What a Pain! The Rise and Rise of the Baguette

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.)

Traditional baguette

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.

‘Look – bread on a Monday!’

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.

20th-century apogee

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.

Bread oven at Lassalle, near Caylus
Bread oven in Flouquet, Espinas

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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17 comments

  1. As we live in the l’ancienne boulangerie complete with the bread oven I should be turning baguettes out daily! But two things preclude this: firstly I don’t do early mornings and secondly the said oven has not been used for over 60 years and and sadly it is beyond our budget to do the necessary restorations to the chimney to get it into working order. So rather unromantically I do resort to the modern invention of the bread machine from time to time but that can’t run to baguettes! Interesting to discover that there is no prescribed weight, what about flutes? Thank you again for another interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How lovely to live in l’ancienne boulangerie! I can fully understand both reasons for not producing daily baguettes. I don’t have a bread machine, but friends are very satisfied with theirs.

      That’s an interesting question about flûtes. I’ve done a quick bit of research, and as far as I can see, the size, weight etc. aren’t regulated. This is borne out by my own experience. Where we live, a flûte is about the same length as a baguette but fatter. However, on one of our trips to Cantal, I asked for a flûte in the boulangerie of the village where we were staying and was offered what looked more like a piccolo! Much smaller and thinner than I expected. In fact, it was what we would call une ficelle here. So there are obviously considerable regional variations. Vive la différence !

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  2. The baguette is a delicious meal I bought Baguettes on Sunday morning I will continue to buy Baguettes every Sunday morning to put on my table as a blessing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My favourite was also the ‘quignon’ (pointy end piece) which my late mother-in-law preferred too, so I had to fight for it! Now we almost never have baguette as the Swiss version is largely inferior. I still enjoy it from time to time when we return to France for visits but I must say I love a nice dark loaf like rye.

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    • Oh, is it ‘le quignon’ rather than ‘le talon’? Or can you use both? I’ve always used ‘quignon’ in the sense of leftover bit of bread or a stale slice, but perhaps I’ve been wrong all along! Like you, I prefer dark bread, although in the past white bread was held to be superior.

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      • I’ve never heard anyone call it the ‘talon’. Perhaps it’s correct but so much of French (and English) is in the usage, isn’t it? All I know is that in my family it was always called the ‘quignon’. 🤷‍♀️

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        • Thanks. I’ll have to look into this further, since I’m sure I’ve heard it called le talon. You’re right about usage, which often varies from place to place.

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  4. There is of course the trick of getting another day’s eating out of a baguette by sprinkling it with water and reheating, though not as good as a still-warm, freshly-baked one 😄

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  5. French baguette is so much more munchy than Italian equivalent… which is like a hammer from the word go, the only exception being Pugliese bread which is delicious.
    However, Italian coffee beats the French 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t recall the bread in Italy on the occasions we’ve been there. Perhaps we didn’t get much. I might be wrong, but I would guess the Italians eat less bread than the French, but that could be a misconception. I remember the Italian coffee being very good.

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  6. Love a baguette. I fell in love with France on a school trip when I ate lengths of baguette with unsalted butter and apricot jam for breakfast. Still do but not too often or the scales groan. We had a young baker in our village who built a ‘four au pain’ when he built his house. He cooked the traditional ‘tourte’ but not baguettes, wrong type of oven. He stopped last year and I miss his fig bread at Christmas. Happily, another chap in a hamlet within the commune started baking bread in his restored bread oven. We always buy his ‘pain aux grains’ and I’m hoping he may bake fig bread for Christmas.
    As baguette goes hard enough to bang in nails by the next day, I split the left over length and spread butter with garlic crushed into it. Then wrap in tin foil and put in the freezer. That way I can whip it out and defrost/reheat in a hot oven. Waste not, want not.. and forget those pesky scales! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • I do like unsalted butter. That was quite a revelation when I first came to France. I prefer wholemeal bread to white bread these days. The tourte is still popular around here, but you risk your teeth on the crust! I’m also hoping for fig bread for Christmas.

      It’s a good idea to make the stale baguette into garlic bread and freeze it. We don’t often have baguette, but when we do, I’ll do that. Thanks for the tip.

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