Monday, 20 February 2012

Buying a good baguette in France: A piece of cake?

Toasted, with butter and marmelade. Yum!
 You can enter any boulangerie in France and buy a real French baguette with its succulent and aroma-filled inside and its golden crust, which ‘gives’ and crunches just perfectly when you bite into it.

Well, that’s what tourist agency brochures and travel articles would have you believe, but things aren’t that simple unfortunately. The reality is that the type, price and quality of bread you buy can and do vary substantially. Finding a good, authentic, baguette – or other types of bread – is not as easy as it is widely believed to be, and most people here have their favourite boulangeries as well as their ‘to be avoided at all costs’ addresses.

So what is a ‘boulangerie’ in France? In which of them should you buy your bread, and why? 

Boulangeries have changed enormously over the years, and it’s important to know why and how. Up until about 35 years ago the price of bread was fixed by governmental decree. This simple mechanism wasn’t difficult to enforce as there were only a few types of bread at that time. Also, the decree system went a long way towards explaining why bread was more or less the same everywhere – although there have always been good and bad bakers - because the strict pricing policy dictated that the recipe be a relatively basic and simple one.

But the law introduced in 1987 which allows bakers to fix the price of their own bread radically changed the market because it was at least partly responsible for the much more varied kinds and qualities of bread we see today. This is because deregulated pricing has allowed bakers to produce the kinds of bread they want to, using the types of flour and other ingredients they want to, within the limits of legislation controlling the quality of bread in France. Adapting to different client groups is also easier today – for example you will generally find a wider choice of breads in large cities than in villages, where bread is often more traditional in presentation. Some bakers in more affluent areas sell higher-quality products at higher prices, and others in other areas may have a different client base.

This law represents one of the two major changes in the French baking industry which have taken place over the last 40 years, and although the offer is more varied, so is the quality. And that’s where a little knowledge goes a long way.

The other major change centres upon the question of just what a boulangerie actually is these days, and just what a ‘real baguette’ is too. There are three principal types of bread shop today, and the differences between them are substantial as they reflect the major evolutions in bread making techniques which have occurred over the years.

Many people - including quite a few French people incidentally - walk into a baker’s shop to buy bread thinking that they are in a boulangerie. But there is a good chance that they are not, and what kind of baguette they buy depends on which type of shop they walk into.

The first – and luckily for us the biggest – category is that of, well, the old-style ‘boulangerie.’ There are around 32,000 boulangeries in France today. Boulangeries are the guarantee of a product made wholly on the premises, and they are thus the most authentic. They are instantly recognisable because they actually have a sign or logo outside saying ‘boulangerie.’ This is because they are the only bakers who respect the high standards that must be respected to produce authentic bread.  A boulanger must be a professional artisan who chooses his own raw materials, makes his own dough, controls its fermentation, and shapes and bakes it on the premises. No frozen products or freezing techniques may be used.

If a boulanger also makes patisserie (cakes, tarts etc) and/or viennoiserie (croissants, pains au chocolat etc), those products have to be produced using the same criteria.

In other words, you know you’re getting an authentic product. That said, whether or not it pleases your own particular tastes is another matter, and I’ll be writing about what good bread is and how to recognise it in a subsequent article. Also, some boulangers are better, more conscientious and more experienced than others, and that also increases variety and quality. 

But – and there’s always a but – not all boulangeries are fully independent artisans. The last 30 years has seen the emergence of another category of bakers – those who are under contract to produce bread for a ‘marque meunière’, or ‘flour producer brand.’ These shops all sell more-or-less exactly the same products, because the bakers are under contract to exclusively use a particular flour producers’ flours and other ingredients to make breads of the flour producer’s choosing. They must also scrupulously respect the preparation and baking recipes they are instructed to use, down to the smallest detail.

And you don’t have to be a ‘real’ baker to start up one of these shops. Anyone can do it. A few months’ training in their training school and you’re up and running. This kind of baker is to all intents and purposes operating a kind of franchise, and more and more of them open each year.

Because they produce on the premises from start to finish however, they too can call their shops ‘boulangerie’, and the flour producer provides its own distinctive corporate and trademarked colour schemes and logos etc to market the shop and the brand. That means they are instantly recognisable to those who know their bakers’ shops. Banette, Polichette and Baguetti are some of the better-known brands. Traditional bakers aren’t happy with this state of affairs though, because they claim that the profession is heading down the road to corporate uniformity in both product and methods.

The bread itself? It’s often reasonable, given that it wasn’t even made by experienced bakers in many cases, but it is, well, standardised in both taste and aspect and it often lacks character. I’ll buy one if there’s nothing else around. And I’ll certainly buy one before ever being tempted to walk into the third – and most hotly contested - category of bakers’ shops, the ‘point chaud’.

Because many people see bread and pastries in a shop that looks like a boulangerie, they automatically assume that it actually is one, but the point chaud is anything but. 

A point chaud is basically a place with lots of cold rooms and freezers which you rarely see because they are at the back of the shop, and these storage facilities are filled with frozen baguettes, croissants and many other products. The products were mass-produced in a factory anywhere up to 200km away and are delivered frozen, to be baked in the shop. (Incidentally, these frozen-product factories also produce the millions of baguettes etc sold in supermarkets.) What you do see however are the baking ovens and bread racks full of bread, just like in a real baker’s shop. But there isn’t even a qualified baker on the premises and the bread is ‘baked’ in batches by serving staff as and when it is needed, from whence the ‘freshly baked’ impression the more unsuspecting clients get.

As you may imagine, these shops are not appreciated by traditional boulangeries and bakers, who do not consider what they sell to be ‘real’ bread. Worse, they are springing up all over the country and there are already over 6000 of them. Their products are often of very average quality and taste and I personally would never buy them. Many people do buy them however because they don’t – unbelievably you might say – check for the most obvious sign that they are entering a point chaud, which is that they cannot use the word ‘boulangerie’ on the shop front or anywhere else, and they must use the denomination ‘point chaud.’ You have been warned.

The result of all these changes is that unless you know how to recognise which kind of baker’s shop you are walking into, you only have something like a 50/50 chance of buying a traditional baguette made by a trained artisan. The rest are either frozen products which have been heated up and browned or trademark branded bread. Not all of the latter two are bad of course, but it can’t be denied that they do not share the same characteristics and taste as bread made by a real baker who uses his experience and originality to produce the kind of baguette that connoisseurs prefer. 

At the end of the day though, bread, like wine, cheese, and food in general, has to be ‘learned.’ And the first thing to do is to forget all the dreamy travel brochure ideas of wonderful baguettes on every street corner and learn how to tell the difference between a real baker’s shop and the rest. This may entail using a little more discernment and not necessarily entering the very first baker’s shop you see, but the result is often well worth the effort.


  1. Salut Monsieur Fripouille. Je suis la Madame Clunie. J'aime beaucoup votre blog, c'est très informatif. Je viens de mangé un sandwich fait avec insipide, produit en masse dégoûtante pain de Asda et je suis jaloux de vous et vos boulangeries. J'aime aussi beaucoup Google Translate. Je vais vous envoyer un e-mail.

  2. Salut Clunie! Et ça me fait plaisir de te voir ici. Je vois d'ailleurs que tu te débrouilles bien en français. Je n'avais aucune idée que tu était si forte que ça. Bravo! Bon, j'attends ton email avec impatience mais il est 01:10 ici maintenant, alors je vais aller me coucher. J'ai pas mal de boulot demain. A plus!

  3. Hiya Frip, Sounds like buying bread isn't always straightforward in France, but at least there's reasonable access to the real stuff.

    Things aren't so good in the UK. It really is remarkably difficult to get a good loaf of bread. All the supermarkets sell only poor stuff, in my experience, and I've tried them all. Even Waitrose is lousy-among the worst.

    The Polish shops have some good bread; some is sourdough, some ryebread, but (almost) all of their bread seems to be made with just flour yeast salt and water, no chemicals or preservatives (try getting that in uk type bread!).

    When I was reading up about baguette making I read that roughly half of the ones made in France these days conform (roughly) to what is considered traditional, the rest are made in what was called the American style, which I think is what we're more used to in the UK-with a thin very crisp crust.

    But those available here are usually not much cop-many are frozen for up to a year before being baked, which doesn't help.

    I have made my own bread for a while now, -when i bought a Hovis loaf recently I really was amazed at its total lack of flavour and strangely light cotton wool texture.

    Bread machines can be improved on, but even the simplest one can make you a better loaf, with no skill or great effort, than the mighty Hovis can manage.

  4. HI Emma, it isn't as easy as some people may think to buy real bread as people imagine a baker would bake it, that's for sure.

    Polish bread? I tasted some with sesame seeds all over the top crust once. It was dense, which meant that many people couldn't eat a lot of it, but my was it good! Succulent taste, it 'felt' right when chewed - not too gluey, not too dry - and I really enjoyed it. It was a bit like some German breads in some ways..

    Ah Hovis, good old Hovis, the 'real bread' of my childhood. We only thought it was real because it was brown I suppose. Hovis' marketing technique worked a dream for them but, as you say, us neophytes are quite capable of doing better...

    Bread. Love it. Four good cheeses, three types of bread, a bottle of Côtes du Rhône, and I'm in heaven....

    Have a good evening.