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The baguette is no doubt one of the pillars of French culture, and a symbol of the national boulangerie tradition. The French consume a staggering 6 billion of them every year, which averages almost 100 per head (babies included). From breakfast toast, to the lunchtime jambon-beurre, to the inevitable companion of cheese, the baguette is everywhere – at any time, with any meal.
The baguette has such a pivotal position that it’s considered national heritage. A 1993 decree laid out the compulsory standards for the manufacture of the ‘baguette of French tradition’, consisting solely of wheat flour, water, yeast or starter, and salt. Some additions (such as soya bean flour) are allowed in very limited quantities. In France, we don’t mess around with the baguette.
The French are clearly divided into two categories, each living in total incomprehension of the other: those who like their baguette ‘well baked’ and those who like it not. It's up to you to test and pick your side. Don’t forget that the baguette has a little sister: the ‘ficelle’ (weighing 120g, compared with the baguette’s 250g), and that you can also ask for a half-baguette.
After the baguette, pain de campagne (‘country bread’) is the other essential French bread. Despite its name, it was invented in the city after the Second World War, named as such to give it a reassuring rustic appeal and offset the industrial breads that were beginning to fill supermarket shelves. Less strictly regulated than baguette or rye bread, pain de campagne is recognisable by its roughly elongated ball shape, its rye flour composition and its slightly acidic taste. Delicious with soft cheese…
Rye bread is particularly recommended (among others) to accompany oysters. To qualify for the name ‘rye bread’, it must contain at least 65% rye flour. The colour varies. A little anecdote: it’s by working on derivatives of the ergot of rye (a parasitic mushroom) that Albert Hoffman first created LSD in 1938. Needless to say that, 80 years later, rye bread is not always available in bakeries!
This one is as simple as hello: ‘pain complet’ is a bread made with wholewheat flour, including not only the wheat grain but also its husk. Generally denser and more crumbly than breads made with white flour, pain complet is obviously recognised for its dietary virtues. In summary: it’s high in fibre, has a low glycemic index, an abundance of trace elements and vitamins and promotes good digestion. It’s the ideal bread to recover from baguette overload.
The choice might be easy if it wasn’t for other regional breads. In addition to those available all over France, each region proudly carries one or more of its own local specialities: fougasse in Provence, marguerite in Ardèche, subrot in Alsace, cordon in Burgundy, charleston in Nice, coupiette in Corsica, or couronne in Bordeaux – and this isn’t an exhaustive list.