Last spring my wife, Morgen, and I had the great privilege of spending a month in Europe. Our goal for that trip, unlike ordinary vacations, was not primarily to see lots of museums and tourist attractions; instead, we wanted to live like locals and see what ordinary daily life would be like in another part of the world. We rented an apartment in Paris so we could shop for fresh foods and cook our own meals rather than eating out all the time. What I was looking forward to most eagerly about this arrangement was the ready availability of fresh baguettes every day, direct from the bakery.
Your Daily Bread
In France, going to your local bakery to buy fresh bread every morning is as normal as putting your socks on before your shoes. How else would it be done? And yet this simple ritual is utterly foreign to most North Americans. Here, we expect our bread to be rectangular, pre-sliced, and treated with preservatives so that it will stay “fresh” (i.e., mold-free) for two weeks. We perceive this as a benefit, a convenience. After all, bread is not usually eaten by itself; the point of bread is to provide a vehicle for butter and jelly or to keep your ham and cheese off your fingers. It’s only proper that it be as bland and easy to use as the individually wrapped slices of the stuff we generously refer to as “cheese.” Not so in France, where people take bread very seriously, with high expectations of quality. Baguettes, the quintessential French bread, are by their very nature best when fresh out of the oven—or at least consumed within a few hours of baking. Within 24 hours, most baguettes are too hard and dry to eat. But this isn’t a problem that calls for a technological solution (or a loosening of standards); it’s just The Way Things Are. And it’s worth it, because a fresh French baguette is a truly glorious food.
I have eaten many baguettes in my day, from countless bakeries and supermarkets. Amazingly enough, for such a simple food, very few bakers get it right. By “right,” I’m referring to the crucial combination of inside and outside texture. Contrary to what your local grocer may want you to believe, it is not sufficient that bread be long and skinny to qualify as a baguette. The inside of a baguette should be moist yet airy (with plenty of holes) and moderately chewy. But the crust is the most important part. It has to be, well, crusty. That is to say, firm enough that when you break the baguette in half, it makes noise, yet soft enough that it doesn’t break apart completely—you’re not looking for a giant breadstick. The crust of a fresh, properly made baguette is soft enough to chew easily without making a lot of crumbs, and hard enough that if you hold the bread horizontally by one end it won’t flop over.
The Stuff of Legend
It was with these exacting criteria that I searched the bakeries of Paris for baguettes. I found some real winners and also, sadly, a few serious losers. But my most memorable baguette experience was at a bakery called La Flûte Gana. The word flûte is another term for baguette, and Gana comes from Ganachaud, the family name of the owners. Isabelle and Valerie Ganachaud took over the business from their father Bernard, a legend by the time he retired in the late 1980s. We had heard about this bakery from an article written by Naomi Barry, a contributor to Gourmet magazine. She said they made the best bread in all of France, so we had to check it out.
There was a long line, even in the middle of the day: always a good sign. We waited patiently, deciding we’d have to succumb to a pain au chocolat in addition to the baguette. We bought two of the eponymous Flûtes Gana, thinking we’d eat one while we walked and save the other for supper. Standing on the corner across from the bakery, we broke into the first baguette, which made the mandatory “crunch” sound. We started eating, a process that was accompanied by a great deal of moaning and sighing. It was such a perfectly delicious bread that to have added butter or cheese would have been an insult. Within minutes it was gone, so we immediately returned to buy another. The staff did not seem surprised to see us again; I’m guessing this sort of thing happens pretty often.
That was a truly magical day. I was reminded of that experience recently when I saw, to my horror, a popular national brand of bread on the shelf packaged with the crust removed, presumably so your kids will eat it. What a sad thing: if bread is made properly and eaten promptly, the crust is the best part. I can’t even imagine a baguette without a crust. That would be like, I don’t know…maybe an M&M without the candy coating. Sort of missing the point. —Joe Kissell
You can read Naomi Barry’s essay “A Saga of Bread” in Paris: The Collected Traveler: An Inspired Anthology & Travel Resource, compiled by Barrie Kerper (pp. 266-276). Interested in learning to make your own baguettes? Try Knead: Expert Breads, Baguettes, Pretzels, Brioche, Pastries, Pizza, Pastas, Pies by Carol Tennant.
The popular usage of the term “upper crust” comes from the days when bread was baked in stone ovens by the household servants of well-to-do families. In the absence of wire racks to keep the bread from touching the hot surface, the bottom crust of each loaf would usually burn. So it was cut off (and sometimes eaten by the kitchen staff), while the nicely browned upper crust was presented to the family. Because it took some wealth (and a certain amount of snootiness) to hire people to bake bread and cut off the burnt parts, “upper crust” came to be associated with those who occupy the upper echelons of society. As for paddles—what do you think they call those long, flat things used to remove baked goods from ovens? You guessed it.