How the French stick changed my life
You 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.
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