Posted by: jowanderer | June 6, 2008

How to find good French bread

June 6, 2008

How to find good French bread

We Britons love French bread, but do we get it right? Three Frenchwomen test our baguettes

French baguettes

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My son spent his first four years in France. Like any self-respecting French person, he equates the word “bread” with a baguette. Sliced just doesn’t do it for him. So my challenge on moving back to London last year was to find a half-decent French loaf. Believe me, there is no shortage of baguettes in this country. They sit in cages in the supermarket, on shelves in the corner shop and there are even baskets of them in the Argentinian café round the corner from my house (why?).

We Britons, it seems, can’t get enough of French bread. We just long to recreate that holiday moment when we buy a warm baguette in any corner boulangerie in France, break off the crust and munch it in ecstasy in the street. And yet, back home, French bread is a continual disappointment. This seems odd when you consider that our palate is increasingly discerning and London is home to so many French residents that, as President Nicolas Sarkozy pointed out on his recent visit, it effectively makes up France’s seventh largest city. Why do these descendants of the people who guillotined their queen after she greeted news of a bread shortage with a tactless comment about eating brioche, put up with leaden French sticks that they could have bludgeoned her with?

I was bemoaning my lack of success to Dominique Mirabel-Zienau, one of the mothers outside my son’s French Saturday school the other week. “Do you know,” said Dominique, who runs the corporate language tuition specialist, Mirabel Languages, “after more than 20 years in this country, I’ve found Costcutter’s small baguette to be the best.”

Something went zing in my head. Let them eat bread, I thought. And that is how three Frenchwomen, who between them have lived in Britain for 45 years, ended up at my house doing a blind tasting of 13 baguettes.

What should we look for when sampling our baker’s dozen? “A good crust, a crisp and crunchy texture, and aroma,” said Jean-Christophe Novelli, a French chef who started as a baker when he was 14. He denounced British baguettes as “bendy with an inferior crust”.

Sylvie Asimus, a freelance editor, was with him on that. She held up a flaccid Somerfield offering that made no attempt to defy gravity. The three tasters giggled for so long that I felt embarrassed for the photographer, the only man there.

However, looks aren’t everything. Baguette number 11 was golden with perfect slashes and felt very light, but it was dismissed as rubbery and tasteless. That dashed a few illusions – it came from ultra-French Bagatelle in South Kensington, a traditional boulangerie that supplies mamans doing the school-run to the lycée, five-star hotels and some of the best restaurants in London.

Waitrose’s stonebaked baguette got top marks for appearance, too. “Très jolie” was the verdict of Elizabeth Torres, a human resources manager. But Dominique damned it with faint praise: “It tastes quite good when you’ve lived in the UK for 22 years.”

Soon the three of them were panning most of the pain on offer. The halfhearted “bof” – the linguistic equivalent of a Gallic shrug – resounded round my conservatory. Hard, dry, soft and tasteless were common complaints. Dominique called Sainsbury’s half-baton “nightmarish” and Sylvie got quite overwrought. “Just touching it makes me cry – it is so soft,” she said of Costcutter’s large loaf, while Greggs’ baguette elicited an “au secours”.

I had visions of telling my editor that there wasn’t a good baguette to be had in Blighty. “We are very critical – we are French,” explained Sylvie, not altogether helpfully. Then came that very un-French thing – consensus. Two out of three liked the baguette from M&S, while the other thought it quite acceptable. And two pain-ellists pronounced the flute from Waitrose to be good. It was the cheaper of the two French loaves I bought there, proving that price is no guarantee of quality. And Costcutter’s mini baguettes showed that small, if not beautiful, was far from being the most unattractive option.

M&S puts the success of its baguette down to using 100 per cent French flour, an authentic recipe that allows the dough to prove for two hours and the fact that the bread is baked fresh in store. Waitrose uses French flour, too, with a very slow, but simple production process.

Flour from French wheat varieties is crucial if you want an authentic taste. “Finally, the oven is very important,” Jean-Christophe Novelli told me. “In France, the ovens are designed to inject steam into the bread to produce the chewy crust. Patience is another key ingredient that is often lost in the UK.”

The proof of that particular pudding was very much in the eating. The baguette that had everyone in raptures was, I’m sad to say, one that you can’t buy anywhere. It turned out Sylvie was a secret French bread maker. I slipped her “freaky-looking” – as she called it – baguette into the pile for the other two to taste. “A lovely authentic pain de campagne,” said Dominique. “Very good, very crusty,” said Elizabeth. Two English hangers-on were equally enthusiastic.

Sylvie insists she isn’t “hardcore”. She has simply adapted and amalgamated recipes to come up with one that works in her oven. She uses French and Canadian flour, lets the dough rest for at least three hours and sprinkles water on it to get round a lack of steaming facilities.

Which all goes to show that there really is no substitute for a fresh, homemade loaf. But if you don’t have the time to experiment, rest, knead and bake, then you could do a lot worse than pick up an 85p baguette from M&S or buy Waitrose’s basic flute.


The magic flute: Our panel’s verdict


Sylvie’s homemade baguette


Marks & Spencer baguette – 85p

Waitrose flute – £1.09

Costcutter small loose baguette- 55p

Paul flute – £1.20


Waitrose stonebaked baguette

– £1.39

Selfridges baguette – £1.20

Tesco baguette – 72p

Greggs French stick – 65p

Bagatelle baguette parisienne – £1.20

Nul points

Sainsbury’s half baton – 36p

Costcutter Bake and Bite baguette – 99p

Somerfield French stick – 65p


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