Monday, March 1, 2010
When I returned to the United States in December 2008 for the first time in almost a year, I was happy to get settled into my old routines and habits, such as playing hockey, eating a burger, and tipping for next to everything. Aside from my girlfriend, there was only one other thing from France that just felt like it was missing from my daily regimen: the bread.
Bread is more than just a filler in a basket placed out on the table. In France, revolutions have begun as a result of bread shortages.
It's still one of the only cheap food items that one can find in this country. No matter where you are in Paris, an average baguette is sold between 80 and 90 centimes, or $1.25 US. Even if you find a baguette more expensive than that, look for another couple minutes and you should find at least one other baker within a one block radius. A boulangerie across the street from our new apartment charges 98 centimes, and so instead I go across the street to another one that charges just 80.
Before the French Revolution, bakers started raising their bread prices to combat the scarcity of materials for bread, and this is considered one of the major reasons why the people revolted and started tearing off the heads of the wealthy. Since then, baguette prices stay relatively constant, and considering its necessity in France, that's probably a good idea if the bakers don't want to face the guillotine (not literally of course).
There are hundreds of bakeries in this city. When I lived in Montmartre, I had 4 boulangeries within a two minute walk of my apartment. It's not like there is a surplus of bakers here either, they actually need this many. Around 6 pm, when a lot of people are heading home from work, the bakeries are packed with people, picking up their baguette or two for dinner that night. By 8:30 pm, most bakers have already run out of baguettes. This also happens every week day around lunch time, and in the mornings on the weekends.
It's not like people can stock up on baguettes for several days- as there are no preservatives in the bread, a baguette is stale within 6 hours, so it has to be eaten fairly quickly. The ingredients in a baguette, by law (seriously) in France, must contain only four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. If it does happen to become stale, it can be put in the toaster or oven in the morning to be served with butter and jelly as breakfast.
If you sit down to dinner in a French restaurant in Paris, bread will be brought out, regardless of what you order. You should always be able to get a refill too, as bread is served in unlimited quantities to customers. During the meal, bread can used to soak up the sauce of whatever is served, and it can also be used in place of a knife and fork to scoop some hard-to-grasp food left on the plate. If you happen to get a cheese course, more bread will be brought out so that you can spread the cheese upon it. Two people could easily split a whole baguette during the course of a meal. Thus, you can pretty much expect bread with your meal wherever you eat in Paris. However, the first time Julie's mother, Evelyne, went to McDonald's, after getting a burger and fries, she went back to ask the guy at the cash register for a basket of bread. Unfortunately, McDonald's hasn't picked up on the French concept of serving bread with everything.
Since I have lived here in Paris, I average at least a baguette a day. I always buy two every time I visit the baker because Julie eats even more bread than I do, so it is fairly common that I have to visit the bakery a couple of times a day. When I returned to the U.S., I went through a withdrawal of sorts. I was able to find enough bread to eat, but it just was not the same. The crust wasn't flaky enough, or the soft middle (la mie) was too firm; I could always find something that was not right. When Julie came to Saint Louis a month later, it was even harder for her. We ran out of bread the first couple of days that she was there. Though she never said anything, there were times at meals where she would reach out to a bread basket that wasn't there. My Mom, who slightly overcompensated, started buying four baguettes a day to keep up with demand.
Julie and I went to a French bakery in Saint Louis, that I had remembered being the closest thing to a good baguette in Saint Louis. We drove 30 minutes to stop by the bakery, and we even said bonjour when we came inside, hoping that someone there would see that she was French, get excited, and give us some free food. Instead, the high school kid at the register ran into the kitchen to get someone, and brought out a lady that appeared to be Russian. Our hopes were dashed, but we loaded up on some good looking pastries and, of course, some baguettes. As soon as we were handed the baguettes, we could immediately tell that these were frozen. They were far too light, which seems to happen when the baguettes are thawed out and rebaked. I wouldn't have noticed this before moving to France, but after spending countless hours in close proximity to real baguettes, it was kind of disappointing to think that when we move back to the United States at some point, it is going to be really difficult to find a good baguette.
Then again, maybe I'll just learn the trade an open up a legit bakery of my own.
If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com