On our first morning here in France, I set off for the village boulangerie/patisserie to buy pain au chocolat.
Our local bakery is a small, plain shop, but it smells amazing. There are baguettes, boules, loaves of heartier ‘country’ bread, and at one side a display case with half a dozen different types of treats: plain croissants, almond croissants, sugary Viennoises, folded apple pastries, pepitos filled with both chocolate chips and a sort of custard cream. Twice a week they make their own pizza. Plus, alongside the street-facing window they keep large jars of bonbons for children. It’s open seven days a week. All this, for a village of 1,500 people.
That first morning, I bought my pain au chocolat and a baguette, and walked the ten minutes back home. It was delicious. The taste was more buttery than the versions I’ve bought most recently in the USA. But I can’t say it was exquisite. It seemed a little dry. Perhaps a “real” pain au chocolat has more emphasis on the croissant-like base than the chocolate. Or maybe it’s not the local specialty. (I plan to try a few more in Paris to find out).
However….the baguette was excellent. It’s white bread, with perfect texture and an amazing taste. The ingredients are simple: flour, yeast, water, salt. The French just get it right. Plus one baguette costs 0.9Euros, just over $1.
(I should explain that I really like good bread. For years, I spent the occasional idle moment pondering an imaginary dilemma of having to give up either potatoes – yes, crispy roast potatoes, those malt vinegar-soaked English chips/fries, the lot – or bread. I couldn’t decide. Fairly recently, bread won out. A weighty question, I know…)
I had a conversation about French bread with our landlady (a fantastic mother-of-two who has combined hands-on wheat-farming with renovating the lower buildings surrounding the 700-year-old tower, alongside her husband…surely the ultimate DIY project). She was visibly shocked that someone would charge $6/7 for a loaf of bread (yes, that’s what bread with simple ingredients costs in Spokane).
I wondered aloud why French bread is so good. “Once when I was in England I tried to make my usual crepes,” she told me. “They were completely different. I think the flour is not the same.” So, perhaps that’s what makes the difference.
In any case, we’re now buying fresh baguettes every day. Two baguettes, most days. (Often the children and I eat almost a whole one during the walk home – at least, once we’re clear of the village center. So far, I have not seen the French villagers eating or drinking at all in the street. Interesting cultural difference… Munching on chunks of bread would definitely feel indecorous.)
Even one day later, the bread has gone a little stale. One morning I gave our kids a French-style children’s breakfast: a bowl of hot chocolate into which you can dip your slices of leftover baguette. Roman loved it, Victoria was quietly enthusiastic, Conrad said it was “too chocolately” (weird, since he’s definitely my son…), and Gaston mysteriously poured the entire bowl of hot chocolate over the table. Not ideal before school. (Note: more news on French school soon!)
Last weekend I went to buy our baguettes in the late morning, and the lady serving me in the bakery shook her head. “They are finished now,” she told me. “Perhaps the half baguette?”
Well, we’d have managed, but at that moment her colleague emerged from the back room with her arms full of fresh baguettes. “Ah!” the shop assistant exclaimed. “More are just ready!” It was like a bread-lover’s French boulangerie fantasy come true. The bread was straight from the oven, almost too hot to hold. Crunchy on the outside, near-steaming on the inside.
The baguettes were still warm when I got back to the house, and I took my bread and butter (and coffee) upstairs to the master bedroom to enjoy the best view in the house. Bon appetit!