Friday, October 14, 2005

Baguettes, Baguettes, Everywhere!

You just never know what you are going to see when you visit Paris! Sometimes I think that I should attempt to stay awake 24 hours a day, just so that I don’t miss anything, when I am there!

Maybe that’s not such a strange idea, in fact. Once a year, the City of Light celebrates “La Nuit Blanche” or “The White Night” in which major monuments, museums and shops remain open throughout the night and performances are presented on outdoor stages across the city. This year’s event, on October 1st, attracted about 1.3 million visitors – and the Ingredient Sleuth was one of them!

But, even without all-night events, there is SO much to be discovered in Paris! For example, when was the last time that you saw someone directing a symphony orchestra – or traffic -- with a baguette? Or scooping up a steamy, Chinese dinner with two baguettes? Or poking a slow-to-start fire with a baguette?

The French word baguette, as you may suspect, refers to much more than bread. It is also used to portray a musical conductor’s (or police officer’s) baton, chopsticks, or just a plain-old, generic stick. A baguette magique is a magic wand, a baguette de tambour is a drumstick.

In the hands of French bakers (boulangers), a baguette is a defining element. Texture, aroma, flavor and characteristic sticklike shape combine to present the quintessential French bread. What fun to emerge from the bakery, baguette in hand and saunter down the street, mouth watering in anticipation. Sometimes, the aroma is overpowering and a few delicate nibbles are required, en route!

The quality of a baker’s baguettes, in fact, has traditionally been a source of great pride in France. Never mind the dozens of other varieties of bread that glisten, steam and gleam tantalizingly, lined up in shop windows. Healthy whole grains, seeded rolls, coarsely-sea-salted rounds … the list is never-ending and ever-changing. Nonetheless, the baguette remains the boulanger’s defining product.

After the French Revolution (1789), the baguette came to serve as a symbol of the right of every French citizen to nourishment at a fair price. The legitimacy of a government, then as now, sprang from having sufficient quantities of nourishment available to citizens at affordable prices. For a time, the price that a French baker could charge for a baguette was government-controlled. Bread, after all, was the staff of life during this period in Europe.

The method used to bake baguettes during the 18th century featured an overnight development of the yeast, resulting in a baguette with a cream-colored interior (rather than white) and a much more pronounced flavor and aroma than other breads. Over the decades and centuries, speeded along by “modern” mechanized methods, shortcuts inevitably ensued and the character of the average baguette changed. A general decline of baguette quality, beginning with the 1950s, is documented by Steven Kaplan, in his book THE BEST BREAD IN THE WORLD: THE BAKERS OF PARIS IN THE 18TH CENTURY (LE MEILLEUR PAIN DU MONDE: LES BOULANGERS DE PARIS AU XVIIIe SIECLE), Fayard Publishing, 1996).

In a second book on the subject, THE RETURN OF GOOD BREAD, published in 2002, Mr. Kaplan (an American, a French cultural historian and a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches European history at Cornell University) describes the movement by a new generation of French bakers, in the 1990s, to return to slow-fermentation processes. He visited some 600 bakeries in Paris (this sounds like a lot of fun to me!) as part of his research, tasted their baguettes and sometimes got wrist-deep into the dough in his search for understanding! This book, like the first, was well-received by the French bakery establishment.

In an additional book, Mr. Kaplan rated baguettes of the individual bakeries of Paris. While academically interesting and astonishingly impressive in its detail, this “guide book to the baguettes of Paris” comes best into focus and is most valuable, I think, when used to heighten the awareness – and expectations -- of the consumer.

Recently in fact, the French government codified into law a specific type of baguette (the baguette de tradition) that can only be made using the original, pre-modern methods. This classification definition resulted to a great extent from the detailed work done by Mr. Kaplan.

And what about the rest of us – those of us who buy baguettes in other parts of the world? Well, good bread baking, like news these days, travels very fast! Bakers near and far apply traditional techniques and offer their breads for sale. Specialty areas of supermarkets feature niche-bakery products. Artisan bakers show up at farmers’ markets and offer baguettes baked that morning. Vietnamese bakers (especially predominant here in southern California), turn out baguettes using techniques taught to their ancestors by the French during the colonial period.

One of my friends, who like Mr. Kaplan is a university professor (although of communications rather than European history), knows how to turn a baguette into a very tasty treat. Genelle is an adventurous eater and an excellent cook who, with her husband Doug (contributor of the Cilantro-Lime Chicken recipe from the Ingredient Sleuth’s “Coconut Connection” posting of 04/22/05), particularly enjoys whipping up delicious dishes from on-hand items.

The following recipe for quick and easy crostini ("crostini" means "little toasts" in Italian) sprang from the availability of an “embarrassment of basil and mint” (as Genelle so descriptively phrased it – of course, she IS a professor of communications) in their backyard herb bed:


(Serves 2 to 3 for lunch, more as an appetizer.)

Tomatoes, seeded and chopped into dice to make 1 cup’s worth
Half a sweet onion (like Vidalia or Walla Walla), chopped fine
1/4 to 1/3 cup fresh herbs (cilantro, mint, basil, any combination), chopped
1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped very fine
1/4 to 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus additional for brushing on bread
Sea salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
Parmigiano Reggiano
French baguette

1. Cut the baguette into thin slices. Brush each slice with olive oil and broil 3 to 4 minutes or until toasted. Set aside.

2. Put tomatoes, onion, herbs, garlic, balsamic, olive oil, salt and pepper in a bowl. Mix until combined. With a cheese grater, shred Parmigiano Reggiano over the mixture and blend in to taste. Garnish with more Parmigiano Reggiano and sprigs of the fresh herbs.

3. Serve topping with the broiled bread, providing a spoon for each guest. Guests spoon the tomato mixture onto the bread.

Copyright Note: Recipe reprinted by the Ingredient Sleuth with the permission of the author.

The bright and fresh blend of flavors in the topping of this luscious crostini combines beautifully with the rich-and-crunchy earthiness of the baguette. I think the French bakers would be proud, even though it is an Italian dish! But then, would one expect anything less from a professor with a French-sounding first name who is part Italian (ancestrally-speaking, at least!)?

So, let’s gather 'round the table, pick up our spoons and start scooping. Better yet, why not pop some French tunes by the Baguette Quartette into the CD player? This musical foursome focuses on music that was popular in Paris between 1920 and 1940, including valses musettes, tangos, pasos dobles and fox trots. And just to keep the global aspect of the baguette’s progress in mind, let’s be aware that the Baguette Quartette is from the San Francisco Bay Area!

It really seems that, these days, it’s baguettes, baguettes, everywhere! Bon appetit!


marc&terri said...

We think that the baguettes from LaBrea Bakery in LA are great. Even here on the east coast, you find them in lots of markets. They are very consistent in quality so we know it's worth paying a little more. Good article!

Carolyn said...

I love that photo! How well I remember seeing those plastic carrying boxes that were used to deliver baguettes in Paris. What a different concept than we have here in the US. Thanks for the memory and the interesting information about one of my favorite foods.


Doug said...

Yum! I'd love to make some right now, since we are at the very end of the season's basil crop, though the mint, which was originally a single plant provided courtesy of the Sleuth, has only become MORE embarassing! However, that will have to wait until we get our new kitchen installed (hard to toast without an oven) :)


kristi said...

I am SOOOO jealous of your trip to Paris!!! It's nice to hear about it from you though so I can imagine being there myself. Hoping to read more about it soon.........................?

eric said...

We love baguettes too and have sampled lots of them, especially when we travel. Sometimes we like the really crisp and crunchy type that are more coarse on the inside. Those are probably more like the traditional kind. Other times we like the lighter and puffier kind. We probably couldn't do a rating cuz we couldn't make a choice of which was best! I betg that rating book is interesting tho!

marianne said...

We love crostini too for a quick snack. Just like this one, our combination of herbs is a little unorthodox but delicious: rosemary, oregano and mint. I think the mint serves to lighten up the stronger flavor herbs. We make the toasts at just the last minute so they are still warm when we eat them.

Anonymous said...

Eating baguettes and croisants in Paris is one of my dreams!

dennis said...

you've captured one of my favorite photos of Paris and talked about one of my favorite foods...