950s, the baker used to have a fag in his mouth as he served my mother bread. There was brown and white in large or small. That’s it. And forget fancy names. Then the supermarkets gradually moved in and took over.

    SO much better. Good riddance to bad rubbish refs the family biz. One day a lump of the old guy’s ash had fallen on the counter. He brushed it onto the floor with the back of his fingers. I wondered whether any ever fell in the dough. I never tasted any but I was always on the lookout and checking the taste.

    My Mother just liked the crustiness and had this thing about additives in factory baked bread. As for French surliness, I never visited France. I know we English have not been occupied since the last invasion of 1066 so maybe most of us do not resent strangers…

    Of course, the Church is all the occupation anybody needs to live in terror. Good thing we finally threw out Rome 300 years ago. That made USA and progress in democracy and technology possible I guess. No, Germany is the only place on the Continent I ever visited. I flew over France en route to Kenya. Close enough!

  19. Jadey · February 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on The World's Chronicle.

  20. rockspider1968 · February 23, 2014

    I wonder if sarcasm would come in the form of a pretzel?

    • MELewis · February 23, 2014

      Twisted, salty…could be!

  21. NicoLite Великий · February 23, 2014

    I’m more about what goes on the bread, but the right bread for the right cheese and ham is important for a good brunch. Germany has that down, and it ain’t too far away from France

    • MELewis · March 2, 2014

      We’re close to the Swiss border and also enjoy the denser breads and high quality cheeses and smoked meats that you get under the German influence. Enjoy your brunch!

  22. sherlockbay · February 23, 2014

    I went by myself to Paris a few weeks ago and stayed at the ibis hotel near gare de Bercy. Oversleeping by bad planning caused me to miss breakfast at the hotel. Luckily, there was a boulangerie in walking distance. I didn’t buy french bread, but I enjoyed their eclairs and croissants :D. It wasn’t hard ordering them, because my travel to Lille improved my French.

    • MELewis · March 2, 2014

      Great breakfast plan! Many boulangeries now have a café part so you can sit down and enjoy a coffee with all those treats. Mmmm!

  23. krstokely · February 23, 2014

    During my first (and only) visit to Paris, I loved the fact that the Parisians were walking around the city carrying baguettes – not cups of coffee to go. One of my favorite photos that I took on my trip was of a woman leaving a boulangerie with a baguette peeking from the top of her paper grocery bag. My favorite though, would have to be the Parisian pain au chocolate. Sheer perfection. Enjoyed your post!

    • MELewis · March 2, 2014

      ‘Pain choc’ as some call it is also one of my favorites. And it’s true that the take-out coffee trend has never really taken off in France – they like to sit down with a coffee and take their bread home to enjoy. Cheers!

  24. Sandra · February 23, 2014

    Lovely. When in France my husband always likes to walk around with a French Stick under his arm. He says it makes him fit in…..

  25. msshe · February 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on mykentuckyliving and commented:
    Here is a ditty about the French baguette….you know, long skinny French bread. Oh so good! Actually all French bread is good. This chapter of my course’s textbook, Points de Départ, discusses French meals and foods. In preparing my class discussions I have been doing quite a bit of research about French bread and other foods. I thought I would share this with you. When I lived in France I would often walk home with a baguette under my arm…and break off some to eat before arriving. 🙂

    Everyone has their own opinions about bread. Each culture has specific breads. In the south we would probably consider biscuits and cornbread at the top of our list.

    Enjoy and have a great day.
    Sheila

  26. Multifarious meanderings · February 23, 2014

    Congrats on the freshly baked freshly pressed! I love eating “les fougasses” -full of lardons and olive oil. I don’t have any problems at the boulangerie now, except when it comes to croissants. For some reason, every time I ask for two croissants, I get one – however loudly I shout “DEUX”… Oh well, c’est la vie…

    • MELewis · February 23, 2014

      Merci! Maybe you should try asking for ‘trois’ next time – better a croissant too many than one short!

  27. LucyBre · February 23, 2014

    Oh you’ve put me in the mood for bread now 😉 . I wish we had bakeries that made baguettes and pain au chocolats here in Ireland. I do love our wheaten bread though…

    • MELewis · February 23, 2014

      I had to google that to see what it was – sounds lovely. I really love the dense, crusty breads. Cheers!

  28. touchdownohio · February 23, 2014

    we have bakeries in Ohio …. the cover the bread with tomato sauce, cheese, and some kinda funky meat

  29. www.someoneelsesshoesblog.com · February 23, 2014

    yes, you can’t beat a baguette. seeing your pictures has made me hungry!

  30. Mythoughts76 · February 23, 2014

    Why not make your own bread and live anywhere you wish?

  31. karmami · February 23, 2014

    Nice .thank u

  32. Empowered Results · February 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on Food Aficionados and commented:
    What a wonderful post!

  33. PreteMoiParis · February 23, 2014

    Oh how fantastic! I remember those days when deciding on pastries while the line behind me peered on with impatience…. lovely post!

  34. Jean · February 23, 2014

    I actually find the straight forward French plain baguette too plain. But for a complex spread or sandwich maybe that works. I like sourdough baguette. There is a wonderful bakery in Vancouver, Canada that is run by someone with French roots: he makes a lovely saffron baguette!

    But yes, breads of France, etc. have transformed boring Wunderbread landscape in North America.

    • MELewis · March 2, 2014

      Wow, saffron baguette? Would love to try that! That’s what happens when French people emigrate – they seem to get much more creative. I agree about sourdough – much nicer than your basic baguette.

  35. elainelorent · February 24, 2014

    I left Belgium (right next to France) 6 months ago, and really the thing that I miss the most are the bread and the cheese ! 😦

  36. seasonedplate · February 24, 2014

    Bread can make or break a meal – and good bread is out of this world.

  37. ChelseaH · February 24, 2014

    Absolutely nothing compares to fresh baguettes in France! Oh, and the cheese 🙂

  38. vgilldejour · February 24, 2014

    I’m French! And you just made my day! Are you kidding? A WHOLE post on bread! Yes please!

  39. silentdugood · February 24, 2014

    I bet it smells wonderful. It looks tasty

  40. M. Sailors · February 24, 2014

    Reblogged this on Crazy Cooking Diva and commented:
    Read this homage to the baguette and just needed to repost this. As a bread lover myself I felt incredible envy at her bread background! Enjoy

    • MELewis · March 2, 2014

      Merci! Thanks for the reblog.

  41. Xavier · February 24, 2014

    Reblogged this on Xavier Rosee and commented:
    THis is what I miss the most in China.
    Not Cheese, not Wine… We can find those in Carrefour, or at French Butchers (yep, they sell cheese here haha)…

    But a crusty, pas trop cuite baguette…
    The only baguettes I’ve found here are so-so at best 😦

    • MELewis · March 2, 2014

      Carrefour in China? Who’d have thought…;)

  42. krizzie01 · February 24, 2014

    ‘Dépôt de pain’ … haha … Thank you for giving such good insight in the importance of choosing wisely when it comes to the art of buying bread. Since I’m a Swedish transplant unto American soil, I tend to miss the Swedish Rye Bread from time to time. Pas trop cuite … although it barely has any crust at all …

    • MELewis · March 2, 2014

      I love that Swedish rye…so dark and dense, it’s almost like cake!

  43. joeloseiga · February 24, 2014

    Great read…. now i am hungry.. thanks to you!

  44. Shreya · February 24, 2014

    So yummy ! loved the post dear

  45. Mchan · February 24, 2014

    I’m in Brittany now where my boulangerie has ” une boule viking” with lots of cereals
    “Tranché s’ il vous plaît”

  46. BigLizzy · February 24, 2014

    Mel, mon ami! Congrats on being Pressed Freshly, my cute Frenchy. Soooo loved this post and your ample access to fresh bread. I’m jealous, of course, but I love you, so I put up with it. LOL! XOXO

    • MELewis · February 25, 2014

      Merci, Lizzie my dear! I hope you’ll make it over one of these days to sample our glorious bakeries and really set la belle France on her ear!

      • BigLizzy · February 25, 2014

        Hahahahaa! You’ll all know it when I set foot in my true country, my darling Mel. There will be no missing me, mon ami! I’ll be the one weeping with joy and kissing the buildings while I walk around every arrondissement. J’adore!

  47. msadetunji · February 25, 2014

    I’m Nigerian and there was this bakery that made mini baguettes (they were about the size of hotdog buns). We used to have them for lunch everyday at some point in primary school.

  48. Monica DiNatale · February 25, 2014

    French bread needs a whole new category!

  49. Emily · February 26, 2014

    I’m a terrible person; even living in France I hardly buy bread. If I’m having soup or something I’ll buy a baguettine (lonely student with a small stomach!), but normally I buy a filled baguette as I’m out and about. I say this, but the one time I bought a full length baguette I did feel very French.

  50. jmgeisendorfer · February 28, 2014

    My husband and I are currently living in the Former French Concession area of Shanghai. I have eaten so many baguettes since we arrived just about 2 months ago. Many good bakeries here! I haven’t been to Paris (yet) but I would love the chance to compare! Thank you for a great post!

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