Bread is as basic as it comes. On the French table, it’s seen as a vehicle for flavors during a meal, often paired with a simple spread of salted butter or hidden below a mound of salad to absorb the lingering vinaigrette. Beyond being present at every meal, there’s much more to le pain in France than you may think.
Start with its history: loaves of bread, albeit of different qualities, have been staples on tables of both aristocrats and peasants since before the Middle Ages. From these segregating varieties came the pain d’égalité, or “bread of equality”, which rose up in 1793 as a political tool to further the argument of the injustices in society. Fast-forward to find the Napoléon-inspired baguette that ruled so strongly in the 1900s, the average French person ate 3 loaves per day. Today, bread remains so relevant in French society that asking a politician the cost of a baguette is a common tool to discern his or her grasp on reality.
It’s no question that bread is engrained (no pun intended) in French society and culture, and as such, finding the “best bread” has become a necessary and coveted tourist experience. But seeing as there are 35,000 boulangeries, or “bakeries”, in France, where do you start?
First things first, let’s decipher what “best bread” means. The truth is, we can’t tell you. And not because it’s some French culinary secret locked up in the Hotel de Ville, the mayor’s office, but rather because it’s totally subjective.
For example, some may think the “best bread” would be the most authentic. Their best bet would be to head to a French bakery that has been making baguette since the 1920s. Others, however, may consider the “best bread” to come with accolades, whether on the bread itself or the boulanger, or “baker”, who woke up at 4 a.m. to pop it in the oven.
To discern what “best bread” means to you, consider three things: what bread varieties are out there, who’s baking it, and how experts judge.
Any tourist book can tell you that memorizing the phrase, “Une baguette, s’il vous plaît,” (translated: “one baguette, please”) helps take the fear out of ordering at a foreign boulangerie, where there is likely has a line of regular customers waiting to place their orders. It’s a safe bet, and you’ll keep things moving. And while there’s nothing like walking down the street nibbling on the nose of your baguette to say, “Paris, I’ve arrived!” there’s so much more that you may be missing out on.
For example, let’s say you bought some brie, or another variety of soft French cheese, on your way to the boulangerie. What you may not know is that pain de campagne, or dense “country bread”, is begging for some creamy, cheesy goodness and would be your better bet over baguette.
Try to open your mind beyond baguette, and embrace all of the types of bread. Luckily, each boulangerie should have similar offerings, so here’s a trusty cheat sheet:
• Pain de tradition française (Traditional French bread). The most common is a “baguette tradition or à l’ancienne,” meaning “ancient.” For only 10 cents more, this strictly handmade variety pales in comparison to its molded, industrialized counterparts. • Pain de campagne or miche (Country bread). A sourdough bread style you may know as the signature loaf of the bakery Poilâne. • Pain au levain. (Sourdough bread) • Pain maison (House bread) • Pain complet (Whole wheat bread) • Pain aux cereals (Multigrain bread) • Pain de seigle (Rye bread) • Pain au son (Bran bread) • Pain de mie or pain blanc (White sandwich bread) • Regional breads. Try Pain Alsacian, a German-influenced rye, pine, molasses, and oat loaf, or Pain Brie, a heavier bread from Normandy.
And a quick vocab lesson: pain means “bread”, bio means “organic”, aux implies that the bread has something inside (e.g.: pain aux raisins means “bread with raisins”).
Next, what to expect when you take this monumental step inside the boulangerie. Here are some tips: • Buy fresh. It’s best to go first-thing in the morning to get a right-out-of-the-oven loaf life no other. Best eaten within 5 hours (trust us, it’s not that hard to do), but if you really can’t finish it, the birds will thank you. • Lines are a good thing. With a boulangerie on what seems to be every street corner, you can trust locals who take the time to wait on a line. That said… • Going to the boulangerie is a systematic chore for the French – for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They know exactly what baked goods or sandwiches they want and have timed their visits accordingly. Put your nose up against the glass window before hopping on line to do some preemptive decision-making. • Even the “best” baguette isn’t worth shelling out more than 2€. If you’re paying between 90-1,40 €, you’re not limiting your choices – and you’re not getting swindled.
After World War II, France went through a number of political, economical, and social changes, all emphasizing stability and efficiency. Bread making became less about the development of authentic recipes, and was rather focused on cranking out affordable loaves for the larger population (bonjour, baby boom). Bread became industrialized and less of an “art.”
As the French do, they eventually revolted, resulting in a bread renaissance that would acknowledge both the art and the artist behind bread making. As an art, the stipulations of making le pain de tradition française, “traditional French bread,” became revered and made official by a French decree in 1993. A loaf is only tradition française if it is completely handmade, has no additives, went through a long fermentation, and contains only four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast.
As for the artist, in the 1980s, France established the artisan boulanger, an official classification used to reward bakers who made bread in their bakeries instead of reheating prepared, industrialized loaves. It was an effort to boost the credibility of hard-at-work bakers and bring bread-buyers from supermarkets back into bakeries.
While the artisan boulanger title on a boulangerie awning was initially an indication of excellence, today, it’s a bit outdated. Some artisan bakers don’t make all bread on premises – a bit misleading. And other exquisite bakers have chosen to not go through the process of getting certified. There is, however, one accreditation that’s worth seeking out: the Meilleurs Ouvriers or “Best Workers of France.” This rare competition is unique in that it’s a peer evaluation, and no one guarantees trustworthy results like judges who know the ins-and-outs of the craft themselves. A baker’s admission to MOF requires fulfilling an 8-part bread order, including those in the tradition française, among other criteria.
So, get to know who’s behind the loaves and in front of the oven. Boulangers who take the time to bake à la tradtion française or who are celebrated by their peers are certainly the breadwinners.
You can trust the opinion of esteemed, decorated boulangers to guide you to what they have deemed the “best bread,” but there’s no better judge than your own palate.
As a stepping-stone, consider the annual Meilleur Baguette de Paris competition, or “Best Baguette in Paris.” In this competition, judges determine which boulangerie earns 4000 euro and a contract to be the official baguette provider to the Élysée Palace, home to the French president, for one year. Not an easy feat.
These criteria used in 2016 can be a jumping off point for your own judgment: • Appearance. Perfectly brown and yellow, signifying caramelization. • Cuisson, a word that can be best translated as “doneness.” This criterion would distinguish a burnt baguette from one that’s perfectly baked. • Inside. The doughy part of a baguette should be a creamy color, limited crumbs, and large, irregular holes. • Taste. Sweet, tangy flavor with a hint of salt. • Smell. With just a handful of ingredients, a great baguette should have a symphony of smells.
While these criteria are unique to this one bread type, getting an idea for what panels of experts consider when judging any kind of loaf should be a jumping off point in a personal definition of the “best bread” – for baguette and beyond.
Go Forth and Sample In the end, it’s up to you to decide what “best bread” means. Is it not a baguette but surprisingly the pain Alsacian you dared to try? Did it come from a MOF boulanger? Or did it simply beat out competitors in your own personal taste test? Whichever way you slice it, French bread is going to be delicious simply for the reason that you’re eating it on Haussmann’s boulevards.
With some prior research and a toolkit of your own, you can perhaps find your “best bread” in Paris – and we’d love to know which one made the cut! Was it one that was recommended by a friend, or one you happened upon during a stroll one day? Let us know – even we are always on the hunt for the best of the best.