Once upon a time, in a semester far, far away and across the seas, I was a bread snob with a capital S. I was constantly on the prowl for another tasty-looking baguette, another opportunity to literally sink my teeth into the crux of French
culinary culture. I actually carried around a reusable bag in my purse that served as a baguette-holding device in times of dire need.
Walking out of a boulangerie with a warm baguette nestled under my arm, I could think of nothing better than sitting down and dipping the bread into olive oil or sandwiching some cheese into the insides, or even just tearing off a portion with my teeth. Sunday brunch was always accompanied by at least four baguettes which were consumed faster than you could say bon appétit. Fresh, handmade, and coated very softly with flour, baguettes acted as my third utensil at every meal, standing by until the moment came when the last bit of sauce or soup called out “Mop me up!” and the baguette made its appearance acting as the handy plate cleaner.
Outside of its utilitarian meal-cleaning purposes, the baguette de pain is taken very seriously in France, particularly in Paris where there is a seemingly-endless array of bread found throughout the capital. There is the baguette, 65 centimeters long with artistic slashes through the golden crust, the tradition, a knobby variety of baguette with a slight dusting of flour on the outside, the ceréales laced with various seeds and the occasional whole-grain flour, the pain de blé which often resembles a dense rock, the pain de mie that’s golden, soft, and squishy, the ficelle, which brings to mind a skinny magic wand, the pain de raisin studded with raisins, and the deceptive pain au chocolat that is in fact a chocolate croissant parading as bread. Ironically, sliced white bread is branded as pain américain: American bread. It also happens to be completely void of taste. But I digress.
My last day in Paris, I ran, or more like stumbled in the depths of a very severe hangover, across the city to eat, one last time, a steaming hot baguette de tradition from the boulangerie where I worked. Then, hopping on a plane and jetting across the ocean, I spent the next six months sans baguettes, a time that was filled with a lot of garlic bread and pizza crusts to try to recreate the taste of a baguette’s crunchy outside croûte.
But then one day last week, as if by magic or some sort of divine Bread Spirit, I happened upon Paul, a French baguette-selling franchise, practically on the steps of the National Gallery in Washington D.C.
Walking out of the Gallery into broad daylight, I stopped dead in my tracks, pointing out a building across the street to my friend, “Ohmygod look! Look – there’s a Paul!”
And with that, I ran across the street, visions of baguettes dancing in my head. I ran through oncoming traffic, a gaggle of tourists, and through the front door of the bakery in hopes of seeing walls lined with baguettes, with traditions, ficelles, and even the baguette de pain.
The walls were lined with coffee machines. Slightly out of breath and confused, I turned to my friend and asked, “Wait, where are all the baguettes?”
“There,” she said, pointing to three woven baskets containing a smattering of dusty-looking baguettes.
Languishing on the counter with nary a buyer in sight, these baguettes looked like baguette impersonators at a badly-run amusement park. My enthusiasm slowly deflated. I then looked around at the English advertisements and the jumbo coffee cups and realized that despite my initial hopes/hallucinations, I had not in fact teleported back to Paris, Land of the Baguettes.
Taking this in stride, I ordered a sandwich niçoise and a brioche studded with chocolate chips and sat outside with my large coffee in hand to enjoy my meal in plein air, scheming about ways to find a real baguette in Baltimore. Maybe I could ask for imported baguettes at the dining halls…