Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes once wrote, “All sorrows are less with bread.” I like to think that if there is a collection of universal truths, there is no question that this statement belongs among them. There truly is something magical about a good loaf of bread. While it is, at its heart, a foundational food, crafted well, it never fails to be satisfying.
Those who know me can attest to the fact that I will take a carb any way I can get it. However, I will admit that I’m not above blatant discrimination when it comes to my favorites. In my universe, there is nothing better than a good baguette. Let this be my humble guide on where, when, and how to purchase the iconic French loaf.
While the exact origins of the baguette are hard to pin down, it’s agreed that a surge in popularity of baton-like loaves of bread occurred in France around the 18th century. From there, improvements in ingredient quality and baking methods over the centuries lead to its official recognition in 1920. Literally, the word baguette translates to “wand” in English, a direct reference to its shape. In addition to its moniker, the Parisian government also established parameters of length, weight, and price (though the latter would fluctuate with time).
When it comes to the purchase of a baguette, there are several things you should keep in mind. First, the best place to find a good quality loaf is at a French bakery, or boulangerie (also look for the addition of the word “artisan” or even the name of the baker for quality assurance). I’ve been forced to buy at a regular grocery store a few times out of both desperation and convenience, but trust me, the bakery is always better. Since they’re made fresh daily and without preservatives, it’s also a good idea to time your purchase based on when you intend to consume it. Don’t buy a baguette in the morning that you won’t use until dinner time. Most bakeries put out their last batch of the day between 6 and 7 p.m. It’s best to wait and buy fresh.
Although I’ve been using the word “baguette” in this guide, what you want to order is actually called a “baguette de tradition” or “traditional baguette.” By law, it’s only made with four ingredients: flour, leavening, water, and salt. They’re hand-formed and usually cost somewhere around €1,20, with a bit of give and take in either direction. The cheaper “baguette ordinaire” can sometimes contain additives, and in general, lacks the flavor complexity and chewy interior of a baguette de tradition. A well-made loaf is golden in color with a thin, crisp crust and light, never dense, sponge-like interior.
When I visit my local boulangerie while in Paris, I simply say when ordering, “Une tradition, s’il vous plaît.” (“A traditional, please.”) Any bakery worth its salt will know what you’re talking about. This is a phrase I picked up after hearing other customers use it and finally putting two and two together. If anything, using it certainly makes it look like you know what you’re doing! In addition, you can specify “plus cuite” (more cooked) or “moins cuite” (less cooked) depending on your preference. Most of the bakeries I’ve visited in the city purposely provide a range of doneness for their customers.
With that, the sky’s the limit as to what you can do. It’s a given that baguettes are perfect for sandwich making, or as a vehicle for cheese or pâté. Slices toasted, rubbed with garlic, and doused with olive oil make an excellent side to pasta dishes, or left plain, to mop up that last bit of boeuf bourguignon. However, my favorite way to enjoy baguette is slathered with a bit of salted butter. It doesn’t get much more perfect than that.
It’s also not uncommon to see the French rip off a small piece of the loaf to enjoy on the walk home. After all, who else but the buyer should get the privilege of the first bite?