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These rapier-like breads could be considered the symbol of Paris. Of all the food in the country, the French baguette is the one food that unites France and its culture.
Well, perhaps that's overstating it a tiny bit. But the French – every man, woman and child of them – do manage to eat an entire baguette every day. To many French a meal without a baguette is not a meal. We feel the same way.
Boulangeries churn out fresh baguettes all day long so that customers have freshly-baked a baguettes available at all times. A baguette has to be fresh to be acceptable to a Parisian! After all, it's meant to be eaten within six hours of baking.
We had a chance to pay a visit and so a tasting at one of the oldest boulangeries in Paris, to learn about the making of famous French baguette.
Imagine if you had to have your holiday time approved by the police. Or studying for seven years so you could work from four in the morning until nine at night, six days a week.
This is the life of a boulanger. In France, you can't simply take a baking course and call yourself a baker. It takes the same amount of study as a doctor to belong to the order of French Boulangers who follow a rigid code that dates back to the time of Napoleon. (Doesn't every code in France?)
Claude Esnault has agreed to meet me at eleven, just after the morning rush, at his aptly named Au Richelieu Boulangerie in the 1st Arrondissement. A solid man in his late sixties, his hands look like the dough that he has kneaded for fifty years.
Claude reminds me that good bread needs only four ingredients; flour, water, yeast and salt. He takes a batch of kneaded dough and puts it into a cutting machine that divides it into eight equal pieces. He drops each piece into another machine to shape it. The dough that comes out now has the familiar flute shape of a baguette and is then hand rolled and placed into a special baking tray with eight cradles shaped like baguettes.
Grabbing a razor blade, he slits the proofed baguettes with eight diagonal cuts, "Exactement huit!" and puts them on the baking trolley and walks them into a large electric oven.
Every element in the making of baguettes is controlled: the air temperature, the temperature of the water, the precise number of cuts in the top of each baguette.
Since Napoleonic times the préfectures, or local governments, have monitored the vacation times of the boulangeries in their district. A boulangerie cannot be closed for annual holiday without the approval of the local préfecture. This is to ensure that each neighbourhood or village has a boulangerie open at all times. Imagine a neighbourhood without a source of daily fresh bread!
The baguettes are now ready to come out of the oven. He lumbers to the tray of baguettes, picks one up and holds it close to the fluorescent light. "Color and texture, bien sur – a crispy crust of a golden colour," he says. But, the real way to judge a baguette is to hold it up to a light. "Si la lumière traverse, c'est bon." If the light passes through, it's good. "Of course I don't do that with all my baguettes," he laughs.
Does he still love his job after all these years? "I see mes clients come in first thing in the morning, they are sad, tired, depressed. And then they take their first bite of my croissant or baguette and zing – they smile. Dentists can't say the same."