France has all the nice cheeses and wines you could ever want, it has bourguignon and plenty of omelettes to go around, and it overflows from the borders with its culinary excellence in plenty of ways. But none of that culinary expertise, none of the delicious mother sauces nor any of the cheeses and butters would be of any value at all if it weren’t for the single most important piece of French culture: the baguette.
The baguette, in fact, is likely part of what you think of when you consider France in the first place. Trying to pretend to speak French? Say the word “baguette” in a funny voice, and you’ve nailed the impression. As important as the baton of bread is to food culture within France, it might be equally important to the image of France to the rest of the world. I’m not sure any of the French really mind that either.
But baguettes can be complicated. Sure, you can go in to plenty of boulangeries, ask for a baguette, and walk out with one. But it tends to be far more rewarding to actually know what you’re dealing with, so that when you bite into your baguette, you can truly appreciate what went into making it, and why you like it in the first place.
So, to simplify the process of learning the important parts of baguette culture from embarrassing yourself at the boulangerie and at the dinner table, here’s the beginners guide to the baguette.
1. The Basics
A baguette, literally meaning “baton” or “wand” in French, is that long but thin loaf of bread that the French have grown quite fond of. But, in order to avoid confusion with other kinds of breads, there are a number of regulations in place to define what exactly can be called a baguette, and what is just some other loaf of bread.
In size, a baguette must meet these conditions:
- about 65cm long
- between 4cm and 6cm wide
- between 3cm and 5cm tall
- about 250g
The other physically defining detail of a baguette is its texture, namely being crispy on the outside but being nice and fluffy on the inside. This texture might vary slightly from one baguette to another, or one boulanger to another, but is relatively consistent even between the best and the worst baguettes.
In ingredients and handling, there is also a number of specifications that a baguette must meet by law. According to the Décret Pain of 1993 (literally “The Bread Decree”), anything advertised as “Pain Traditionnel de France” must be made with wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast starter, and must not be frozen at any point during their making. Additionally, if a bread is advertised as “Pain Maison” must be kneaded, shaped, and cooked at either the place of sale, or sold by the person who made the bread somewhere else. What’s more, according to a 1998 law, any bakery that identifies itself as a “boulangerie” must bake their bread fresh daily, and on-site.
2. Baguette Varieties
Walking into a boulangerie can be an overwhelming experience the first few times, in large part because of the variety of breads and pastries that can exist in it. Though pointing and kindly asking for the bread “celui-là” (right there) works perfectly fine, it can be helpful to know some of the different kinds of breads so that you can ask for exactly what you want.
- Baguette Classique – Also called the baguette normale or the baguette ordinaire, this is the classic French baguette that is great for eating with a meal or for a sandwich. This is the kind of baguette subject to the rules above, and you can find this kind at any bakery and most grocery stores as well. These usually cost less than €1.00 at bakeries, and about half that at grocery stores.
- Baguette Tradition – The baguette tradition is the artisanal version of the baguette that is a little more refined than the classique. These kinds of baguettes honestly taste great on their own, or with just a little bit of butter. It usually is a little darker in color, and richer in flavor, but has the same dimensions and basic ingredients as the baguette normale. Because it’s an artisanal kind of bread, these baguettes usually cost a little more, about €1.20 or so at the bakery.
- Une Ficelle – Literally meaning “a string,” this one is almost like a long bread stick. It is thinner and smaller than your typical baguette, but is often quite similar in recipe (though not always). This one is not technically a baguette, and it should be noted that it is not “une baguette ficelle” but really just “une ficelle.”
- Une Flûte – A flûte is the opposite of a ficelle, and is much wider and bigger than a typical baguette, though again, is often made from the same recipe and dough. Like the ficelle, this is not “une baguette flûte” but rather just “une flûte.”
- Un Viennois – This is what most Americans refer to as “French bread.” It’s a little wider than a baguette, and is soft rather than crispy on the outside, as well as the inside. I have seen versions of this kind of bread with raisins or even chocolate chips in them, though I’m not sure how common that is nationwide. Again, this is not a baguette, but its own separate thing.
3. Ordering a Baguette
As I said previously, going into a bakery can be daunting the first few times. There are dozens of kinds of breads and pastries staring you in the face, and I can never help my eyes from wandering and soaking up all of the great colors and shapes we don’t often see in American stores (or even bakeries for that matter).
After waiting in line, when it comes your turn to make your selection, this is often when the person behind the counter will give a customary bonjour to you. In my experience, they typically hold off saying it to you immediately when you walk in the door (unless of course there is no line) in order to indicate that it’s your turn. First things first; say bonjour back. Anything else comes across as rude.
Give your order with a “je voudrais” (meaning “I would like”), but don’t go too fast if you have more than a couple of things. When ordering your baguette, it is totally common to ask for it “bien cuite” (meaning well cooked and darker on the outside) or “pas trop cuite” (meaning less cooked and a bit paler on the outside). This is just a preference thing, but it certainly isn’t rude at all to ask for something specifically. You can also usually ask for a demi-baguette, which is half of a baguette, and they will cut it in half for you (though if you can’t eat the whole thing by yourself feed the pigeons or something).
Once the boulanger/boulangére has gotten everything you asked for, they will likely ask, “ça sera tout?” or, “will that be all?” There’s no obligation to say yes to this, but no shame in it either.
When paying, always try to have cash (or coins, as euros come in €2 and €1 pieces) on hand. Some boulangeries have a minimum amount required before they will accept a card payment, and you don’t want to be that guy at the bakery.
4. Baguette Rules
Much like everything else in French culture, the baguette has a number of rules and customs that are typically followed surrounding the baguette itself. Here are the big ones:
- He who buys the baguette, may taste the baguette – The person who made the journey to go get the baguette is often rewarded with the privilege of ripping the end off of it and tasting it. This is particularly rewarding if the baker just took the baguette out of the oven, and it’s still warm.
- Do not cut a baguette with a knife – Baguette has a nice crunchy crust which makes it easy to tear apart, and therefore there is absolutely no good reason to use a knife to cut the baguette. There are very few exceptions to this rule, and if in doubt, always tear a piece off.
- The baguette goes where it goes – Most of the time, putting food directly on the table is a little weird, but not with baguette. It isn’t at all uncommon for people to place their piece of baguette just above their plate on the table. However, if that isn’t your thing, there’s no rule saying you can’t put it on your plate either. It really is just up to you.
- Don’t set a baguette upside down – This is considered bad luck in most circles. I’ve seen theories saying that baguette placed with the bottom facing upwards on a countertop used to mean it was reserved for the executioner, and thus is now bad luck. Take it or leave it as a theory, but the practice is bad luck.
5. Eating It
Though many baguettes are delicious of their own right, don’t feel constrained in eating a baguette however you choose to. There isn’t a secret set of customs for how or when to eat a baguette, and with an estimated 30 million baguettes sold daily, I would wager that the bread baton has been eaten in just about every way possible.
Baguette is often included in breakfasts, though is also seldom the main part of it. Many people butter it and add jam or nutella, and some will dip the buttered baguette into their coffee. Though many restaurants don’t serve baguette with lunch and dinner service, many do provide some to you if you order breakfast (particularly if eggs are involved).
For lunches, the best use case is as the bread for a nice sandwich, subway style. The jambon beurre, or literally “ham butter” sandwich, is the quintessential French sandwich, and is perfect street food as well as great for packing to go (more on the jambon beurre here). It also is used as the bun on a French style hot dog, which is literally a hot dog sausage in a baguette and drowned in cheese before being toasted.
For dinner, baguette is used as both a sort of palate cleanser to be used at your discretion, as well as to saucer, or literally for wiping up the sauce, broth, or grease from your plate. My favorite thing to eat baguette with is just about anything with an alfredo sauce, to wipe up the plate, but it truly can be eaten with anything.
And that’s it! Now you’re as knowledgeable as most French people are about baguettes! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes when getting your baguette, everyone (including French people) make mistakes all the time. It’s worth it in the end, when you get to taste your delicious French baguette.
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