Not All Baguettes Are Created Equal
Anyone heading to Paris is probably dreaming of buying a still-warm baguette, tucking it under their arm, and feeling French AF. But you if you don't shop wisely, or don't know baguette culture intimately, you could end up vastly disappointed when you dig in.
You've never had a baguette until you've had one in France. The ones from your local bakery, grocery store, or God-forbid Panera are NOT baguettes. But even in France, not all baguettes are created equal. If you already know this, then you've probably learned this the hard way. If you don't know this, then consider yourself lucky.
In the old days, all baguettes were hand-formed, make of quality ingredients, and all-around delicieux. But things started to change when boulangers realized they could use cheaper ingredients, fillers, or worst of all - freeze loaves and resell them the next day. Sacré bleu!
There was no way of knowing who was baking the real deal, and who wasn't without a taste test. Thankfully, the government realized baguette quality control was a grave matter and intervened in 1993, creating the Décret Pain. This law made a set of rules for what the government called traditional baguettes: they have to be made on the premises they're sold, and can only be made from four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. Also, they can't be frozen, or contain additives or preservatives.
So now, most boulangeries have at least two types: a cheap, regular baguette, sometimes called a baguette ordinaire - and the delicious, artisan, baguette de tradition.
Even a good boulangerie, buying a regular baguette is like buying a loaf on Wonderbread - cheap, airy, not much taste. When baguette-buying, you must always order the baguette de tradition. This is the baguette you've dreamt about eating in France - perfectly crisp on the outside, airy and chewy on the inside, a slight crumb, a little tangy from the levain. It's the perfect vehicle for a stinky cheese, or a decadent blob of Nutella. It's a better quality and so it's a little more expensive - but worth every centime.
Of course, the quality of the baguette de tradition will vary from boulangerie to boulangerie. A true Francophile will want to find a particularly delicious one to be the centerpiece of their Seine-side picnic.
So how do you spot a good boulangerie?
Usually, you can just profile. You tell from a line outside, or an insanely delicious smell inside whether a boulangerie is turning out quality products or not.
If you need a better indication, you can look for the yellow and blue sticker on the windows outside that says “Artisan Boulanger”, which means the bread is made there.
You can of course seek out award-winning boulangeries. Every year there are several places awarded prizes in what is probably the great food contest to judge on the planet. Or you take a recommendation from a close Francophile friend. Like moi.
Some of my favorites are PariSeven in the 7eme, Du Pain et Des Idees in the 10eme, and Boulangerie de Rennes in the 4eme.
If you want to be super choosy about your bread like a true Parisien, you can ask for a baguette that is bien cuite (well-cooked) or pas trop cuite (not too cooked). Most people behind the counter are used to the certain demands of their customers—so don’t be afraid to ask.
If you are buying a baguette for just yourself, and for some crazy reason you are an unable to polish off a whole one, every boulangerie also sells a demi-baguette, which is half the length of a regular (and half the cost.) I'd personally be embarrassed to order this, but better to be seen carrying a whimpy baguette than waste a precious morceaux of an artisanal masterpiece.