In researching for this article, I discovered that Americans have reserved March 21st as National French Bread Day. For a Frenchman, bread is celebrated every day, all day and for good reason. The French have mastered the art of baking bread; whole towns have suddenly disappeared when the resident baker passed away and there had been no offspring to tend the ovens, or so I’ve heard.
When my husband and I visited Paris some years ago with our young daughter, a morning ritual was to get “deux baguettes” from the boulangerie (bakery) located a few streets away. My French-born husband explained that one should always buy 2 loaves for the day, but even with that we sometimes found ourselves revisiting the boulangerie for a re-fill. A favorite photo from the trip is of Michel and our tiny Alana clutching the yard-long loaves with whirls of snow dotting their smiling, hungry faces. During our time in Paris there was nothing more reliably satisfying than our warm, crusty baguettes!
At Brasserie L’Oustau we slice fresh-baked baguettes and serve them in baskets with room-temperature sweet butter; when requested, we serve “deux baskets”!
The shape of the baguette is thought to have originated in France when high-heat steam ovens were introduced in the early 1800’s, the name translated as “wand” or “stick”. The shape allows the maximum amount of surface area to be exposed to the high baking temperature. The speed of cooking and the maximum surface of the loaf allows the bread to have a wonderful crispy crust balanced with the soft and lightly spongy flesh.
Prior to the baguette the majority of French breads were most likely the large, thick, flattened ball-shaped loaves called “boules”. The quick-baked baguette may be an indicator that the French lifestyle was becoming caught up in the faster paced industrial age where lunch was a matter of what was easiest quickly rather than a more leisurely time to enjoy food and socializing. To accommodate today’s ever more hectic urban lifestyle, an enterprising baker in Paris has introduced a baguette vending machine which quickly heats and vends a steaming loaf for less than $2 US! It remains to be seen if Parisians buy into the idea.
If you are to ask almost any French citizen about their country’s bread and pastries, cultural passions will rise faster than proofing yeast. Memories of morning croissants with fresh butter and marmalade shared with family before rushing into the day, crusty baguettes resting in Grandmere’s pantry ready for a quick snack with cheese or paté, warmed sweet milk poured over chunks of day-old brioche in a favorite bowl before bed… Some form of flour is in their blood and their stomachs 24/7.