How to buy bread - the French way

  • By
    Amanda Nicolas - Food writer

There's more to buying a baguette than you might think, here's how to do it a la Francaise.

Chicken, bacon & watercress baguettesThe French will tell you that a good baguette needs to look, feel, sound, smell and taste the part; with a golden-bronzed crust and holey ivory-cream centre, a thin, crisp shell that cracks with a little pressure, a faint hollowness when tapped underneath, a fruity, cereal aroma and a soft, chewy dough with hints of butter and caramel.

The French bread law

Something that hits all five senses needs protecting, and that's exactly what the French government did back in 1993 with the Décret Pain. The law states that traditional baguettes have to be made on the premises they're sold and can only be made with four ingredients: wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. They can't be frozen at any stage or contain additives or preservatives, which also means they go stale within 24 hours. 
Nonetheless there's still plenty of mediocre bread sold in France and separating the wheat from the chaff requires a little know-how...

Sausages with warm red cabbage & beetroot slawHow to spot a good bakery

  • To be called a boulangerie, a French bakery has to make its bread on the premises. If this prized word doesn't feature in the name of the bakery or isn't plastered on the window it could be a plain old dépôt de pain selling industrially-made bread.
  • Boulangeries are supposed to display a small yellow and blue sign letting you know that your baker is the real deal, reading: "Votre boulanger. Un artisan authentique". 
  • There isn't a wealth of good bakeries in France so the appreciated few often have a tell-tale queue snaking outside.

Buying etiquette

  • Fish finger torpedoesThe word baguette is feminine so make sure you ask for une baguette (une pronounced to rhyme with June), or just get two, deux baguettes, a number that helpfully stays the same for masculine and feminine words. 
  • It's usual to ask for a well or under-cooked baguette: bien cuite for well-cooked and crusty and pas trop cuite for under-cooked and soft. 
  • Don't be afraid to ask for half a baguette, une demi-baguette, as most bakeries sell them, and for exactly half the price. 
  • Baguettes cost between 1 euro and 1.30 euros. Try to pay with close to the exact amount as French bakeries rarely have change for large notes and may not serve you if you don't have close change. 
  • Un pain (a masculine word so pronounce un like you've been hit in the stomach) is made with the same dough as a baguette and has a slightly thicker shape. 
  • A traditional baguette is called a baguette tradition, baguette à l'ancienne or baguette de campagne.
  • Look out for interesting varieties such as baguette aux céréales, baguette aux graines de sésame or baguette aux olives.
  • - Baguettes are mostly sold in small paper bags - put the baguette in your shopping bag bread-side-down to avoid an armpit of flour.

Greek lamb baguetteServing etiquette

  • Look like a local and eat the end of the baguette on the way home from the bakery, it's called le quignon, the heel. 
  • No self-respecting Frenchman uses a chopping board as they've either perfected the cutting in the air technique or they tear off pieces by hand. 
  • Traditional Catholics use the bread knife to lightly mark a crucifix on the back of a baguette before cutting it. 
  • Serve pieces of bread alongside a main course and then again for the cheese course (served before dessert). 
  • Pieces of bread are never served on side plates, instead they're put directly on the placemat or tablecloth to the upper right-hand side of the dinner plate.

Niçoise stuffed baguetteEating etiquette

  • Soften your baguette by dipping it in your morning coffee. 
  • Although most French people eat baguette without butter, those from Normandy and Brittany insist on a thick layer of unsalted or salted butter. 
  • A popular children's afternoon snack or goûter involves cutting a baguette in two, then lengthways and filling with Nutella. 
  • Day-old bread can be salvaged by using it to make pain perdu, translated as lost bread or French toast. 


Are you a fan of the baguette? Let us know how you eat yours below...

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chenzxl's picture

I would like to know how to make proper French baguettes - is there anyone out there who knows the traditional way? I would like to train in France but do not speak the language. Can anyone help?

evelynofboston's picture

While visiting Paris last November I took a baking class - in English - at the Cook'n with Class school and have been making the best baguettes ever. Their website is cooknwithclass.com.

Tuppence51's picture

I live in Brittany and love my baguette spread thickly with the local salted butter. It has salt crystals in it. I eat it alongside another local dish. Mussels. Delicious.

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