One week ago, I found myself tramping through the dim morning half-light to pick up my family from the airport. My body couldn’t figure out if it wanted to sleep or wake-up: my eyes were half shut with fatigue while my legs churned beneath me, powering me down the road to the train station all the way to the airport where I found myself standing and waiting with my 20 pound backpack for my family to come out of customs. Fortunately, I had bought five pain au chocolate the morning before for the incoming stampede of Walkers. My rational: they needed to start off their trip correctly. And so armed with croissants from a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, or the French equivalent of an Oscar for culinaires, I stood there in the Charles de Gaulle airport ready to welcome them to the Good Life of Eating in Paris.
Finally, after what seemed like forever and a day, they came off the plane, famished and complaining about the stale coffee on the plane ride. After going through the hugs and hellos, I presented them with the sachet of slightly crushed croissants. “Sorry they’re not in the best of state right now…” I mumbled, handing the rumpled bag over to them. Apparently that didn’t make much of a difference because my brothers and parents then devoured the pain au chocolate in less time than you can say, “Bon appétit!”
However, about 24 hours after landing in Paris, my family had the unfortunate experience of buying not a mediocre baguette, but a terrible baguette. With a combined ten hours of sleep over the past two days, in addition to having just finished a half-marathon, I was not really in the best state to tolerate such mediocrity in a country where bread is the fourth utensil.
Upon breaking the news to them, the general response was: “Really? We thought it tasted good.” So taking the baguette from their hands, I demonstrated how the croute was not crunchy enough, how the inside was not soft enough, and Ye Gads! the outside seemed to be sprinkled with chalk dust that was at one point flour. Needless to say, my family understood nothing: a baguette was a baguette, and they were hungry. Storming out of the kitchen in a huff and a, “Well, you can eat that crap if you want to but I’m buying another one!” I stomped to the sofa where I napped for about three hours. And when I woke up, I realized that I have become a bread snob.
When I first arrived in France about three months ago, every bakery appeared to sell the carbohydrate version of ambrosia. Literally on every street corner there was a bakery that would emit the most wonderful scent of freshly baked bread and croissants that would beckon me into the bakery to buy yet another bread product. I was enthralled with the fact that I could (and did) eat a whole baguette every day. La vie!
But gradually, I learned the rules of the road through my own blunders or with the intervention of doting Parisians. Thanks to a dame at my internship, I was sat down for 20 minutes in order to learn the importance of these rules: pertaining to bakeries, you have your boulanger (bread maker) and your pâtisser (pastry maker) and when choosing between a tarte tatin and a baguette, buy both! But beware—just because a boulangerie sells wonderful bread does not mean that it sells wonderful tartes. The same rule goes for pâtisseries: they may sell awe-inspiring tartes, but they don’t necessarily sell edible bread.
And then there’s the little things: there’s Bio Bread (organic), artisan boulangeries (locally-owned), artisanal pastries, “Best Baguette” prizes, “Best croissant” prizes, and slews of other nuances of the Parisian bread and bakery world.
Now more the wiser, I turn up my nose at bread that is not warm, whose molle (insides) are not soft and chewy. If the bread has the telltale signs of flour dust, I leave it to collect dust on the shelves instead of buying it and smothering it in Nutella to cover its below-average taste. Most importantly, I never, never, never buy bread from a supermarket!
So yes, I will be the first to admit that I’m a bread snob. I will not tolerate sub-par bread that has no taste, no soft-to-crunchy ratio, no relationship whatsoever with an actual human being, which will make it difficult next year when I return to the U.S. Looks like I will be smuggling back a whole suitcase of baguettes.