No meal in France is complete without bread whether in the home or a high-end fine dining restaurant. But wandering out in the morning to the local boulangerie is a quintessential delight of holidaying in France.
Various types of bread in a bakery in Rue Mouffetard in Paris. © Atout France/Cédric Helsly
Traditionally, in any French family someone will always be deputed to do the morning bread run, returning with a golden baguette, from which—in time-honoured fashion—they would have torn off the quignon (the heel) and nibbled it on the way home.
For the French, it’s a way of life, and one of the first things that visiting Brits, especially those self-catering, latch on to—a Frenchman’s daily bread is very much à la mode.
There are few tastes (and smells) that can match an iconic fresh French baguette. Here are a few tips for avoiding embarrassment, or, more to the point, to ensure you get what you want.
© Atout France/Cédric Helsly
Baguette: the word means “wand”, and this is the cheapest and most popular bread, varying from excellent to mediocre. It will lasts a day at the most, and comes in three forms: ‘ordinary’, with a crisp golden crust; ‘baguette moulée’, manufactured in an industrial bread oven, and recognised by a fine lattice pattern on the underside; ‘baguette farinée’, which is paler in colour because the crust has been covered with flour before cooking.
Baguette (or pain) aux céréales: a slightly healthier version made from wholegrain flour with added fibre from seeds and grains. Also comes in the form of a pavé — a loaf.
Batard: a half-length baguette.
Brioche: a buttery sweet bread, perfect for bread-and-butter pudding, although it rarely lasts that long!
Couronne: bread in the shape of a ring.
Flute: a fatter baguette, twice the size of a baguette, with a higher ratio of dough to crust. Ficelle: a long and thin baguette, with a lot of crust. The ficelle does need to be eaten promptly as the inside dries out very quickly.
Pain de campagne: ‘country’ bread, suitable for meats, cheeses and soups with a thick crust and dense wholegrain dough, and certain to last more than a day.
Pain complet: wholegrain loaf.
Pain levain: sourdough bread. Slightly acidic, and goes well with strong flavours such as smoked salmon and foie gras.
Pain de mie: is the closest you’ll get to a traditional British (or American) loaf, though you will rarely find it in boulangeries—you’ll have to try the supermarket.
Pain aux noix: as the name suggests, bread spiced with nuts
Pain de seigle: rye bread. Less intense rye flavour than its northern European equivalent, because it is diluted with white flour.
Pain au chocolat is a light buttery individual bread flavoured with chocolate, sometimes called a chocolatine.
Many bakers make bread by their own proven recipes, which means that even a simple baguette will be different from one shop to another.
Bread from French supermarkets needs to be eaten as quickly because generally speaking supermarkets use industrial dough that has been deep-frozen before being baked on the premises. Bread counters selling this kind of bread are not legally allowed to call themselves boulangeries.
If you are planning a picnic, be sure to get your bread early, as most boulangeries are closed by mid-day, or 12.30pm at the latest.