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As Parisian as French Baguette

by Stephanie Curtis

"I don't think there is a more fundamentally French metaphor:
the baguette symbolizes France."
--Steven Kaplan, 1700-1775, author of
The Bakers of Paris and The Bread Question

The slim, two-foot long baguette and its heftier cousin, pain parisian, are as much a part of Parisian identity as the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower. In France, bread is more than a neutral vehicle to spread with butter and jam or to accompany one of this country's more than 365 types of cheese.

French peasants still trace the sign of the cross on the bottom of their country loaf before cutting into it. Most basic of foodstuffs, sacred element of the eucharist, bread has religious connotations, but also political signifigance in France. What history student could forget Marie Antoinette's famous phrase, "let them eat cake." Her insouciant response to the plight of French peasants deprived of their daily bread was one of the sparks that ignited the French revolution.

Despite all this, French bread has lost considerable ground over the past century, both in terms of consumption and in quality. In 1900, the daily quota of bread for every Frenchman hovered around 900 grams (about 2 lbs.) Today the average Parisian consumes a mere 160 grams (about 5 1/2 ozs.) per day. It's a feeble figure, even in comparison to some of France's neighbors. In Germany the current daily per capita bread consumption is around 200 grams and in Ireland, about 185 grams.

The dip in consumption is in large part due to changes in diet and lifestyle over the past century. A distressing decline in quality has been blamed on the industrialization of breadmaking. Since the 1950's, the time-honored methods and tools for making French bread have been, in many cases, supplanted by new equipment, techniques and ingredients designed to make more bread faster and more profitably. The result is bread that looks, tastes and feels much like cotton.

But luckily for lovers of real old-fashioned French bread, the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward more traditional methods. Professionals such as Lionel Poilane, France's famous baker, have devised methods of reconciling quantity and quality. To boost this trend, the French government recently introduced legislation designed to prevent any bakery from calling itself a "boulangerie" if it does not make, knead and cook entirely from scratch on the premises According to one government official's estimate, between 3,000-5,000 shops in France will be forced to remove their "boulangerie" signs in the coming years.

In the meantime, here are some tips on how to judge a good, traditionally made French baguette, as well as a list of authentic Parisian "boulangeries" where you're sure to find a good loaf -- whether it's a baguette or another of the country's rich variety of traditional breads.

What to Look for in a Baguette

The first sign of quality is a hard crust of a rich, dark caramel color. A flimsy crust, a pale, straw yellow color and an underside marked by tiny dots all indicate that the bread has been cooked in an industrial oven often from frozen dough.

The inside (or "mie" in French) of a good baguette should be a creamy color with large irregular air holes. The industrial loaf, on the other hand, will be cotton white, with tiny, regular air holes.

The texture of a good baguette should be moist and slightly chewy with a full, almost nutty flavor. The industrial version is cottony, tasteless and dry.

Where to Find the Best Bread in Paris

8 rue du Cherche Midi (6th)
49 Blvd. de Grenelle

Lionel Poilane is known by bread lovers not only in Paris, but throughout the world. His round, hefty country-style bread -- also dubbed a "miche" or "la boule" -- is air-freighted daily to Tokyo, New York and other world capital cities. Don't look for the Parisian baguette here, Lionel doesn't make one. He does make excellent raisin bread and a wonderful walnut bread, as well as luscious little apple tarts.

Jean-Luc Poujauran
20 rue Jean-Nicot (7th)

Like Lionel Poilane, Jean-Luc Poujauran is a celebrity in Parisian bread circles. His pretty, turn-of-the-century bakery in the chic 7th arrondissment is known for excellent country bread, petits pains aux noix (walnut rolls) and fougasse aux olives (olive bread). There is also a limited but appetizing selection of regional cakes such as gateaux basques and individual, caramel colored canneles.

Rene Saint-Ouen
11 Blvd. Haussmann (8th)

In February of 1997 Rene Saint-Ouen's excellent baguette won "The Best Baguette of the Year" award, a prize given annually by the city hall of Paris. His crusty loaf is also the "presidential baguette" as it is served on the tables of French president Jacques Chirac at the Elysee Palace, France's equivalent of the White House.

L'Autre Boulange
43 rue de Montreuil (11th)

In addition to a "bio" country bread made with stone-ground flour, natural sourdough "levain" and Volvic mineral water, Michel Cousins makes noteworthy herb breads, tomato bread and nearly two dozen other original varieties of specialty breads. His "menu" changes with the seasons.

Le Moulin de la Vierge
105 rue Vercingetorix (14th)
82 rue Daguerre (14th)
166 Avenue Suffren (15th)

Three charming bakeries, each with authentic, carefully preserved turn-of-the-century decor, make up the mini-chain of owner Basil Kamir, one of Paris' most well-known and passionate bread professionals. Each bakery produces its own excellent breads as well as traditional pastries. The olive and anchovy fougasse, a provenćal-style flatbread, is particularly good.

A la Flute Gana
226 rue des Pyrenees (20th)

Isabelle and Valerie Ganachaud, enterprising daughters of the baker who invented and trademarked a baguette called "la flute gana," continue the family tradition in this pretty, lively bakery.

150-154 rue de Menilmontant (20th)

This rustic bakery off the beaten tourist track in Paris' 20th arrondissment hasn't changed much since it was purchased seven years ago by the talented Jean Jeudon. It remains a bread-lover's favorite, particularly for its delicious country bread.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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