Excuse the pun. Along with the Tour Eiffel, the 2CV and the beret, the baguette is one of France’s most recognisable national symbols. Around six billion of these iconic sticks of bread are baked every year. Now UNESCO has given it a place on its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. This accolade recognises the artisanal savoir-faire that goes into making it, and its place in French society.
La baguette is reputedly French people’s favourite bread. I’ll admit here that I prefer other sorts of bread. Although I like the crusty end bit (le talon), I find the rest rather chewy and the taste a tad boring. Moreover, it’s stale by the following day. The idea is that you eat it all in one day, but we never manage that. However, this lengthy loaf has its devotees.
Responding to UNESCO’s announcement last week, President Macron even Tweeted “250 grammes de magie et de perfection dans nos quotidiens. Un art de vivre à la française.” (250 grammes of magic and perfection in our daily lives. The art of living, French style.)
What makes a baguette worthy of the title baguette de tradition? Since this is France, its creation is strictly regulated. No additives may be used. The ingredients are simply flour, water, yeast and salt.
A baguette is usually around 5-6 cm wide and 65 cm long, although you can find longer ones. It normally weighs around 250 gm, but this isn’t regulated. Neither is the price of a baguette, and it hasn’t been for more than 30 years, despite a widespread belief to the contrary. Boulangers are free to charge what they like, but, recognising the competition around it, most currently price their baguette at around 95 centimes.
Artisanal bakers fiercely defend their expertise. Baguettes are surprisingly difficult to make well, it appears. You need a warm, damp environment (but not too much), lengthy kneading and proving of the dough and the right sort of oven. Plus the intangible ingredient: know-how.
Baguettes made using factory processes are disparagingly called “pain industriel”. These are sold in shops that are dépôts de pain, i.e. usually where they haven’t been made, and not in boulangeries artisanales.
The finished product should be golden and crusty on the outside and soft inside. Unfortunately, one of our local bakers had a habit of burning the bread, so instead of being golden, the baguettes were mahogany brown verging on black. He made good chocolatines, though (pains au chocolat are called chocolatines in the South West), which he didn’t incinerate.
You might think that this icon of French cuisine would have been around for centuries. It’s true that long, flat breads were made from the 17th century, and stick-like breads from the 18th. But the baguette rose to prominence only during the 20th century. Originally, it was regarded as a luxury item. The working classes ate a more rustic kind of bread, which kept better under its solid crust.
The round, rustic loaf resisted longer in the countryside. In fact, some boulangeries still specialise in making it, including one in a nearby village, which bakes the bread in a wood-fired oven. Until the 20th century, many rural families made their own bread once every 10 days or so and baked it in the communal four à pain. Few of these are in use today, or only as curiosities.
Another local bakery makes very good speciality breads: wholemeal pain aux céréales, walnut bread (aux noix) and fig bread (aux figues). With Christmas approaching, these will be popular. Especially with me.
Maigret’s favourite sandwich
If you’ve read any of the Commissaire Maigret books, you’ll know that sandwiches often feature. He orders them up from the Brasserie Dauphine along with beer and coffee to sustain long interrogations.
These aren’t just ordinary sandwiches: they are jambon-beurre – half-baguettes split lengthways, spread with butter and filled with ham. I find them rather dry, but these icons in their own right remain popular, despite losing out to hamburgers and other fast food in recent years.
The longest baguette ever made? The one that reached 122 metres long, made by a Franco-Italian team in Milan in 2015. It took seven hours to prepare and bake it, using a moving oven that cooked a section at a time. What do you do with such a massive loaf? Cut it up and eat it, of course.
Do you eat baguettes when in France? Or do you prefer some other kind of bread?
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