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 thoughts on “How the French stick changed my life

  1. 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:)

  2. 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!)

    1. 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. 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.

    1. 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. 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. 🙂

  5. 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.

    1. 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!

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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…

  9. 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!

    1. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

    1. ‘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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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…

  14. 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…

  15. 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.

    1. 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.

  16. 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 😦

  17. ‘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 …

  18. 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

      1. 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!

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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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