In the UK we like our bread, but unfortunately we’ve become terribly accepting of mediocre, bland choices. The French have a completely different attitude to bread, and it’s well worth visiting France just for the experience of freshly baked bread. Whilst over here the variety of bread on offer has grown quite significantly of late, it’s still a far cry from what you can find in even an average little town in rural France.
Visit a supermarket in the UK and your choices often range wildly between sliced brown bread and sliced white bread. You can find sliced white bread that doesn’t have any crust, and brown bread without a crust, then of course there’s the thick slices, thin slices and medium slices, not to mention the tall loaves and the square loaves. But ultimately it all boils down to blandness, and frankly even the ducks are getting sick of it.
So here’s a guide to French bread, not only so you know what to look for and what to be aware of when shopping for bread in France, but also to give you a taste of what to look out for if you happen to be fortunate enough to stumble across a bakery in the UK.
What’s the first thing to come to mind when you think of French bread? If you’re like most people then of course it’s the traditional baguette. The word baguette literally translated means ‘stick’, and of course as everyone knows a baguette is a stick of bread, usually weighing around half a pound (or 250 grams if you’re in to that modern stuff!) The smell of a freshly baked baguette is one of the most enticing there is, and the sound of the crust crackling as you break it open is enough to make anyone feel immediately hungry. But when on the lookout for a baguette be aware that there are four main types.
The first type of baguette is the traditional half pound stick we’re all familiar with, but what you might also come across are the moulded baguettes. These are made in industrial bread ovens, and can easily be spotted as they tend to have flatter bottoms which bear the lattice pattern imprint from the base of the oven. These sticks of bread are known locally as ‘baguette moulée’ – literally ‘moulded baguette’.
A third type of baguette you may well come across are paler in colour than the normal ones, because they are coated with a fine flour before being baked. These are known as ‘baguette farinée’ or ‘floured baguette’. The final type of baguette you’ll find is the really huge ‘flutes’, which are twice the length of a normal baguette. You’ll find all of the baguettes are much of a muchness, although the moulded ones generally have a slightly thinner crust.
But as well as baguettes there is a whole range of other types of bread, and it’s worth trying a few out as the variety is quite unlike that of the average UK supermarket. For example, you may come across a ficelle, which is a long and very thin loaf. Don’t wait to eat these for too long though as the thin crust means that the inside of the loaf can tend to dry out more quickly than other breads. This is best bought and eaten almost immediately.
If you want a bread which is likely to keep a little longer then look out for ‘pain de campagne’. No, this doesn’t contain any champagne or indeed alcohol of any kind! It’s country bread, and usually incorporates French ingredients such as wheat flour or rye flour, which tends to keep the bread fresh for longer. A batard is a half length normal loaf, which is handy if you don’t need as much bread.
Just one word of warning though, if buying bread in France remember that many of the bakeries (boulangeries) will be closed for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. If you haven’t bought bread for your lunch by about 12.30 you’re probably going to have to wait!