Ahh, la baguette, quintessentially French. Biting into your favourite baguette is a soothing affair that will bring a smile of contentment to your face. When you find a good one, all others pale in comparison. Every time my feet land on French soil, I start anticipating my first tasty baguette that will welcome me back to my second home. But it has to be the right baguette. Just as not all French wine is worth drinking, not all baguettes are worth consuming.
Crusty on the outside and hole-y on theinside, the perfect baguette is not too chewy, but rather soft with small bits of bread that ball up in your mouth as you chew. It can be slightly tangy and definitely has a distinct aroma. And baguettes are serious business in France with the average person consuming half a loaf per day. Precise laws protect this French institution with strict regulations concerning the ingredients; any kind of additives are an absolute faux pas. Flour, yeast, water and salt are all that is needed. A light dusting of flour on the outside, and 20 minutes later, voilà, your baguette is ready to devour.
As serious baguette lovers, I knew my daughters and I would have our work cut out for us when we moved to Paris. With over 1800 boulangeries in the capital and 12 within a 10-minute walking distance of our new apartment, some taste-testing would definitely be involved. As soon as we dropped our suitcases in our new Parisian flat, we happily took on this challenge. I felt like Goldilocks of the three bears fame—I knew it would take several attempts until we got it "just right."
Boulangerie contestant number one was so close we could see it from our balcony. Luckily, it was not close enough for us to inhale the dreamy buttery scent of freshly baked croissants every day—which would have been deadly for my ever-growing Rubenesque figure. I could watch my school-aged daughter excitedly skip down the block, disappear into the boulangerie and then reappear with a much-coveted, long, classic baguette. By the time she returned, the end of the baguette, le crouton would be noshed off, leaving a trail of crumbs back to our front door. But this classic contender was quickly eliminated: far too long to meet proper baguette regulations; brittle on the outside and dry on the inside, this bread was simply not good. We were added to the long list of victims of the dreaded frozen dough scandal that had hit France.
It began when boulangeries started to have frozen dough delivered to their establishments, no longer making the dough in-house. There was so much outrage that I envisioned trucks pulling up to the back of bakeries in the middle of the night, everyone dressed in black, faces covered, while the frozen dough transaction took place. The delivered dough eliminated hours of work, cutting out much of the kneading and fermenting time. But changing the process lead to a baguette that was an anemic, tasteless version of its true self. Jacques Chirac, the President of France at the time, commented that bread made with frozen dough was “not even Christian food.” The boulangeries were playing with the national identity of France, and not just dough.
Second-rate baguettes made with frozen dough was not an option for our family and our quest continued, leading us beyond our street.
“You have to try Le Gouverneur on Boulevard Exelmans,” a new neighbour told us.“Their baguette tradition is fabulous. People drive there from other parts of the city just for their pastries and bread.”
Hearing that Parisians would brave appalling traffic to arrive to Le Gouverneur, we knew we had to try it.
The golden brown crust was impressive and the chewy uneven holes on the inside had just the right consistency. Their baguette tradition, also known as le tradi, did not disappoint. This bread was definitely worth the daily calories. My eldest daughter, 11-year-old Nathalie, would ride her push scooter to Le Gouverneur. She mastered the return trip, pushing herself along with our tradi tucked under her left arm, managing to rip off le crouton at the same time. We had progressed from the “awful” stage to “pretty good” rather quickly. But we would soon, surprisingly, discover even better.
After a Saturday morning visit to the open-air market, le Marché d’Auteuil, my shopping caddy loaded down with a warm roasted chicken, several ripe Cavaillon melons, crimson-red tomatoes and oozing camembert, I decided not to take my usual route home and headed up la rue d’Auteuil. My walk was interrupted by a long line snaking its way outside Le Grillon d’Auteuil. Shockingly, the queue was orderly, with no jockeying for position as you would normally find in the French version of a queue. I quickly got in line. Their warm tradi felt heavenly in my hand and the yeasty soul-warming aroma filled my nostrils. I immediately tore off le crouton. With the first mouthful I knew I had found my match, my boulangerie. It was pure baguette bliss. The outside crust was perfect, not overcooked or too hard, not cutting the inside of my mouth but offering the right amount of resistance. The inside was supple and had the perfect blend of denseness and chewiness with a slight nutty flavour. By the time I got home I had inhaled most of the tradi, crumbs stuck in the corners of my mouth and trailing down the front of my sweater. I kept a small piece of the bread for my daughters to try, and they were instantly in agreement: we finally had it “just right.”
Part of Nathalie’s after school routine now included a detour to Le Grillon d’Auteuil for our much-loved daily tradi. She would return home, clothes covered in fresh crumbs and a satisfied smile on her face. The rule of thumb became to always buy two tradis, especially when they were still warm. After all, only one would be left by the time we sat down for dinner.
Ingrid Littmann-Tai is an avid traveller and freelance writer, focusing on memoir, personal essays and travel tales. She is currently working on a “fish out of water” type-memoir about moving to Paris with her school-aged daughters.