Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Staff of life

"Did you get the bread?"

The first years of our life together were more than just sweet words and 'je t'aime's.  After all, a relationship is about negotiation and responsibility.  And what bigger responsibility could there be than getting the daily baguette?

"There's no bread."

I would walk in the door from work, and with one sentence I knew one of us had to go back out on the bread mission.  It was non-negotiable, and I can tell you, it used to irritate the hell out of me.  Back in Boston, it meant jumping into the car and driving over to Whole Foods, then the only place in the neighborhood that sold anything approximating the "real" bread one might find in France.  Most day-old baguettes are deadly weapons, so it wasn't an option to just eat yesterday's leftover.

"But why do we need bread?"

Growing up we ate white sandwich bread, and dinner rolls on special occasions.  Sometimes a baguette would make it into the kitchen only to be sliced in half, smeared with garlic butter and Parmesan and toasted in the oven.  Bread was by no means considered necessary at mealtime.  We went through supermarket loaves slowly, slice by slice, storing them in the freezer and reanimating them in the toaster.

My husband, when he lived in the US, ate supermarket sandwich bread only when absolutely nothing else was available, and always whole whole grain, never white.  When I described how American children often require the crusts be trimmed off their sandwiches, he was perplexed.

"But the crust is the best part!"

You know the stereotype of the Frenchman with a beret and a baguette under his arm?  Berets are difficult to spot these days, but in Paris around 7 o'clock in the evening practically everyone is heading home with a thin loaf of bread.  Some even head out early in the morning to pick up fresh bread for breakfast.  There are often long lines in front of the boulangerie, but mercifully they usually move fast.

Before I had kids and knew true daily logistical constraints, I resented the ball-and-chain nature of daily bread.

"No, I didn't get the bread.  If you really want it, you go back out and get it.  I'm perfectly happy with just pasta."

Flour, water, yeast, salt: the only ingredients in a baguette.  I believe it is a legal standard, codified like so much else in this rule-loving country, but I could be mistaken.  That doesn't mean that all French bread is created equal, however, and in the eight years I've lived here, I've witnessed a veritable bread revolution.  Half the baguettes in Paris used to be pale yellow, soft, gummy and tasteless, indistinguishable from mass-produced supermarket loaves.  Then high-end bakeries in chic neighborhoods started selling loaves supposedly baked according to long-lost artisan tradition.  Whether it was true tradition or just good marketing, the bread was better, with a thick golden crust, an airy interior, and a smell that made you want to tear into it as soon as you walked out into the street.  Pretty soon every corner boulangerie had its own version, often developed by a national flour "brand," with a catchy name, like la rétro or la tradition. 

"Une tradition, bien blanche, s'il vous plaît."

France has always been a divided country: montagnards vs. jacobins, readers of Le Figaro vs. readers of Libération, Parisians vs. provincials.  One more division concerns baguettes, between those who like them under-baked (bien blanche) and those who prefer them over-baked (bien cuite). They regard one another with suspicion as they take turns at the counter.  "Bien cuite. Burned, even!" my mother-in-law requests emphatically.  "I don't understand," she adds with scorn, "How anyone can eat the undercooked paste they sell here usually."

The customers who file through the boulangerie on a weeknight say more about themselves than they perhaps intend.  Order one half a baguette and you're inviting pity; you're clearly single, a lone soul sharing a single helping of bread.  It's only slightly less pathetic than ordering a sandwich.

"I know, I know.  You'll get your piece, I promise!"

Mademoiselle's first solid food wasn't rice cereal or strained prunes or carrot purée but a chunk of baguette that she reached and begged for shortly before her six month birthday.  She gummed it and swallowed mushy bits while I held my breath, for this was not standard baby-rearing practice back home, and yes, probably also a potential choking hazard.  Although the experts and books and pediatricians here all say to start with mashed vegetables, I personally suspect that many a French baby has been weaned on bits of stale bread from the family table.

After all, it's perfect for teething.

"Pain! Pain!"

The French word for bread is one of Mademoiselle's first words.  After work, I swing by the bakery right after picking her up and buy our baguette.  She gets the first chunk, the pointy, crunchy end, which buys me peace as I push her home in the stroller.  At home, if someone walks through the door with a long, white paper bag under their arm she starts throwing a fit, grabbing and pointing until she gets what she wants.

There's no way we'll forget the bread now.

At seven o'clock in the evening in the countryside, eight o'clock in big cities, the bakeries all close.  If you're smart, you'll arrive at least fifteen minutes before then, however, for if not, you risk fighting over the last loaf of bread.  The baguettes are the first to run out.  The last customers often have to choose between odd specialty loaves with nuts and seeds and other non-standard attributes which they pay extra to avoid going home empty handed.  I've stood in line counting the number of loaves and the number of people in front of me, wondering if I'll have anything to show for my trouble.  And sometimes in these tight situations I remember to think about the person in line behind me.

"You have two half baguettes left, one with seeds, one whole grain?  I'll take both.  Unless... madame would like some, too... yes?  Well in that case, I'll just take one half."

That way no one has to eat cake.


paola said...

Oh yeah, and it never goes mouldy! I have had Italian bread sitting in the cupboard literally for months and it is rock hard but not a trace of mould, unlike the industrial sliced stuff I buy anywhere else. So, perfect for recycling: bread and butter pudding or just plain bread crumbs. My MIL would be horrified, if it were ever thrown out.

Claudia said...

This entry pains me (pun nicely incidental). I have just been told to start eating gluten-free, for the rest of my live-long days. I love love LOVE French baguettes.
Damn it.

Very nice post, though. I feel like I've stood in line with the other baguette buyers.

oilandgarlic said...

I go through the same thing with my Italian husband. I'm perfectly fine w/o bread but he really wants real, good bread daily. I actually love good bread but sometimes we can't get it unless we drive somewhere and I don't like the par-baked stuff that is popular around here.

Anyway, my husband was so proud when our son had his first piece of real bread. Now he's a real Italian I guess!

hush said...

"At home, if someone walks through the door with a long, white paper bag under their arm she starts throwing a fit, grabbing and pointing until she gets what she wants." So cute!

@Paola - My DH feels the same way as your MIL about never wasting even a crumb of bread.

Cloud said...

I loved this post. I'm sorry it took me so long to say that! And the mental image of mademoiselle demanding her bread- well, that is too cute for words.

The milliner said...

Ah yes, the heel of a fresh baguette has saved us from many a hunger induced tantrum.

DH makes bread, and consequently, DS recites the four ingredients whenever DH is in baking mode. Interesting about bien blanche and bien cuit. We don't have that differentiation here...more usual is somewhere in the middle...perfectly golden.

Nice post. It's really these everyday things, I think, that bring a lot of joy in life.