I expected to find baguettes in every bakery, of course.
What I didn’t know though, was that Parisians have a cult-like love for la baguette. It’s not simple bread we’re talking about but a symbol of identity and belonging.
In Paris there are also more bakeries than you would think sustainable: within 200 meters from our apartment there are eight bakeries, not counting the supermarkets that also sell bread.
In spite of this, our French neighbours will solemnly queue outside their favourite bakery, endorsing with their presence what they believe to be the best bread. They could simply walk across the street and buy another, apparently identical, baguette but instead they choose to wait and stand in a queue that stretches outside the shop.
After a few taste tests you do realise that some baguettes are indeed much better than others and that your neighbours are not all insane. So, you end up joining the queue.
The two main types of baguettes are the normale and the tradition (one local baker, who must be a creative type, also has a popular multigrain version). Those in the know prefer the tradition, which has to be additive-free and can contain only four ingredients – wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. The baguettes de tradition must be mixed, kneaded, leavened and baked on premises, without ever being frozen.
I personally prefer a good normale, if nothing else because it doesn’t have a crust that hurts your palate when you eat it. (“Mum, the bread hurts!” said last Saturday my eight-year-old while eating a tradition.)
You can ask for a baguette bien cuite (read: almost carbonized) or pas trop cuite. Again, the connoisseurs will tell you that the well-cooked one is the way to go but I’m not used to it, so I always ask for the pale version.
The ultimate example of the Parisian cult for the baguette is the annual competition Grand Prix de la baguette de tradition de la Ville de Paris (best traditional baguette in Paris). Some of the city’s best bakers compete for the first prize, which brings not only prestige and 4000 euros to the winner, but also the chance to supply the bread to the presidential palace for the year.
Observing people’s bread-shopping behaviour is not only a great clue on what to buy and how to buy it, but it also gives you some insight on how people think and what’s important to them.