Last year, I interviewed forty-odd Parisians about their lives, about Paris and France, and also about the little things that they aimer or détester. When I asked, “What food would you miss most if you left France?” nearly everyone had the same answer: “le pain.”
The bread of France is so famous it’s cliché. But clichés are clichés for a reason. On my first visit to the country I laughed out loud when I saw a young guy walking down the street with une baguette tucked under his arm. I couldn’t believe that what I considered to be a myth — something depicted on postcards or in sugary Hollywood films — was actually true.
In Paris, people carry their baguettes home on foot and on bicycle. They line up outside the city’s better boulangeries for their daily bread, and, by evening, there isn’t one baguette or pain de campagne or fougasse left. Which brings me to variety: it’s astounding, the choice of breads in France. Patricia Wells’s book “The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris” features a comprehensive list of the country’s loaves and boules (round balls of bread), but first-timers to Paris would do well to start with a classic baguette.
What makes a French baguette taste so good? Though many culinary experts cite French flour, which is different from American flour (see www.joepastry.com for an enlightening explanation that has something to do with ant heads), I believe the answer lies in what is left out of the recipe for a French baguette as opposed to what is put in.
A French baguette contains flour, water, salt, and yeast. That’s it. The baguette’s American counterpart — sliced bread — also contains flour, water, salt, and yeast . . . and milk, sugar (or corn syrup), butter (or soybean oil), and chemical preservatives. American bread is sweet, gooey, and long lasting. French baguettes are unsweetened, both crusty and chewy, and go stale within twelve hours.
I have never known a person to prefer pain de mie (sliced bread) to a baguette. Every one of my visitors raves about the bread in France (at the end of his visit, my seven-year-old nephew declared that his favorite thing to eat in the country was une tartine, an open-faced baguette slathered with butter and jam), and yet everyone goes home to their sliced bread when they can just as easily buy — or bake — a baguette.
Sadder still are the French citizens I see standing in line at the grocery store, buying pain de mie. “It’s convenient,” they tell me. Others explain that they are attracted to the novelty of “un produit américain.”
Take our iBooks and pumpkin pie, I say, and forget the pain de mie.