Baker Christian Vabret is squeezing down gently on a baguette in order to make it “sing.”
As he presses down, the crust is collapsing in on itself to produce a staticky, crackling sound.
“You can tell a good baguette by the way it sings,” he says.
“Le pain qui chante,” or bread that sings, is an expression among French bakers, and is one of the hallmarks of a well-baked baguette, Vabret says.
It’s a far cry from the supermarket baguette he tried to make chirp moments earlier. In lieu of a sparkly crackle, the pale loaf of bread sat mute, impervious to his coaxing and squeezing.
This scene unfolded in April in Paris while the city was under its third lockdown.
Vabret opened up his Covid-19-shuttered tea salon Marie Antoinette adjacent to his bakery Au Petit Versailles du Marais in the 4th arrondissement, to demonstrate how to distinguish between a good and bad baguette (the tea salon has since reopened).
Along with holding the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a prestigious award that honors the best craftspeople in France, Vabret also founded the World Cup of Baking in 1992, an international baking competition held every two years in Paris that could be compared to the Olympics of the baking world.
There are few more qualified than Vabret to give this lesson in bread.
Because when it comes to French baguettes – one of the most iconic culinary symbols of France – not all are created equal.
The best of the best
First of all, the best baguettes don’t go by the name “baguette.” The best of the bunch are called traditions (pronounced tra-di-syon), which cost about 20 to 30 cents more than the “classic” baguette and must be made in accordance to a strict set of rules as set out by government decree in 1993.
In order to be called a tradition, the bread can only be made with four ingredients – flour, water, salt and yeast or leavening – as all additives, preservatives and fillers are strictly forbidden. The bread must also be made sur place or on-site. Regular baguettes, on the other hand, are the quick-bake, often additive-filled cousins of the tradition that are also inferior in taste and quality.
In other words, as baker Djibril Bodian, a two-time winner of a prestigious baguette competition in Paris known as the Grand Prix de la Baguette points out, there are no shortcuts.
“You can’t cheat your way with this bread,” he says. “It’s up to the baker to find his own method for creating a beautiful tradition.”
It’s this savoir-faire or know-how that Dominique Anract, president of the French federation of bakers and pâtissiers is hoping will be inscribed in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2022. In March, the culture ministry announced that France had chosen the baguette as their next UNESCO submission over the zinc rooftops of Paris and a grape harvesting and wine festival in the eastern village of Arbois, which had also been shortlisted for consideration.
The announcement was the culmination of a four-year campaign mounted by the bakery federation, which had been sounding the alarm on the decline of overall bread consumption in France and encroaching threats to the trade.
The threat to traditional bread and culture
According to the Observatoire du Pain, a research group that tracks bread consumption habits and trends in France, the average daily consumption rate of bread among adults dropped from 143 g/day (5 ounces/day) in 2003 to 103 g/day (3.6 ounces/day) in 2016.
Overall, France counts about 33,000 bakeries across the country. But every year, the proliferation of superettes – small-scale grocery stores opened by large supermarket chains – that sell industrialized sticks of baguettes contribute to the closure of 1,000 family-owned bakeries, Anract says.
“Our craft is slowly disappearing,” he says. “Our goal with this UNESCO dossier is to set in stone our artisanal know-how but also the culture of bread in France.”
Because for the French, the baguette plays an important role in their development, both young and old.
For toddlers, the heel or end of the bread – so important it has its own name, le quignon – is often their first introduction to solid foods. A classic, perhaps clichéd image associated with the French is the Parisian gnawing away at the quignon while walking home with the rest of the decapitated baguette to be eaten with dinner.
For school-age children, the baguette marks another milestone in their childhood, Anract says.
“It’s often the first purchase a child will make,” he explains. “The parent will give the child some change and send them off to run their first errand alone.”
For home buyers, renters and real estate agents, a neighborhood bakery also becomes a major selling point. And for the elderly, particularly those who live alone, their daily baguette run is often the only human contact they have all day, he said.
“Elderly women who’ve lost their husbands come to the bakery to chat with the shop girl until the next customer comes by. The bakery is a real place of social connection.”
‘Don’t repudiate your roots’
In his 2020 book “Pour le pain” (“For the bread”), American historian Steven Kaplan also laments what he sees as the slow decline in France’s appreciation for its rich breadmaking culture, and calls on the French to reclaim their national heritage.
“The book is asking the French not to abandon their identity because the French identity is profoundly linked to bread. Don’t repudiate your roots,” he says.
The modern-day baguette, for instance, is the product of different socio-economic and cultural forces from the 20th century, Kaplan says. In 1919, a law banning night work forced bakers to find quicker, more efficient methods for baking bread which up to then was laborious, back-breaking work that required regularly feeding a starter.
Their solution was to use baker’s yeast. The newer baguette also became popular with the urban bourgeoisie, who became used to having freshly baked bread several times a day. Demand for white bread grew, which came to be associated with purity, success and upward mobility, after years of eating dark bread made from scraps of oats, barley and unrefined grains during and after World War II.
But therein lies the irony.
Because the experts agree: The best baguettes are not white. The best baguette – the aforementioned tradition – is baked long enough to achieve the Maillard effect, a chemical reaction between sugars and proteins which produces a caramelized brown crust that croaks and crackles when squeezed (the baguette song), says Vabret.
Likewise, the crumb should be cream or light yellow in color, never stark white, and be punctuated with irregularly shaped holes, a term referred to as alvéolage. Aromas can range from floral, pleasantly acidic, fruity and fresh, while the crumb should dissolve pleasantly in the mouth.
Perfecting the craft
Meanwhile, at Bodian’s bakery Le Grenier à Pain Abbesses in the Montmartre neighborhood, long but quick-moving lines are a common sight due to the baker’s celebrity. Bodian, 44, is the only baker to have won the Grand Prix de la Baguette twice (2010 and 2015), a blind competition in which about 200 tradition loaves compete for a cash prize of 4,000 euros, the honor of becoming the official bread supplier to the French president and the Elysée for the year, and the respect of his peers.
Bodian, who immigrated from Senegal to France at the age of six, said he took up the trade after growing up in a household in which his father, also a baker, spoke passionately and proudly of his craft throughout his childhood.
“Every day my father would come home tired, but happy, and he would always tell us he had the best job in the world. He never complained, never spoke badly about his profession.”
He said despite his victories, he is constantly seeking to perfect his craft. And that means opting out of baking regular baguettes, and producing only traditions.
“Instead of making mediocre bread, I wanted to concentrate on making only traditions and doing it well.”
10 of Paris’ best boulangeries
For your next trip to Paris, here are the top 10 winners of the 2020 edition of the Grand Prix de la Baguette, which crowns the best tradition in the city.
Les saveurs de Pierre Demours, 13, rue Pierre Demours 17e arrondissement
L’essentiel Mouffetard, 2, rue Mouffetard 5e arrondissement
Boulangerie Martyrs, 10, rue des Martyrs 9e arrondissement
Au 140, 140, rue de Belleville 20e arrondissement
Aux délices du Palais, 60, Boulevard Brune 14e arrondissement
Aux délices de Glacière, 90, Bd Auguste Blanqui 13e arrondissement
Boulangerie Lorette, 2, rue de la Butte aux Cailles 13e arrondissement
Boulangerie Guyot, 28, rue Monge 5e arrondissement
Giovanni boulangerie contemporaine, 49, rue Chardon Lagache 16e arrondissement
Maison Leparq, 6, rue de Lourmel 15e arrondissement
Vivian Song is a Toronto expat and Paris-based freelance journalist who has written for CNN, The New York Times, BBC and Vice World News among others. She only ever orders a “tradition” at the bakery.