It seems funny that the French word for bread, pain, is spelled like the English “pain” because eating French bread is the polar opposite of painful.
Here at La Cuisine, we get lots of questions about French bread. With so many types and specifications to keep straight, it’s no wonder. In light of those questions we get, we've created a little guide help you navigate the various breads you'll find in Boulangeries throughout the city. During your French Bread endeavors, hopefully this will help you with the what’s-what, the vocab, and the fun facts, plus some tips and tricks for buying the best loaves in the city.
First and foremost : where can I buy bread?
Which should lead you to the question of : where can I buy the best? The easy answer is the ‘best’ will always be the one you enjoy the most, however one good indicator in France is to look for the word Boulangerie. It's a great honour to use this term – and it's one that certainly cannot be use willy-nilly. French law dictates that in order to qualify as a boulangerie - beyond a number of administrative and legal requirements (including needing to seek approval before closing up for a vacation !) - one of the most important rules is that the bread must be made completely on site. It cannot be shipped in from a central distributor or baked from pre-prepared dough.
As far as which boulangerie to go to, ask around or taste around! Any Parisian is sure to have a recommendation. Ultimately, though, trying lots of different places (also what we like to consider as cultural research) is the only way to find the boulangerie that suits you best, because everyone’s tastes are a little different. If you want to know our favorite, we have two we frequent:
Au Petit Versailles du Marais, just behind us at the school, and it happens to be run a MOF (another term you'll want to learn about)
La Parisienne, which we love to stop at while we are at Marché Maubert! They also happen to be a recent winner of a very special designation which we will talk about below.
I have found a Boulangerie : what types of Breads can I buy?
The most popular French bread you will certainly know is….
So again, a very special term that cannot be easily thrown around, the French government has very specific guidelines for defining and regulating the beloved baguette. A ‘baguette’ must weigh between 250-300 grams, measure between 55 and 65 centimeters in length and they can only contain four ingredients: flour, salt, yeast, and water. Lastly, they are price controlled in France.
Considering their four ingredients, with no preservatives, their shelf life tends to be short. So, if you don’t think you’re going to finish a whole baguette by the end of the day, don’t count on finishing it up tomorrow. Instead, as for a demi-baguette, there are a number of Boulangeries that will be pleased to sell you half of a baguette.
Despite the strict rules surrounding their production, baguettes can still vary quite a lot from baker to baker. Any true Parisian has their favorite place to buy baguettes, and the competition between bakeries can be fierce. Baguettes are such a serious topic that each year there is the Grand Prix de la baguette de tradition française de la Ville de Paris (Grand Prize for Traditional French Baguettes in the City of Paris – what a mouthful!). This award is jury selected and, amongst the hundreds that are submitted, a number do not make the cut as they do have the specific attributes mentioned above. The best baguette in Paris for 2016 happens to be La Parisienne, which we mention above! The winner of the Best Baguette in Paris for 2017 was Brun located at 193 rue de Tolbiac in the 13th...and this year the Best Baguette in Paris 2018 winner is Mahmoud M’seddi, of Boulangerie 2M, 215 boulevard Raspail in the 14th!
And what is the award, besides a flow of clientele that will cross Paris to get a nibble? Amongst other things, the most notable part of the award is that the winner gets to deliver their fresh breads to the Élysées Palace…i.e., The President of France. Sounds more like stress than an award to us…
Beyond a Baguette : what are the other breads available ?
Keeping in mind that the baguette, while amazing, is only the tip of the iceberg of French bread. There’s so much more to taste and explore!
This list certainly is not exhaustive, each boulangerie has its own selection, but we’ve made this list of French bread-related vocabulary words to help you navigate. If you look around you will see that boulangeries have their own unique shapes and creations. One great example being the ‘tradition feuilletée au sel de guérande création la parisienne’ which we love to pick up at La Parisienne (photo below).
Types of Breads
La baguette: A long cylinder shaped bread made of flour, salt, yeast and water. Weighing in at 250-300 grams, and measuring between 55 and 65 centimeters in length
La boule : A round, crusty loaf (literally a « ball »)
Le bâtard : a rounder baguette-like loaf that weighs 500 grams
Le pain aux figues: bread with figs
aux lardons : with bacon
aux noix : with nuts
aux olives : with olives
aux raisins: with raisins
Le pain complet : wholemeal bread
Le pain de compagne : « country bread » This is a hearty round loaf, usually a sourdough bread
Le pain de mie : white bread (like the American kind, bagged and sliced and usually available in supermarkets.)
Le pain de seigle : rye bread
La Baguette de Tradition (or ‘Tradi’ if you are cool) : very similar to a baguette, but with the allowance of small variations on the type of flour used.
La ficelle : similar to, but thinner than baguette which weighs 100 grams ( literally « string »)
La flute: a thicker version of the baguette, we've see this called a parisienne in the United States
Torsade : resembles a very small and thin baguette with ingredients, such as fromage, lardons, olives, etc.
La Fougasee : A provincial bread, often with olive oil and savory ingredients such as fromage, lardons, olives, etc. Think of it as a French focaccia
Pain de Mie – One of our favorites being the most popular Poilâne
L’Epi – A shaping method to create a bread that resembles a stalk of wheat
La farine : flour
La levure / Le levain : yeast . This is really one of the major deciding factors in what makes the BEST bread – the yeast (or homemade version the bakery will use). Many of them having a family recipe passed down for years!
Le sel : salt
Le sucre : sugar
L’eau : water
Le blé : wheat
La croûte : crust
Le mie : crumb
Le crouton or quignon : It’s a sacred piece of the baguette (in our opinion) there are only two per baguette…you guessed it, the crispy ends
Bien cuite or bien dorée : well cooked, nice and golden - you will often here people specify what 'type' of Baguette they want when they order it
Pas trop cuite or bien blanc : not too cooked, a little more pale, a little less ‘crunchy’ - you will often here people specify what 'type' of Baguette they want when they order it
Tools and Treatments :
Lame : the handy razor blade tool to make the markings on the bread…imagine the slits you see on the top of the Breads
Pétrissage à la main : kneading and working the bread by hand
Scarification du pain : literally the action of scaring the bread with the ‘Lame’
Seeing people walking down the street with fresh baguettes under their arms or sticking out of their bags is one of our favourite parts of living in Paris. It’s one of the French stereotypes that can shock you with its veracity. And who can resist nibbling on the tip of the baguette on the way home? So join in the national march, go explore your local boulangerie with confidence, and enjoy your walk home with fresh / warm baguette under arm, whilst nibbling on the crouton!
And don't forget, you can always join us to make your own !