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Column: A backstage pass into a real French baguette


Freshly baked bread sits on a cooling rack at 6 a.m. inside a bakery on Rue Daguerre, a well-known street market, in Paris. Buy Photos

The streets of Paris are empty, except for the few stragglers pulling themselves to work for an early shift.

On Rue Daguerre, a well-known market street, the lights of local bakeries start to flicker on. In particular, a brown-framed bakery’s lights come on, coating its gilded exterior paint in a warm glow.

A few minutes later, the smell of freshly baked bread wafts from the building, tempting all that pass by.

Bread, an item almost synonymous with France, really does give the country its identity. And what gives bread its identity is its baker. Not all baguettes are made equal.

However, what really should be highlighted is what makes the baguette so special. Yes, in the United States you can find French bread just about anywhere.

But in France, there are strict rules that regulate what goes into a baguette. Namely, flour, water, salt and yeast. The price, size and shape are also controlled to maintain its traditional identity.

I have found three things differentiate an authentic baguette from one you would find in the American supermarket — a good crust, a chewy soft center and holes.

To find out how these three things are achieved, I went to talk to the baker across the street from my school, which is my favorite bakery.

Farid, the baker, said the type of oven makes the baguette what it is.

The dough is cooked at almost 500 degrees Fahrenheit, so it is easy for the bread to dry out while cooking. What saves the flavor and texture, he said, is steam.

Gesturing to the giant tiered oven hidden in the back of the store, he pointed to a round, lit button.

This is how you turn on the steam, he said. Giving it a push, a wheezing sound started and the clear windows of the oven fogged up.

By turning on the steam once for a few seconds, he said, you coat the exterior of the bread dough with water.

Combined with the extreme heat, that layer of water sears the exterior of the dough immediately while the middle remains raw.

This way, as the baguettes continue to cook, the outside creates a protective crust to keep the bread from drying out and the bread stays soft in the middle.

Most importantly though, all bakery bread is handmade. As a result, every store’s bread will be a bit different.

Whether it is the amount of time the bread cooks or is kneaded, the end result is subtle variations in the taste of the bread.

For Farid, that is the most important.

“Ça,” he said. “C’est l’experience.”

That, is the experience.


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