In France, bread is a daily staple. Everyday mothers send the kids to the local boulangerie to pick up a baguette. (Sometimes one for breakfast, one for snack/dinner!)
But let's start this French bread guide off with a pop quiz.
Which baguette is better?
If you guessed the one on the right, you were correct. If you guessed the other one, it's okay, we still love you.
How do you know if it's good bread or not?
Good bread is never uniform. See how the bread on the left is perfectly tapered, and has no awkward lumps? That's a bad sign.
Now flip the bread over. Does the bread have little dots on the bottom? Bad sign. That means it was mass-produced in an industrial oven.
Start eating the bread. Can you gut the bread easily and pull out the white fluff, leaving only the crust? Bad sign. Good bread should be densely packed.
If it's good bread, it will smell yeasty and soul-warming. If it's bad bread, there won't be much aroma and the bread will get stuck to the top of your mouth like Wonderbread.
How much does a baguette cost?
Buying bread twice a day helped me learn the bizarre French numeral system. In my old neighborhood we paid “quatre-vingt quince”, which means 4 times 20 plus 15, also known as the craziest way to say 95 cents ever created.
An inexpensive baguette is about 80 or 90 cents, and a pricey one is 1.30 plus.
How long does a baguette last?
Fresh bread lasts through the day, but that's about it. We usually bought one baguette for breakfast, one for the kids' after-school snack and one to accompany dinner. French bread is required by law to avoid preservatives, and as a result most breads go stale in under 24 hours. Neighboring bakeries coordinate their days off so that the neighborhood will never be without bread.
How do you order bread?
There are basically two ways to order your baguette:
“Je voudrais un baguette…”
a. Cuite (well-done)
b. Pas trop cuite (not as cooked)
It seems these days that softer, “pas trop cuite ” baguettes are more in style, and that mostly the older generation orders the bread “cuite”.
What is the quignon?
The quignon is the end piece of the baguette. It's practically a tradition to tear off the quignon right after leaving the bakery, when the fresh from the oven baguette smells so heavenly and feels so warm against your body that you can't resist taking a bite (are we still talking about bread?)
Other breads at the bakery
There's a lot more to the boulangerie than baguettes (or so I've been told).
Boule – A round-loaf of bread that can be made with any flour.
Brioche – A rich, yellow bread that is always eaten for breakfast (we usually toast and butter it). The addition of butter and eggs account for its yellow color and crumbly texture, it's a lot like hallah.
Pain au levain – a bread similar to sourdough.
Pain de mie – a rectangular-shaped that is a little sweet, and is usually for toasting or making sandwiches (Croque monsieur being the most notable).
Baguette de tradition – a more traditional baguette that is crunchier and lasts longer due to the added levain, a natural sourdough starter.
Pain aux céréales – a small, earthy piece of bread made with whole wheat flour and lots of seeds.