The smells of France: What’s missing

As an impoverished teenager, I lived near a bakery for a while.  It was torture–every morning, I could smell the fresh-baked bread as I went hollow-stomached off to school to get my free state-sponsored breakfast.  (Sticky buns–incredibly delicious, if not very nutritious.  I’ve never found their equal.)

A flûte.  Picture source: me.
A flûte. Picture source: me.
A bâtard "court" (short).  Coffee cup included to give an idea of the size.  Picture source: me.
A bâtard “court” (short). Coffee cup included to give an idea of the size. Picture source: me.

I haven’t been able to find an exact count of the number of bakeries in Paris, but the consensus seems to be that there are over a thousand.  So, here’s what I don’t understand: why doesn’t every square foot of the city smell like fresh-baked bread in the morning?  This is the mysteriously missing smell of Paris–I can’t recall ever smelling fresh-baked bread, despite the fact that there are multiple boulangeries in my neighborhood.

A stereotype that’s true: bread is really important here.  It’s free in the chow hall at work–you just pick what you want out of a big basket.  Little baguettes, or individual slices of some other kind of loaf.  (More on other kinds of loaves below.)  For well over 200 years–until August of this year–the government regulated when Parisian bakers could go on vacation, in order to ensure an uninterrupted bread supply in the city.

A stereotype that’s not true: not all French bread is amazing.  Some of it most definitely is.  Yesterday, the lady at the boulangerie at the bottom of the hill handed me a baguette and I could tell as soon as I put my hands on it that it was going to be incredible.  Indeed, it was–crunchy on the outside, firm and substantial–but soft–on the inside.  But, you can find meh stuff here, too.  Try different places until you find one that you like.  You might have trouble telling the good stuff from the bad stuff when you first get here, but your discriminatory abilities will improve with practice.

There are a number of different kinds of loaves, and I can’t claim any expertise with regard to them.  Here are some of the options in my boulangerie:

  • la baguette: this is the typical baguette.
  • la tradition: basically a traditional baguette–flour, water, salt, and nothing else.
  • le bâtard: larger around than a baguette.  Available in two sizes: long (long), and court (short).  I never thought that they looked particularly interesting, but must confess that when I bought the one pictured above, I immediately ate the entire thing for breakfast, despite the fact that I’ve been trying to cut down on my bread consumption due to my basic fatness.  Linguistic note: this is the only kind of bread that’s grammatically masculine.
  • la flûte: smaller around than a baguette.  Basically, within limits, the thinner the loaf, the higher the ratio of crust to inside.  These can have additional ingredients–added yeast, different grains, sesame seeds on the outside–stuff like that.
  • la ficelle: a much smaller loaf–roughly the diameter of a bread stick, but longer.
  • la boule: a round loaf.  (Note that if you make this masculine, it will mean something else different entirely–“ass” in France, “boob” in Quebec.  Go figure.)
  • champêtre: this is a weird one.  It’s not normally a noun, and I don’t know the gender.  In my favorite boulangerie, it’s used for a sort of peasant baguette–unevenly shaped, lumpy, delicious.  I haven’t seen this term used anywhere else, and it’s not always available at my boulangerie, either–the only place that I’ve ever been able to find them.
  • la fougasse: these look delicious, but actually aren’t.  They’re flat, have holes cut in them, and usually seem to be garnished with spices, some sort of dried stuff (maybe sun-dried tomatoes, maybe olives–that sort of thing).
  • la brioche: a sweet bread.

For more information, here’s a good article by David Lebovitz on the ins and outs of good (and bad) French bread.  He’s actually written many good articles on French bread–just search his site.



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