Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Give us this day

No series of reflections on life in France would be complete without exploring the gastronomical Sainte Trinité: bread, cheese and wine. All are near and dear to my heart, as attested to by the fact that I even devoted several years of my life to working with one of them. But that is a tale for another day. My next few posts will cover these three delights one by one. And while each is a topic that could easily transform itself into an entire book, the nature of the blog format requires that I be (relatively) succinct, which is not necessarily a bad thing considering the literary realm of edible Paris isn’t exactly what one might call unexplored. But food in the French capital sure is fun to write about, so here we go.

Bread: the staff of life. What would France be without its legendary loaves? There are some 35,000 boulangeries in France, over 1,200 of which are in Paris. Over the past 10 years, I’ve frequented all manner of these fine establishments and sampled countless examples of their creations. Some have been delicious; some have been perfectly mediocre; some have been flat-out bad. Some have been surprisingly cheap; some have been surprisingly expensive. Some have been over-rated and some under-rated, but few have ever left me indifferent.

Having had the privilege of growing up with the soul-nourishing scent of homemade bread often wafting through the house, I have an innate appreciation for the real deal. Chewy on the inside, crusty on the outside, aromatic and still warm from the oven.... Is there any food more wholesome, more comforting? You can certainly get that kind in Paris. You can also get the opposite, and more often than should be the case.

Appropriately enough, this point is best illustrated by the baguette, undoubtedly the quintessential French bread. Baguettes come in white, sourdough, whole wheat, pumpernickel, 6-grain, poppy seed or even more imaginative variations. They can range anywhere from golden, fragrant, lovingly baked and packed full of chewy goodness to tasteless, odorless, industrial impostors containing nothing but cottony fluff. There are two ways to distinguish a real, hand-made baguette from an inferior, mass-made one: either by its weight (a real baguette should have some sturdiness to it, otherwise it’s all crust) or by a close examination of its underside (if a criss-cross pattern resembling dental gauze has been baked into what should be perfectly smooth crust, then that poor baguette is about as authentic as a 50-buck Rolex and would best be left alone or fed to the pigeons, who have absolutely no qualms about swallowing such things).

Incidentally, this rule also provides a key to differentiating good French restaurants from poor ones; the sign of an establishment of quality lies in the contents of its breadbaskets. Restaurants worth frequenting all serve superior bread, period. I have never been to a good French restaurant that serves mediocre bread, just as I have never been to a mediocre one that serves decent bread. Restaurateurs who really care about what they do will go to the trouble of ensuring that their bread (generally baguette) is purchased from a good bakery, even if it means walking an extra 50 meters. C’est normal.

As a true lover of real French bread, I have always been shocked—and to a certain extent offended—by those willing to turn a blind eye to the quality of the baguette they buy on their way home. With so many boulangeries to choose from, what exactly is their excuse? It can neither be time, nor scarcity. Nor can it be price; a mere 50 cents separates the most expensive baguette from the least expensive one. What, then? Gustatory indifference? Can it be?

At one point, a friend of mine and I jokingly created the two-person “Baguette Brigade,” dedicated to promoting responsible baguette consumption and fighting inferior bread on a daily basis. When one of us would spot an unsuspecting consumer strolling blithely along holding an obviously industrial baguette (e.g. a baguette folded in half, carried under the arm as one would a newspaper—gasp!), she would immediately take action (primarily in the form of pointing and laughing). Good times.

In closing, take my advice: when in Paris, put all carb counting on hold and enjoy the bread! It’s real, it’s wholesome, and it’s fabulous. Only do your taste buds a favor and buy the real stuff. Avoid any and all depressing, flimsy, unsatisfying, industrial baguettes, for which there is absolutely NO excuse! If you need a bakery recommendation, email me and let me help. You don’t want to leave Paris with bad bread memories, and you really don’t want to risk a run-in with the Baguette Brigade.


  1. OK how's this? Did I score a victory over technology or what? Loved your comments about stinky cheeeeze. French cheese is definitely better, but the smell inside the fridge has gotta go!
    I love you,

  2. Ok, did the bread article . . . Ma's is the best as you know;however, I do believe the frenchies are capable of good eats. The bread is good, but I do not recall these great bread baskets with our French eats! Just give me some wholesome peanut butter and all will be well.
    Love you,

  3. Love your blog. I wish I had some Camembert here right now, no matter how it smells. Love you, Mom