There's something quite pleasing about stereotypes turning out to be true, isn't there? A wry smile sneaks across my face whenever I see a French chap or chapess with a baguette tucked under their arm. Sometimes they're even carrying the morning's edition of Le Monde, in which case what I show is more of a wry grin. Rarely are there stripy jumpers, and never are there strings of onions or garlic round the neck. Pity. Last year, when I was working in Evreux, Normandy, a colleague confronted me in the street one hot day, and accused me of having turned into a Frenchwoman. It took me a little while to understand what prompted him to accept me all of a sudden as one of his own. I still have my slight English twang, I still have my more than slightly red hair, and I still can't dress chicly. I got home and realized it must have been the bread I'd been carrying under my arm. I say bread: I mean baguette, of course.
What it is, basically:
The term we anglophones are familiar with, baguette, is a broad-sweeping word. The word basically describes a loaf of bread which is long and thin in shape, probably marked with shallow, short, diagonal scores on the top. The ends can be either tapered to a point or, more usually, gently rounded. It tends to be carried by chaps in blue and white stripey jumpers.
Isn't it annoying when stereotypes need a little more explaining? It is certainly possible to go into a boulangerie (baker's), ask for "Une baguette, s'il vous plait", and be served with an item resembling the above loaf. But try this, and you'll get a run-of-the-mill stick of bread made with uninteresting flour, and not much flavour. It'll serve purposes such as housing flavoursome sandwich fillings, or mopping up soup plates, vinaigrettes, and the like. But there's a whole range of more exciting and tasty things than the generic baguette...
Knowing your stuff:
Don't buy a baguette in a French supermarket. Really, don't. You may as well munch on the cardboard box your cornflakes come in. Go to a proper boulangerie. There's bound to be one nearby, wherever you are in France¹. Before you stride up to the counter and ask, in your best French accent, for a generic baguette, stop and take a look. Behind the display cabinet full of chocolaty treats and tasty tartines, there's a rack of similar but not quite identical-looking baguettes, isn't there²?
Take a good look. Even from this distance, you can see the differing shades of brown, flax, taupe, sand, gold, yellow, ochre, beige, even a greyish-looking one. You can see differences in width, length, shape, pattern, and over all size. Grains are visible in some and not in others. Some are well-done whereas some are paler-looking. Be brave and be precise. Point, if you have to. I believe this period of experimentation is essential if you're to feel really at ease with the baguette.
Make sure you buy and eat you baguette as fresh as possible. The bread is not baked to last. It exists because it believes that most of its purchasers will be able to buy it at least once a day, probably twice. The fact that most baguettes contain no fat at all means that they cannot be kept the way that standard non-French loaves can. Eat on the day of purchase, or pay the price in dental care.
A slightly more scientific approach:
Each of these variations on the basic notion of the baguette has its merits: after all, there's a reason the bakers offer more than just a baguette. Most vary in the make-up of the dough. Baguettes made with wholemeal flour (complet) are slightly darker, or more grey in appearance, and can have a pleasantly acidic tang. You can buy baguettes made with several different grains (aux céréales, or something similar, depending on the bakery), which have a nuttier flavour.
Let me tell you about my personal favourite. It's called the baguette 1900, and you can find versions of it all over France, although I always buy it in Rouen, at the Place du Vieux Marché (where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake...the stoves there are quite impressive). It calls itself a pain de tradition française, and those who make it pride themselves on the fact that their recipe dates back to the beginning of the last century. France is not nearly so self-assured as the (other) stereotype would make out, but she does take pleasure in her great culinary traditions. It's not like the heritage is undeserved, after all. In this case, the harking back to the good old days has glorious results. The 1900 is a bread you just can't help squeezing. It betrays my Anglo-saxon roots to say that I'm reminded of an old advert for Dime bars when I come into contact with one of these loaves. The crust is generous, and will tear the roof of your mouth away if you're not careful. The mie - the inner part of the bread - is tender in the extreme, riddled with air-pockets, and slightly iridescent. Even the thought of the burgundy and cream paper sheath they slip the baguette into once it has been sold makes my mouth water. Enough dribbling...
How they make it happen:
A real baguette should be kneaded for a long time, and slowly. Then the dough should be left to sit for fourty-five minutes to an hour, to relax, and to begin rising. Real French bakers bake their baguettes on the stone floor of an oven, which is seen as the traditional method. 300g of dough are needed to make the archetypal French baguette, although you'll find much variation on this. No French bakery worth its weight in ... dough will be willing to disclose the precise ingredients it uses for any of its recipes, which is why neither you nor I can recreate the experience with even the fanciest of bread machines.
The question now is, whether it's worth the air-fare to travel all the way to France to buy yourself a stick of carbohydrate. If you happen to be in a francophone country, do it. If not, content yourself with a nonchalant slinging of your plastic-wrapped Hovis under your armpit, and wait until the opportunity arises.
¹Except possibly at Eurodisney. I haven't been. Let me know.
²If there isn't, get out now: this is not a proper bakery.
I gleaned info from www.siteparc.fr/bonneau about the timings of making a decent baguette. The rest fell out of my head.