Things about France that surprised me: the importance of bread

Even though I like to make my own bread, I don’t make it daily so I will often buy bread from the bakery. And, let’s be honest, there’s nothing quite like the smell of freshly baked bread, particulaly that French icon the baguette, still warm from the baker’s oven.

Now, if I happen to bump into one of my neighbours with this fragrant bounty, they’ll be sure to ask me where I bought it. They’ll nod knowingly, approvingly even, when I tell them from whence it came. This may well be followed by a lively discussion on the merits of our many wonderful local bread (boulangerie) and cake (patisserie) shops. The French love nothing more than chatting about food and its provenance.

Of course, in many people’s minds the baguette symbolises France. In his book “Anthropologie des mangeurs de pain” author Abdu Gnaba says of bread:

It is what defines and characterises the French.

So let’s take a closer look at this popular and humble food item. According to a September 1993 French decree, le Décret Pain, which basically re-visited laws from 1905, 1919, 1984 and 1989, ‘traditional French bread’ must be made only from good quality water, salt, a rising agent and wheat flour which contains no more than 2.8% (in total weight) of bean, soya or malted wheat flours. That means only four ingredients are allowed. There are no additives and only minimal wheat adulterants are permitted. In addition, the baguette must be entirely made on the bakery premises and not brought in from elsewhere. In order to be called “tradition” (traditional) it can’t be frozen nor contain preservatives and additives.

The quality of a French loaf is increased by some, though not all, reputable artisanal bakeries that employ extended fermentation times. When yeast ferments in order to make bread rise it produces alcohol, which provides flavours and aromas. More fermentation time generally improves the taste of bread.

Aside from fermentation, a great loaf depends on wheat, flour and the baker. The first two elements are controlled by the flour mill. I spoke to a couple of my local bakeries and they confirmed they use flour from 100% French wheat that is certified absent of insecticides and controlled for quality between the fields where it grows and the mill where it is ground. The mills abide by the French Ministry of Agriculture ‘red label’ standard that indicates superior quality – controlled for lacking additives and adulterants (such as the adding of soy or bean flours).

Just as local climate and soils form terroir that impacts the eventual taste of wine, characteristics of bread flour depends on local conditions from where wheat is produced. The range varies throughout France. Flours can be reduced to general types (high, medium, and low protein) but the individual taste often depends on non-quantifiable local conditions. To produce excellent bread, however, it helps to have high-quality fresh flour.

Bread is so much a part of French culture that even the word for “friend” copain comes from Latin cum pane (with bread) meaning the person with whom you break bread. Bread is so important it has a Patron Saint and every year on the feast day of St Honoré, on the 16th May, processions, tastings and other festivities take place throughout the country. But for me an example of how seriously bread is considered is that there is a Grand Prix de la Baguette. Once a year bakers compete in Paris for the title of best boulanger which comes with a financial reward and the prestigious contract to supply the President of the Republic with daily bread for a year. 

So is there a secret to producing a great baguette? Chatting to a couple of my favourite local bakeries, I discovered they all used red label flour without additives, unprocessed salt, a natural rising agent (yeast), a long kneading time at a slow speed (“to maintain beautiful colours and all the flavours”), long fermentation/resting time (18 hours), “delicate shaping,” and baking in a hot oven (260C, 500F, Gas mark 10) to produce a baguette with a thin and crispy crust with good aromas of wheat and hazelnuts.

The French are very loyal to their favourite boulangerie which may not necessarily be the closest, going well out of their way to buy what they consider the best bread. I buy mine from a variety of bakeries based on the type of loaf I’m buying. I have a couple of favourites which only sell sourdough bread, another which sells a spelt loaf which I adore, plus one, is both a boulangerie and patisserie, selling a wide range of baked goods, home-made ice cream, chocolates and divine cakes, as well as a wide-range of different breads.

How the French treat their bread

1. Dip it in their tea or coffee

Typically, they’ll slather a hunk of baguette (tartine) with butter and jam and then dip it directly into their coffee.

2. Never put it on a side plate

The French never set bread on a side plate, just on the table next to their plate.

3. Clean their plates with it

The bread is used to mop up those delicious sauces and clean the cutlery between courses.

4. Carry it under their armpits

The bakery will typically wrap a baguette in a piece of paper. You need to buy many more to get a large paper bag. Consequently, everyone carries it under their arm. So much easier for 5 below.

4. Put lumps of chocolate in it

For most foreigners chocolate and bread  – have they never heard of chocolate bread and butter pudding? – just don’t go together unless Nutella is involved, but the French take it to a new level. They stick squares of quality chocolate into their baguette, creating a makeshift baguette au chocolate.

5. Nibble the end of it on the street

The French are typically scandalised by the idea of eating while walking, but for their beloved baguette, they make an exception. It’s apparently impossible for them to resist breaking off one of the tips and gnawing on the end of that warm, fresh baguette on the way home.  You’ll often see Mums nibbling on one end while their children nibble on the other.

6. Eat it with absolutely everything

Would you like some bread with your bread? In France, the answer is always oui. Even if you order a bread-based dish like a croque monsieur, you’ll get a little basket of sliced baguette to accompany it.

7. Sell them in vending machines

For those emergency situations when you’ve lost your mind completely and forgotten to stop by the bakery before it closes. The baguettes are slightly undercooked before being put in the machine, then the machine finishes them off and pops them out them crisp and warm. Genius or sacrilege?

8. Eat it with cheese

Isn’t it common knowledge that cheese is meant to be eaten with crackers? Well okay, maybe the French can have this one. There really is nothing better than some creamy camembert paired with a perfect crunchy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside baguette. Best keep your crackers to yourself if you don’t want to commit another almighty dough pas.

9. Make the world’s longest one

Leave it to the French to break the Guinness World Record for longest baguette, at a whopping 120 meters. Actually, they had some help from the Italians too. And, of course, the massive baguette was promptly slathered with Nutella. 

 

Friday Photo Challenge – blue

I love these weekly challenges because it forces me to think about what’s in my photo archives and how I might re-purpose them. The Challenge proper doesn’t restart until next Friday. Meanwhile, I’ve been using a few topics from last year that I missed.

It doesn’t get much bluer than the Great Barrier Reef!

If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not join in the fun?

Friendly Friday

How to join the Friendly Friday Photo Challenge

Post a comment below and include a ‘Friendly Friday’ ping-back in your post, so others can find your entry.

  • Publish a new ‘Friendly Friday, post including a URL link to the host’s post, tagging the post, ‘Friendly Friday’ Add the Photo Challenge logo, too, if you wish.
  • Copy the published url into the comments of the host’s post, so other readers can visit your blog.
  • Visit other Friendly Friday entries by following the links. It’s fun!
  • Follow the host blogs to see future prompts.

Please note there are no deadlines for any Friendly Friday Photo challenges.

One from the Vaults: Don’t talk to strangers

I’ve decided that once a week I’ll re-post something from my extensive archives. Obviously many of my early posts 2009 – 2012 heavily feature cycling. I’ll try to keep these to a minimum as I know not everyone is a cycling fan.

When I was very much younger my Mum cautioned me against talking to strangers. I’m sure your Mum probably said something similar. But who are these strangers? To be honest, Mum didn’t give me much clarification at the time, or since. I’m sure her intention was to keep me safe. But statistics show that most people are either harmed or killed by people they know ie not strangers. There are few really random acts of violence.

To be honest, I never much heeded her words and have spent most of my life talking to people I didn’t or don’t know. In fact I’m happy to strike up a conversation with pretty much anyone. The first instance I can recall was on a summer vacation to the Isle of Wight when I would have been around 18 months’ old. My parents (as a joke) deposited me in a large waste paper bin and walked round the corner. The joke was on them as I was rescued by a couple staying in the same hotel who heeded my cries for help. Just imagine the shocked looks on my parents faces when they returned seconds later to find me gone! Or maybe they were relieved.  In any event, we were shortly reunited.

While I was at primary school, Wednesday afternoons (and Saturday mornings) I attended ballet classes. My mother was hoping (in vain) to make me lighter on my feet. As a reward for my pirouettes my parents used to take me for afternoon tea at The Queen’s Hotel, later demolished to make way for New Street Station. Most of the hotel’s other guests were regulars, ladies and gentlemen of a certain age, often on their own. Once I’d been into the kitchens to see chef, and select my cakes, I would do the rounds of the hotel lounge. No one was safe. I would stroll up, bold as brass, and seat myself comfortably on a facing chair or sofa before smiling and then disarming them with my skilful interrogation techniques. No pliers or bright lights required. Once I had the facts at my disposal, they were filed away ready to be revisited the following week when I dropped by for an update. Early and very useful training for my future career as an auditor.

Now that I think about it, I’ve spent most of my life chatting to strangers and not come to any harm. Nowadays, when I’m out riding, I regularly strike up conversations with people I don’t know. I may not know their names, but they’re not strangers. We’re all part and parcel of the brother and sisterhood of cyclists.

Back in 2010, I started “chatting” with someone who shared my interests: football and cycling. We regularly dropped by one another’s blogs and left comments. I knew his name, where he lived, the names of his family and his email address, but that was it. We were to all intents and purposes strangers. In 2011 he made me and two other strangers a proposal we just couldn’t refuse. He suggested we pooled our efforts to write a cycling blog. It launched at the start of 2012 and has gone from strength to strength. It’s been such a blast. Mosey over to www.velovoices.com and check it out. Over the years, I managed to meet up with many of our VeloVoices and found we weren’t strangers at all, just long lost brothers and sisters in arms.

Thursday doors #51

With Paris being such fertile territory for doors, here are a few more:-

 

 

 

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favourite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

Thanksgiving: Part IV

As we left the hotel in Montauk the morning after Thanksgiving, many families were arriving for the weekend. I think we’d timed our visit to perfection. We drove back the way we came, dropping our luggage off at our next hotel in Manhattan, before returning the hire car to Newark, and getting the train back to Penn. It was very much colder in New York than on Long Island and you could sense that more wintery weather was on its way.

I love Mexican food, something we cannot get in France. It’s always Tex-Mex and somewhat average. I’d booked a table for dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant, much touted in the Michelin Guide.

Buttoned-up Midtown gets a much-needed shot in the arm compliments of chef Alex Stupak’s lively new flagship………………The menu bears the chef’s signature creative flair, offering a range of small bites, tacos and shareable large plates. Sample their clever spins on salsa, like a wickedly good smoky cashew salsa that arrives with a sampler salsa starter; or irresistible lamb sweetbread tacos with a flutter of white onion and bright cilantro.

Later that evening over Margharita’s – what else? – we had a magnificent meal which included a lobster dish I was reluctant to share! Typically my beloved and I will share most dishes but there’s stuff I now cannot eat, plus I like things a bit spicier than he does. For example, the graduated heat of the six small guacamole offerings was much appreciated.

I so rarely have a dessert but he always has one. The wait staff usually kindly bring an additional plate and spoon but are surprised to see I haven’t been tempted. It’s usually because at this point in the proceedings I’m full and, despite the number of vegan dessert offerings, I find them too “fatty” as they’re often made with coconut oil or vegan butter, and nuts.

As my beloved was going to be working all day Sunday and Monday, I let him choose what we went to see on Saturday. He plumped for visiting the Frick, an old favourite of ours, and a walk around Central Park. We walked to the Frick in the Upper Eastside along 5th avenue, enjoying the Christmas displays and lights in the shop windows. It was a gorgeously sunny, albeit chilly morning.

I often wonder what it must be like to have enough money that you could build yourself such a magnificent art collection and house it in an almost purpose-built setting? It’s hard to imagine but fun wondering about how you might spend the money. Sadly, the Frick is one museum where you can’t take photos of the rooms or exhibits just of its internal garden.

We’d gotten to the Frick just as it opened to avoid the hordes and left just as they pitched up. We crossed the road to enjoy a lengthy walk around Central Park, Manhattan’s lungs. All cities need green spaces where their inhabitants can enjoy the open air and nature’s beauty. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the Park’s bounty. There were families on foot or in horse-drawn carriages, people jogging or riding on bikes, skateboards and scooters. There were plenty of dogs nosing around their favourite spots while their owners/dog walkers looked on.

All that fresh air gave us an appetite which we put out in a well-known seafood restaurant where I had – yes, you’ve guessed it – lobster. Once more pointing the digit of doom at an innocent crustacean.

After lunch we browsed a couple of shops, specifically Lululemon, to which my hubby is addicted, and Uniqlo. We no longer have a branch of the former near us, its Cannes branch has closed. We do have a couple of small branches of Uniqlo with a correspondingly narrow range of products. No need to guess who came out of both shops clutching a purchase. Clue: it wasn’t me.

My beloved departed very early on Sunday morning for a breakfast meeting. Well, we were in New York! As the weather was still fine, I decided I would enjoy a spot of pavement pounding, door snapping and book shopping. Over the years I’ve probably spent about three months in total in New York which is why I now  like to only visit “old favourites” and any new stuff.

As I wandered around, an inordinate amount of construction and renovation seemed to be taking place. Even my favourite Flatiron building was covered in scaffolding. I happily whiled away more hours than I care to admit in a couple of bookshops. Luckily for me I was well under my luggage allowance on the way out, not so on the way back!

 

 

 

Thanksgiving: Part III

I believe I may have mentioned in a previous post that this was our maiden Thanksgiving. But, luckily for me, the hotel’s Thanksgiving offering was a splendid buffet – you know how I love a good buffet! We’d prepared dilligently with a light breakfast, a walk along the beach, a session in the gym and I was wearing my elasticated waist trousers – de rigeur for any buffet.

I started with half a dozen oysters and then moved onto the lobster and smoked salmon. My departure from the East Coast was no doubt good news for its lobster population but, while I was there, I made the most of them. My beloved decided to have one of the local craft IPAs so I drank a glass of Prosecco with my Thanksgiving lunch.

I like to take a bit of a breather between courses. We were seated at a window table with a beautiful view of the beach and sea, plus I had a good view of the rest of the restaurant which was rapidly filling up with both hotel residents and visitors.

I’m always fascinated by how some people tackle buffets. Many seem to love to pile a little bit of everything on their plates, despite there being no restriction on the number of times they can go to the buffet, returning to the table each time with veritable feats of engineering. One family dilligently worked their way through the buffet and then, after dessert, returned to the oyster bar! What was that all about?

After the delicious shellfish and seafood, I tackled a variety of healthy looking salads, a veritable manna for any vegan or vegetarian. Understandably I swerved the turkey and pigs in blankets to try small amounts of the side dishes but found most of them far too sweet for my liking, particularly the marshmallow with sweet potato. I guess it’s all a question of taste. I do not have a sweet tooth.

My hopes had been raised by the prospect of vegan ice cream or sorbet for dessert but they only had chocolate sorbet which I don’t like. I know I’m one of those rare creatures that doesn’t like chocolate ice cream or sorbet. Instead I happily returned to the breakfast part of the buffet and filled my bowl with some delicious red fruit and blue berries, before concluding with an espresso.

When we finally left the table, the light was starting to fade – cue brilliant sunset. We’d much enjoyed our first Thanksgiving which might well turn out to be our one and only!

 

 

Sunshine’s Macro Monday #24

Here’s some photos I’ve taken of birds though I do find it difficult to get close enough!

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for all your helpful feedback and kind comments on these posts – most encouraging.

Sunshine’s Macro Monday is a challenge hosted by Irene encouraging us to scrutinise the smallest of details by getting up close and personal and bringing someone or something to life in a photograph. It’s a one day challenge without prompts.  Irene posts a Sunshine’s Macro Monday post each Monday, just after midnight Central Time (US) so don’t forget to use the tag SMM and mention Sunshine’s Macro Monday somewhere on your post, create a pingback or add a link in the comment’s section of her post.

Real Neat Blog Award IV

Tatterhood most kindly nominated me for this award back in October (hangs head in shame). She writes or rather muses on her blog of the same name. Please check it out, she has some interesting content. Oh, and don’t forget to give her a follow!

As you’ll know from previous Neat Awards, I’ve interpreted “neat” as being “wonderful, terrific.”

The (Pesky) Rules

  • Display the Award Logo.
  • Thank the blogger who nominated you and post a link to their blog.
  • Answer the questions of the one who nominated you.
  • Nominate 7-10 bloggers.
  • Ask them seven questions.

 

My Nominees

You should all know how this works by now. Anyone who’s kindly taken the time to read this post is nominated. That should be more than seven, right? Please answer the same questions either on your own blog or, in the comments section below.

Tatterhood’s This or That Questions

1. Seagulls or Pigeons?

To be honest, these have to be my two least favourite birds. But if you force me to choose, I’ll plump for pigeons because a pigeon has never stolen my fish and chips, though they do crap all over the handrail on my balcony. Fortunately for the seagull that flew off with the cardboard box containing my fish and chip lunch at the Fish Shack in Apollo Bay, there were only a few chips left.

2. Cake or Biscuits?

Both! Please don’t force me to choose. You’ll find plenty of recipes for both on my blog.

3. Flip-Flops or Sandals?

Do Birkenstocks count as flip-flops because I wear them all the time at home and, of course, all summer long.

4. Chop Sticks or Forks?

Depends on what I’m eating. I always try to eat Asian food with chopsticks but fancy trying to eat pizza with chopsticks? No, I thought not!

5. Roman Emperor or English King?

An emperor and king are both rulers, but the power associated with them is different. A comparison can be drawn between a regional manager and the CEO of a company. An empire can have many kingdoms within it; the emperor rules the entire empire while kings (or queens) rule smaller kingdoms within the empire. While the king (like the regional manager) has total control over his territory, the emperor (like the CEO) is the one who makes the final decision for the entire region. So that’ll be Roman Emperor every time. So much more power and pomp, plus I’d look good in a toga!

6. Inktober or Blogtober?

I would love to take part in Inktober – that’s drawing not tattoos, right? – but I’m not great at drawing, I need to persevere. So it would be Blogtober.

7. Random Crap or Sensible thought provoking Questions?

Random crap every time! Indeed, it could be the strapline for my blog.

Hope you’ve all had a great weekend.

Sheree x