If you take a stroll in Paris at around six in the evening when the locals are on their way home from work, you’ll soon spot queues forming at neighbourhood boulangeries: everybody is snapping up a warm baguette to enjoy with their evening meal. Look around you and suddenly it will seem that just about everybody has one of the golden loaves tucked under their arm—and virtually nobody can resist breaking off a little hunk to nibble on the way home.
Fresh bread everyday is a French ritual, and for the hard-working bakers, this dinner-time rush is the end of a long day. They typically fire up their ovens long before dawn and their first fresh loaves are ready as early as 7 or 8 o’clock.
Like many popular foodstuffs, there is little agreement about what precisely constitutes a baguette. Even basic criteria like the length, weight and colour can vary from one bakery to the next. But then again, the closely-guarded secrets around the best boulangerie in every neighbourhood just add to the fun.
The Great French Baguette
That said, most people would agree with Patricia Wells’ romantic description of all that’s great about French bread, the :
‘great, slender French baguette, with its crackling crisp, golden exterior, its elastic and creamy interior, its flavor of fresh-milled wheat, the bread that’s carried naked through the narrow streets of France from daylight until dusk.’
But for those who like things a little more technical, then there are strict rules about the type of flour, the amount of yeast and the additives that are allowed by law. These strict criteria only apply to what’s known as the baguette de tradition, which typically costs 10 to 15 centimes more than an ordinary baguette and is usually always a worthwhile investment.
Despite the rules, though, the amount of variety is almost endless. Parisians guard their neighbourhood favourites so fiercely that the city authorities organise an annual competition to find the best baguette in town. The prize money isn’t much—but the winner gets the official contract to supply bread to the presidential palace for the following year, which is no bad deal.