If you were to think of one symbol of France, more often than not, it would be a person walking down a street with a long baguette popping out of their tote bag. Baguettes have been around for centuries and are one of the staples of France. No matter what corner of the country you go to, you’re sure to find a baguette in their stores.
The importance of baguette in France
The superstar of French bakeries, the baguette is the bread that can be found in any supermarket or boulangerie. Central to the French way of living, long loaves of bread has been around since the age of Louis XVI. In 1920, a law was passed that restricted baking hours to 4 am to 10 pm, making it increasingly difficult to create enough fresh bread in the morning. And thus, the modern baguette was introduced. It was a practical way to bake a whole lot of dough while giving it a crispy crust.
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In 1993, the French government restricted the ingredients used in a baguette. The law, Le Décret Pain, stated that a true baguette must only contain four ingredients- wheat flour, water, yeast, and salt. The dough or the final baguette cannot be frozen at any stage and must not include preservatives (this means a baguette goes stale after 24 hours).
The baguette is such an integral part of daily life that France had laws until 2014 preventing bakers in Paris from going on their summer vacations at the same time. If a town doesn’t have a bakery, there would be at least a minimum of stores selling baguettes with a sign saying “Dépôt de pain” (meaning bread station).
Although they are baked across the country, a baguette requires specific knowledge and techniques to maintain their freshness and crispness. They are baked throughout the day in small batches, and often the final baguettes vary due to temperature and humidity changes. They have their own special racks to accommodate their shape. The process of learning how to make a baguette is a mix of cooking schools and work experience in a bakery to acquire the right knowledge and tools.
Baguette as an intangible cultural heritage
In November 2022, the French baguette was added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list, deeming it worthy of preservation. This addition to UNESCO’s prominent list takes into consideration the traditional savoir-faire and craftsmanship that goes into making a good baguette. The decision is also based on the recent economic upheavals that threaten the survival of this crusty loaf.
The villages and small towns of France have suffered the impact of recent economic crises and are hollowing out sooner rather than later. This has led to an increase in baguette prices and many small-town boulangeries being shut down. The UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list is an effort to ensure that the baguette doesn’t disappear amidst changing global factors.
What makes a good baguette?
Picking a good baguette is an acquired skill; several elements must be considered before putting one in your tote bag or basket. Testing the quality of a baguette requires all five senses, and with practice and curious inspection, it becomes second nature. Here are some things to look out for:
- Outer crust and shape: A good baguette must have an oblong shape, usually with pointy ends to show handmade craftsmanship. The crust should be thin and crispy enough to crackle slightly when pressed between the fingers. The varying golden-yellow and brownish hues are a good indication of caramelization.
- The inside color: When cut open, a baguette should never be white in color. When made with natural ingredients and without extra additives or preservatives, a baguette should have a creamy color, maybe pale yellow with flakes.
- Inner texture: The more holes you see inside a baguette, the higher the quality. The irregular air pockets are formed by the fermentation bubbles. If a baguette has a white crumb and tiny but regular holes, it is a sign of bleaching agents and fast fermentation.
- Taste and smell: A baguette from the boulangerie is usually made with yeast and will have a sweeter taste. There are several sourdough varieties of baguettes which slightly sour due to their acetic fermentation. A good baguette has several layers of aromas, just like a good wine. It can range from smoky to caramelized and hazelnutty.
- Overall weight: When you hold a good baguette in your hand, it will feel denser. A lighter baguette is usually an indication of it being machine-made with extra additives.
Types of baguettes
I always thought it would be easy to order a baguette in a boulangerie. All you have to do is say, “Une baguette, s’il vous plait”, pay one euro, and come home with fresh, crispy bread. It was only when I entered a bakery did I realize the several different types available. The French love their baguettes, and that love is visible when you enter a bakery in the morning and see shelves and shelves lined with baguettes, each different than the other.
- La baguette classique: The regular Parisian baguette that everyone has had before. It is found in all bakeries and supermarkets and pairs well with almost anything.
- La baguette tradition Française: The traditional baguette may be less easily recognized but it is the preferred one amongst the French. It has no added chemicals and only six natural additives are allowed in its dough – gluten, bean flour, soya flour, fungal amylase, and deactivated yeast, along with wheat, water, and salt.
- Demi baguette: The demi-baguette is usually half the size of a regular one but with the same ingredients and taste. It is also a good fit for sandwiches or lighter snacks.
- Le pain de campagne: Similar to a sourdough starter, this bread has a chewy crust.
- Le pain au levain: This is a sourdough bread made with wheat or rye flour. It has a slightly acidic flavor to it and can have other ingredients, like honey, in it.
- Le pain de seigle: Also known as rye bread, it is darker and denser than wheat flour bread. It is also higher in fiber with a strong flavor.
- Les pains spéciaux: These are loaves of bread that have several other ingredients along with the regular ones, like poppy seeds, oats, and sesame seeds. Sometimes, they’ll even have some nuts or fruits in them.
The baguette is an essential slice of French life. Slices of baguette are part of nearly every meal in France. A typical French breakfast will have a croissant or baguette with butter and jam. At lunch, whether it's a salad or jambon-beurre sandwich, it's there. And dinner as well. Even leftover baguette is not wasted and is the perfect addition to French onion soup.
Looking for a tour in Paris where you can learn more about baguettes? Try: Paris French Bakery Behind the Scenes Experience. Or you can learn to make baguettes in the Bread Baking Class at La Cuisine Paris.
How about you? Are you a fan of the baguette? Do you go for the classique or do you prefer another variety? Do tell!
You can find a list of excellent bakers and boulangeries in every arrondissement in my individual arrondissement guides below:
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