When I first moved here, I thought that to buy a baguette, you walked into the boulangerie and simply said “une baguette, s’il vous plait”. Little did know, that 99% of French people SPECIFY “au moins” the “cuisson” of their bread. Sort of like ordering a steak medium, or well-done, a baguette can be requested “bien cuit” or “pas trop cuit”. Note that the customers will not hesitate to reject the loaf presented to them, and gesture or point to another one in their line of vision that has caught their eye! The serveuse does not take offense at all… par contre, she will pick through the loaves on racks and in the baskets as needed until the perfect one is attained! This may annoy others in line, but they will do the same when it’s their turn as it’s very important that you get your baguette as you like it. I also learned that there is more than just la baguette … there is baguette “tradition”, “de campagne”, “retrodor” and “baguette moulée” (and the list goes on…). There are different nuances to each type of bread. The “mie” is softer, or has a different crumb, the crust is harder or chewier, the flour is slightly different, the loaf is a somewhat different shape or length. And by the way, it’s perfectly fine to request half a baguette only, or to ask for it “coupé en deux”. But you would never ask for it “tranché” . Here, as far as I see, you tear the baguette off the loaf – acceptable even in polite company or in a “resto”, you do not have to cut it with a knife at all. You can ask for other breads “tranchés” but never a baguette! When handing it over, the serveuse will wrap a small paper and twist it (covering the middle of the bread only) or put it in a paper sack, with the end sticking out. It gets handled and handed over just like that, no latex gloves needed, no problem.
In addition to the baguettes, of course, there are many other breads and “viennoiseries” and don’t get me started on the patisseries. It took me a while to learn the subtleties of the breads. I am still not so confident about which is a “Paris-Brest”, or a “Mille-feuilles” or a “Religeuse”! But the experience of it all is part of the charm. When I go to the boulangerie, I usually have my small daughter with me, who smiles wide-eyed at her beautiful confections, says Bonjour messieurs mesdames, and runs behind the counter to give her favourite serveuse “un petit bisou et un petit calin”. She then receives with a flourish “une chouquette” –free of charge– a delightful little puff of dough covered in crunchy sugar crystals…. Or, other times, a beignet, un petit pain-au-lait or un mini financier. Vive les boulangeries, is all I can say. If I had to move away tomorrow, I would miss my warm baguette (so comforting, especially trudging home in the cold, after working all day… the pleasure of having a hot bread to warm your hands and nibble as you go). Sometimes, I pick the children up from school, we buy a baguette walking home, and it’s mostly gone by the time we reach our front door! When I lived in the US, bread was something pre-sliced in a plastic sack from the supermarket… something I just had on hand to make the occasional tuna sandwich, and very often there was no bread in the house; it wasn’t that important. Now, if there is no bread, I will hear the family shouts echoing throughout the household “Quoi! il n’y pas de pain!? T’as pas pris le pain?? Qui va acheter le pain? Il faut du pain!!”