If there is one thing that the French and the Italians have in common is how seriously they take their food. I love that.
A friend’s trip to Paris had me thinking about baguette and how I haven’t had a “real one” since the last time I was in France myself, a million moons ago.
As anyone who has visited the Gallic shores can testify, baguettes there taste different and it’s not a trick of the imagination. Certainly, what passes for baguette here in the States is not even remotely related to the real thing.
To inflict myself serious pain, I started investigating the secrets behind French baguettes and why it is seemingly impossible to reproduce them. And no, not even La Brea Bakery can.
Although the name “baguette” became commonplace at the beginning of the 20th century, the bread was already baked at the time of Louis XV. A law was passed in 1919 forbidding bakers to start working before 4 am which might explain why baguettes took over in every boulangerie – its shape allowed for faster baking.
And it’s again French law that codifies the shape and length of a baguette which is why every single one looks exactly identical. The same law won’t allow for any preservatives to be used – a baguette in its purest state is just yeast, water and salt. To make its flavor more complex, some bakers add some rye flour or experiment with different yeasts but, essentially, it all boils down to the same 4 ingredients. The banning of preservatives means that baguettes need to be baked fresh everyday and consumed by evening or you will have a pretty unusable piece of hard bread in the morning (my mother, though, swears by dipping it into a cafe au lait in lieu of a proper breakfast).
It might have been the advent of the steam oven (brought to France by the Austrians in the 19th century) that contributed to the defining features of the baguette: the crusty yet pliant outside and the insanely soft inside. The steam would have preserved the inner softness while the high temperature (400F) would have quickly cooked the crust.
In the countless books and websites I consulted, I couldn’t really crack the secret though – not even Julia Child and her long and unforgiving baguette recipe really gave me an insight. Some posits the flour used in France is different – maybe. I believe it’s the lack of preservatives and the commitment to making the dough fresh everyday.
Making it at home you would end up with a fair approximation – most of our ovens do not come close to the heat and ventilation of large, commercial ones.
By the end of my research, I was ready to commit my life savings to a business class Air France ticket straight to Paris – then my pragmatism made me reach for the wheat free toast in my fridge. My friend volunteered to bring me back a baguette from la Ville Lumiere but we now know that wouldn’t do. Unless I wanted first class croutons.