It's amazing how a seemingly simple item such as a loaf of bread is such a focal point of the French kitchen.
Back in England, I could probably have gone a week without buying a loaf of bread, whereas here in France, I get withdrawal symptoms when my favourite boulangerie is closed for the day!
This week was worst than most because I was out all day on Monday with no chance to buy a baguette which meant that when it was closed on Tuesday for its weekly day-off, I'd spent two days bread-deprived!
Making baguettes is strictly regulated by French law, but there is still a lot of variety between different boulangeries. A baguette can be up to a metre long, but the average length is apparently around 65cm.
There is also a highly-contested competition each year in Paris for the best baguette, called Grand Prix de la Baguette de Tradition Française de la Ville de Paris. The prize is that you get to supply the President of France with his bread for a whole year! This year it was won, a little bit contraversially, by a Senegalese-born baker called Djibril Bodian who runs Le Grenier à Pain Abbesses, 38 rue des Abbesses, 75018.
Here is some useful vocabulary for your trip to the bakery:
Firstly you need to locate said establishment. The French word for 'baker' is 'boulanger' and 'bakery' is 'boulangerie.' If you find anything which promises 'patisserie' as well, you know you're in for a treat!
Once you're in the shop, you'll probably be faced with a huge choice, but the baguette is by far and away the most popular decision.
- Une baguette, s'il vous plait.
- Une demi-baguette, s'il vous plait.
or if you want to try a baguette made according to the traditional method (which means that the baguette must be mixed, kneaded, leavened and baked on site, without being frozen, and with strictly four ingredients - wheat flour, water, salt and yeast - and no additives which are sometimes found in the 'normal' baguette) you can order:
- Une tradition, s'il vous plait.
You're then likely to be asked:
- Vous desirez autre chose?
To which you probably reluctantly have to respond:
- Non, merci.
But now, once you've successfully exchanged the correct coins and come away grinning from ear to ear, clutching your purchase, you enter into the domain of French 'bread etiquette.'
Firstly, if you're an early riser and you bought your baguette for breakfast or you have yesterday's leftovers, the most common breakfast is a 'tartine' ('toast.') The baguette is cut lengthways and generally toasted, although that's not necessary if the bread is still warm from the boulanger's oven. What goes on top of your warm baguette is down to personal preference. My favourites are either butter and honey or nutella, especially if it's the weekend, but I wouldn't say no to butter and jam either and I believe that's one of the most popular.
So you're probably following along this far, but starting to think 'ok, what's so special about all this...' well, here it is, once you've lovingly made your tartine, it's a typical French custom to dunk your jammy-buttery-bread into your bowl (yes, not a mug) of milky coffee or hot chocolate!! What do you think about that?
Now moving on to lunch or dinner, it's a whole new ball-game.
1. the baguette should be cut or torn into slices and served in a basket or bowl to be placed in the middle of the table
2. the bread is not meant as a starter in its own right nor is it to be spread with butter
3. you should not use your knife to cut into your slice of bread, instead tear into it with your fingers and tear off bite-sized pieces
4. do not put the bread down on the plate, but on the table just to the side
5. you can, and in fact you're encouraged to, here in France, use a bite-sized piece of bread to mop up any left over sauce or juices on your plate
N.B. It is perfectly acceptable to have already eaten half of your baguette by the time you get back to your flat. This is even more understandable if the bread was still warm from the oven when you bought it. This is the underlying reason why you should frequent the boulangerie closest to where you live - to give your baguette every chance of reaching the table!