I can’t speak for every foreigner, but I can describe the feeling that most Americans have the first time we enter a French boulangerie of any size or reputation.
Followed closely by that feeling of awe is the complete ignorance you feel about what to order. Everyone in line with you seems to be on a mission. The staff are patient, but not so patient for you to simply stare open-jawed indefinitely. Where will I learn what to do and what to say?
Turns out, imitation works as a start.
It was maybe my second day in France as I stood in line and tentatively ordered, “une baguette, SVP.” “Ça sera tout?” is the reply that is repeated, verbatim, by every person who works in any boulangerie in France. I used to automatically answer “oui” but came to realize as years wore on that the French are giving you permission to change your mind.
Perhaps you only came in here to get a baguette or a pastry, but now confronted with the reality of the situation, you might add on another pastry, or another loaf, or perhaps another treat for later, for a friend of course. Sometimes after this second or third choice there will be silence as they watch your eyes, which are in turn looking at choices. Then an internal timer dings in their head and they repeat their default saying, “ça sera tout?” If there are other staff they will already be helping the people behind you in line.
The imitation game picks up tricks rapidly. You hear someone ask for a “demi-baguette” and watch one of the staff deftly slice one of the baguettes in half to what is a perfect size for a single person’s dinner accompaniment. “une demi-baguette, SVP,” I say as if I’ve said that countless times in my life, and hand over exactly half the cost of the regular-priced baguette. Baguettes were even price-controlled until 1986. Much like rice in Asia, baguettes in France are still seen as a basic “right” of sorts and if prices rise they will usually be on other types of bread before hitting the rates for the baguette.
More imitation: I hear a gentleman ask for a baguette “bien cuite” and ask myself “a well-done baguette?” I watch the lady shuffle through the baguettes on the shelf and pick one, holding it for inspection. The gentleman wants a different one. She finds one in the back and there it is: a well-done baguette means a bit more cooked, hence a bit darker on the outside and crunchier to the mouth. You can go the opposite way too, by asking for a “blanche” baguette, though I’d never heard this ordered before I ordered one for a friend who I knew preferred them that way.
More imitation: Someone asks for a “tradition” and the lady reaches for something that looks like a baguette but has a slightly different shape and size. I then order one and inspect and taste for differences. They have pointier ends and are hand-formed and baked on premises. By a 1993 law, a “baguette tradition” can only contain flour, leavening, water, and salt. The “levain” is something like a sourdough starter but that sourdough taste doesn’t come through as strongly as Americans would expect from anything that has “sourdough” attached to it.
How many different ways can the French deliver such a great product, I thought as my imitation game became a knowledge game and I started to share with friends my fascination about how bakeries worked and how I was having to learn as an adult all the things French children know by the age of six.
There’s also the pain au chocolat/chocolatine “controversy,” if it can even be called that. Anglophiles might be familiar with the differences between how Devon and Cornwall take their cream tea. In Cornwall, you put jam on your scone first and follow with a spoonful of cream. In Devon, on the other hand, cream goes on first, then a bit of jam on top. It’s always amusing to watch English people argue about this difference as if there’s something genuinely at stake. So too I’ve been amused to watch “chocolatine/pain au chocolat” square-offs. The last time I witnessed one was near Montparnasse with a fiercely traditional Breton acquaintance, who rolled her eyes at the chocolatine “advocates” and even more so at the peacemaker who proposed “pain au chocolatine” as the compromise. The divide can be seen down south at large chains like Paul which use “pain au chocolat” in areas where around them all the independent shops use “chocolatine.” “It does sound a bit more ‘French,'” I noted to the opinionated Bretonne. “What do you know?” she said in a (mostly friendly) huff.
What is more wonderful is to see the centuries-old tradition of baking and running a bakery at work in the present day. Nothing is wasted. The pastries that weren’t sold yesterday are sold at half price in groups of usually half a dozen. Look for the plastic bags with pastries inside or ask if they are any “viennoiseries à l’ancienne.” Any bread that is not sold and is on the way to going stale is then sliced up and put back into the oven to shrink into “biscotte” which are sold for (at the most) 75 centimes a bag and are a great accompaniment to soup or can be broken up to serve as croutons for soup or salad. I’m certain there’s also a fair amount of trade in breadcrumbs to nearby restaurants that might need them. There is waste that used to go to the poor or to the pigs in the old days, and some of that still goes to them, but with computers and spreadsheets showing historical demand, I think today’s boulangers have the opportunity to make less waste (and more profit) than their ancestors. Whether they do or not can also depend on how seriously they take their craft.
When you’ve had hundreds of baguettes you finally start to know instinctively what the French know from their early childhood: the difference between real bakery bread and what is warmed up from frozen prep. The shocking thing is in Paris quite a lot of baguettes are made from frozen, but that’s because the French people know it’s the lowest denominator of bread and in part are okay with that. Unlike the “tradition” which is regulated by law as to ingredients and prep, baguettes are not and as such are just there at the very base of the bread pyramid, in a way.
This also means you can taste French supermarket bread for what it is: sad, tasteless, industrial lumps of sadness that would have blown your mind had it been served to you when you still lived in America and didn’t know what real bread could be like (that said, I know a lot of places in America are becoming real havens of true baking skills, but the reality in the heartland is still mostly inedible).
Does that mean you should always order a “tradition“? It totally depends on you. When you fall into the rhythms of your neighborhood and your own shopping routine, you will notice that people may skip the bakery next to their house and walk 200-300m to another bakery. Why? Perhaps they have a good relationship with the owner. Perhaps that bakery makes the type of crust they really go for. Or, in my case, they also make kouign-amanns on a regular basis (worth another article in itself!).
There’s even an importance to what time of the day you go to the bakery. While Americans might balk at standing in line just to buy bread (even though they’ll happily sit in a drive-thru line for junk food), a line is indicative of usually the best time to get it before all you are left with is slim pickings. The earlier you go, the better, though there’s a window around 16h00, known as “goûter,” when French kids might get a snack on the way home and fresh bread and pastries come out. When you come late, you might have the “agony” of what happened to me the other night when the gentleman in front of me ordered the last “pavé,” (country white bread that is so called because it’s shaped like a paving stone) which is my personal favorite for my daily bread, and I had to pretend not to be disappointed as I ordered the sole remaining charpentier, but that’s the joke: a “disappointment” in a French bakery means instead of getting my preferred type of bread, I get another amazing type of loaf. A charpentier has a beautiful color with a wonderful crust and is just as enjoyable as my usual pavé.
So, those are the basics. First, start with the imitation game. Listen to those ahead of you in line and order what they order. When you get to the front of the queue everyone is going to be patient with you: don’t feel like you need to be in a rush. Just make it clear that you are studying items rather than just staring off into space with no idea. During this stage you’ve got nothing to lose since you know nothing and tasting is the best way to teach your palette. Then as your imitation game becomes a knowledge game, actively try different items and different bakeries to expose yourself to everything your neighborhood has on offer. Finally, resist routine. All French people fall into this, but should you wish to be a lifelong learner of the absolute gift to civilization that French bread is, you need to keep trying different things and different bakeries. You are going to turn into a bread snob, but what did you expect when you moved to France?
I took the photo in Toulouse in late 2020 when I excitedly ordered a “chocolatine” for the first time in my life. 🙂
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