Monday, November 14, 2011

La Baguette (French Icons series)

Of all the things I once took for granted while living in France, finding tasty fresh bread when I stepped outside is what I miss the most. 

I live in the United States now, and I know where to find good bread locally, but getting my hands on a decent loaf involves some serious effort [and driving] on my part. Not to be too critical, but it takes more than a label with an Eiffel Tower -and inflated prices- to make quality bread.

In the kingdom of [French] bread where le bâtard (the bastard, literally,) rubs shoulders with la flûte, and la ficelle (the string) at the boulangeriela baguette, the long, thin French loaf, reigns supreme. It accounts for 80% of all bread consumed in France every year. 27 inches (70cm.) long, and about 2.5 inches (6cm.) in diameter, la baguette weighs 9 oz. (250 g.) and is made of flour, water, salt and leavening. 

Just like le béret, or la marinière, it has come to symbolize France, and the French way of life. Illustration. 

Easy question: What country is Snoopy visiting today?

Trying too hard?
A French soccer fan
Oh, la la! This must be France!
(Susan Eby)

La baguette's origins are unclear, but long loaves of bread were being made in France as early as the 18th century. A fellow blogger did a great job at investigating the famous French loaf's beginnings. It seems the name "baguette" appeared in the 1920s. This French word can refer to a magician's wand, or a conductor's baton. France - and Paris - promptly adopted it. Due to the baguette's short shelf life (it gets stale quickly,) French customers had to purchase a fresh loaf daily. After World War 2, bakeries multiplied and could soon be found at every street corner. 

Movie makers, writers, and tourists took notice and started depicting French people with a baguette in hand. An enduring French stereotype was born.

Robert Doisneau, 1953

In Paris, tourists carry cameras. Locals carry baguettes!
A good French citizen exercises his right to vote... a baguette in hand!
(Robert Pratta, Reuters)
Why do I miss my daily baguette so much? As in entered my favorite boulangerie, it looked and smelled so good, with its golden crispy crust and pale, chewy interior, winking at me, ever so tempting...

La baguette and I made a great team. We would walk home together every evening after work, and as I held it in my hand, warm and fragrant, I would indulge in a bit of nibbling. By the time I unlocked the front door, le quignon (the tip) was gone! At the end of dinner, I would use a small piece to soak up the sauce, even if I knew that saucer son assiette (wiping the plate clean with bread) is a big no-no in proper French homes. 

Late night cravings? My friend was by my side again. While preparing a fresh soft-boiled egg, I would slice thin strips of baguette, les mouillettes, and slowly dunked them in the rich, creamy yolk.

Oeuf à la coque (soft boiled egg) et mouillettes
In the morning, what remained of the loaf would be sliced and toasted, garnished with butter and jam, then dunked in a large bol (bowl) of steaming black coffee. 

 Les tartines du matin (morning toast)
When things got to busy at work and there was no time to take a two-hour lunch, the local café (coffee shop) or boulangerie was happy to prepare my all-time favorite sandwich, le jambon-beurre (ham and butter,) in a baguette, bien sûr. 

My friend was versatile and eager to please: It would delight vegetarian palates dressed as a sandwich-crudités. 

In short, we were inseparable. La baguette knew all my secrets, including a long-time addiction to Nutella. 

French Girl has never met a Nutella jar
 she has not fallen into!
Is this to say all native French baguettes are tasty? Mais non. The price of bread was regulated by the French government until 1978. To cut corners and save money, many boulangers allowed quality to decline in the 1960s (using commercial yeast for example.) It was the time of mass-production as cheaper pain industriel (mass produced bread) was sold all over France. The French were no fools, and consumption dropped. To top it all, they started watching their diets as carbohydrates got a bad rap. Ironically, French bread was exported quite successfully at the time. Japan and other European countries became profitable markets for French bread manufacturers.

La restauration rapide (fast food industry) "à la française" took off in the 1980s thanks to several innovations including the use of frozen bread dough. Who has never purchased a sandwich chez la Brioche Dorée, the fast-growing French fast food chain, owned by the Le Duff group?

As of 2011, la Brioche Dorée is represented in 23 American states!

If the French consume less bread, all-American McDonald's has not received the memo: En route to world domination, the fast-food giant made another culotté (ballsy) gesture in the French market this fall, introducing "le breakfast à la française" in all of the chain's McCafés. To top it all, as always, their products are crafted in France by local producers. We should all brace for the first McDonald's sandwich made out of baguette in 2012. You have been warned. If you are surprised by all this, be aware that France is the second most profitable market in the world for the American company(*). Incroyable! (incredible)

Coffee served in a real cup? Check!
Jam? Butter? Crispy baguette? Check!
Clever "McDo": French macaron or hamburger ?

It seems la baguette and her little friends still have their best days ahead. For one thing, quality improved drastically once the government stopped regulating bread prices after 1978. A new generation of breadmakers emerged, delivering quality products made "à l'ancienne" (following traditional methods.) 

Lionel Poilâne was one of them. He was followed by bakers like Basil Kamir or, more recently, celebrity baker, pastry chef, author and consultant Gontran Cherrier.

Hey Gontran, don't be afraid to quit your day job:
There might be a career for you in movies!

Being a baker is back-breaking work, and hardly a glamorous job. Still, each year, talented artisans toil to create the perfect baguette loaf. In 1994, then Paris mayor Jacques Chirac created the renowned "Concours de la Meilleure Baguette," a challenging competition. In May, the winner goes home with a generous cash prize. Most importantly, he becomes the official supplier of the Elysée Palace, the French president's residence, for a year.

And the winner is...

So, stereotype or genuine French icon? It seems la baguette is both; a celebrated part of France's national culture - recognized instantly by foreigners and idiolized by the French.

That's fine with me. If Gontran Cherrier, the up-and-coming celebrity baker and pastry maker, opens a boutique in my little corner of American suburbia, I will be right there, applying for a job as a professional bread taster. In the meantime, I will look forward to my next trip to France, when I can be reunited with my long lost friend, la baguette.

A bientôt.

Willy Ronis, le petit Parisien, 1956

(*) Recommended reading: Mike Steinberger. How McDonald's Conquered FranceSlate Magazine, June 25, 2009.


  1. well v --another absolutely great one....i love bread with every meal, but agree finding a good loaf is a job in and of itself....the birds have been generously fed in the search of my perfect loaf! finally- a local produce store stated to carry bread (only 2 types) rather large loafs- so what the heck i gave it a try----and now it is the bread of choice....i still get a loaf of rye in case someone needs a regular type of bread for a sandwhich(like my dad- )artisan types of bread "scare" him -so glad my mom made us try stuff as children...oh i digress- i even purchased a cloth baguette bag to transport said purchases from the store. i so L O V E the pictures of the baguttes stuffed with meat or veggies-i am hungry for lunch right now and haven't even had a proper breakfast yet! with all my heart thanks for a wonderful beginning to the day and week!-your faithful reader from philly-the city of brotherly love!

  2. Merci g== "La première, comme d'habitude" ;-) Glad you found a good place for bread in your neck of the woods. A bread cloth bag sounds like a great idea. I am not sure it would stop me from eating "le quignon" on my way home, though ;-) -- V.

  3. Fantastic! Bravo!!
    (I have about 20 seconds to walk to my boulangerie and get my daily baguette... but today it's Monday and it's closed.)


    (I have to post as anonymous, as a few blogs seem not to accept my normal google-profile.)

  4. Ha, que j'aime quand tu fais ça! Oui, la baguette, le truc evident , quotidien, que tu remets dans son histoire, dans son contexte, dans son image internationale.Il faut être loin peut-être pour pouvoir porter un tel regard sur les petites choses qui emplissent notre vie française. Peu de choses me manquent à l'etranger, je m'adapte à peu pres à tout, mais c'est vrai que le pain en general, et la baguette en particulier, c'est qq chose dont j'ai du mal à me passer.
    Un très joli post, encore une fois!

  5. it seems from Doisneau's and Wily Ronis's photos that the baguette is getting shorter. What about Gontran. Very easy on the eye. So thrilled I just have to go to the corner. Carla x

  6. One of my favorite things about visiting France was being able to walk around the corner and find a boulangerie, pick up a tasty, crusty baguette, then walk a little further to a fromagerie, and then a little further to find a patisserie. Voila: perfect picnic lunch!

    You've probably heard about the new baguette "vending machines"?

    Certainly a very American concept...convenience over quality, perhaps? I wouldn't know, I've never tasted one of these baguettes, but I do wonder about them...

    Bonne journee! :)

  7. My mother also missed "la baquette" the most when she lived in America. She gets nervous when she comes visits... but Mexican food helps her forget for a little while.;) Great post. I miss my grandmother's- oeuf à la coque et mouillettes the most!=)

  8. Aaahhhh, le bon Francais et sa baguette!:)

  9. Hi V., lovely post, well balanced... it is not always easy to find a good baguette in France, so many industrial models out there. Glad to see you included a link to Poilane's site, I'm guessing you know you can order bread on the Poilane site, and it arrives very fresh delivered next day in the US by FedEx ? I've sent bread that way to my parents a few times, they love it. (and surpisingly good french cheese can be ordered and delivered in the US on but you know that also, I'm sure)

    Was just at Poilane's shop in the 7th the other day after a trip to the Musée quai Branly. There little apple pies are out of this world. MMmmmm, and their nut bread, was just eating some this evening with a lovely St Félicien cheese from the Ardeche. Heaven.

  10. J’ai bien aimé tes posts sur le béret et la marinière. Aussi, tu as de la chance d’avoir des amis près de chez toi. Ici, je ne connais personne pour ainsi dire - c’est un peu pour ça qu’on voyage. Une bonne baguette bien chaude, ça me donne l’eau à la bouche! Je vais chez Costco ou il vendent des batards chauds. Je les coupe et les met au congélateur, et le matin je décongèle un morceau – que je toaste et avec mes confiture de figue – maison – c’est bon avec un bol de café bien fort!

    Mais je suis un peu triste – je viens de lire sur le blog de mon amie Claude que Robert Lamoureux était mort dernièrement. C’était un bon comédien. Elle a mis un youTube de lui sur son blog (

  11. When my daughter and I came out onto the Italian Boulevard in Paris after taking a flight, I bought her a baguette, and she said "I'm in heaven now."

  12. Well written :) I truly enjoy reading your posts. Once you have traveled to France and had the real baguette, you can't go back! In Vancouver, the worst is the Canadian version of the "baguette" sold at local grocers..white bread shaped like a baguette and the foolish people buy into it. The good news is...there is a wonderful place on Granville Island, the owner, French - makes a great baguette and wonderful pastries, and locally, I found a great European who knows how to make a true baguette. Yum, a favorite at my house daily.

  13. Oh I just had a Paris moment and could actually relive the wonderful smell that greets you as you walk into a boulangerie! Heaven. We use to laugh at the French walking along nibbling the top of their newly purchased baguette until I bought one that was still warm one day and barely made it back to our flat without having a big bite! Oh la la is right.

    And thanks for the Ronis /Doisneau photos. Wonderful

  14. I thoroughly enjoyed your post (so interesting) and the fantastic photos (made me feel hungry!). You are so right - there is nothing quite like a real baguette bought in France from a village boulangerie and a real sandwich au jambon is also my all-time favourite!
    PS Thank you for your comment about the Lake District!

  15. My stomach is seriously growling right now. I am SO HUNGRY! I want a baguette!

    There used to be a little French cafe right by my apartment (it had been there for 100 years) and they had the best baguettes in town. I would buy the ham sandwiches and then pick up a loaf to have with dinner almost every night. But then the cafe burnt down to the ground a few years ago and the owner (grandson of the original founder) decided not to continue the business. The location is now a bar. My heart still aches...

    I loved learning more about this amazing French bread. And I wish our McDonalds were as cool in the US as they are in France!!

  16. Bonjour, faithful readers-- Once again, I am humbled (and tremendously pleased) by all your comments. It seems we established a few things this week:

    1. Everyone should know what a warm, fragrant French baguette tastes like (a perfect excuse to fly to Paris soon for some of you.)
    2. Most of you are passionate about bread and know where to find tasty bread local, but, if not...
    3. The Poilane company will Fedex fresh bread to you every morning from Paris (prepare that credit card!)
    4. "McDo" is a lot cooler and trendier in France than in the US.

    And finally...

    5. I am sad to report that charming Gontrand Cherrier has not contacted me yet. Does anyone know if he reads this blog?

    A bientot, les amis.

  17. Ooh la la... I'm NOW craving a warm baguette!!!

  18. Thanks for the link to our blog post - your write up here is quite thorough! Excellent blog, I will add this to my Google Reader.

    Brett (from Foreign Detours)

  19. Oh, and it just occurred to me, there is a beautiful baguette photo that was done by Elliott Erwitt some years ago, which was in his Paris Exposition last year of his "Personal Best" photos, you can see one copy of it here :

    Elliott Erwitt, imho, is one of the greatest photographers ever, his dog photos are out of this world. Enjoy :-)

  20. Wonderful post... there is no doubt that there is something very special about a favourite boulangerie and waiting in line for the morning's bread... I love how the French know just how they want their bread baked... well done... not so well done... and point out a particular one they want to buy... as if life depended on that choice... Have a happy weekend... xv

  21. Nothing speaks to me more than good bread, the ones I make fresh using a 'biga' or the ones I buy from local good bakeries...

  22. Hahahaha... this half-Italian/half-Swiss girl has also never met a Nutella jar she hasn't fallen into! ;-)

  23. So pleased this icon series is continuing - and yes I have become a daily baguette girl already in France - an enterprising baker in Paris has opened the first baguette "ATM" so you can purchase them 24/7!! Hope this series continues Veronique regards from the Riviera...

  24. Mmm, and what I really love to eat spread on a baguette is rillettes... (off to the kitchen, again !) :-)

  25. My goodness! Where did you find that MacDo photo? Is it really part of an ad campaign?! So amazing.

    What a wonderful post Veronique! I too have never met a jar of Nutella that I didn't love. J'adore votre blog! I love this series that you have going as well.


  26. The baguettes and pain au chocolat are like a drug. Even that I live only a few months in France I miss everytime when I go away.

    The boulangerie is for the French as bar is for us Italians: once you've found your favorite is love for a lifetime.


Bonjour! I love hearing from you, my readers. To quote a fellow blogger, my friend Owen, "Comments are the icing on blogcake... Comments are the UFO in the twilight sky bearing news from other planets... Comments are raspberry vinegar in salad dressing... Comments are the cool balm of after-sun moisturizing lotion... Comments are the moment the band comes back out onstage to play an encore... Comments are the gleam in the eye across the room in a smoky bar... Comments are the rainbow after the rainstorm..." Merci for your comments! French Girl in Seattle