The International Writers Magazine: Living in France
In France, bread is a serious thing. Already, as an English teacher, I must explain to French people that while “baguette” in French is a countable noun, because you can buy one or two of them at the bakery, in English, “bread” is an uncountable, mass noun, never taking the plural form. Frankly, it's not good enough to bother counting.
But in France, each one is precious, and singular. You can buy a baguette, a boule, a pain de campagne. You can choose whole grains or not. While it's possible to buy more than one at a time, it is preferable to buy only your bread for the day, daily. If there's really no other choice, like a death in the family, you can buy your bread for the next day too, and freeze it. You have to be American to do what I do, buy the week's bread, and put the majority in the freezer. After all, for me, it's just bread, in bulk.
Every village has a bakery, and most have two or three. Each household must choose a bakery and commit to it. Everyone has their preferences in the baguette, more or less cooked in the center, toasty on the outside, or just barely golden. You can choose your bakery based on the quality of the bread, or simply on the friendliness of the owner. A combination of the two is preferable. At any rate, it's clear in every village which bakery is superior; the others keep going mostly on customer loyalty.
At one town where I lived, there were three bakeries. The two actually inside the town made bread that was virtually inedible. If you didn't get there when they first came out of the oven, every other day or so, you could use them as baseball bats. The other was heaven. It was located a bit outside the town, and necessitated driving twice the distance as the others, but it was worth it. They knew it too; they systematically closed two days of the week, and then, often, just whenever they felt like it for an afternoon, and customers still kept coming back. We would stand in line all the way around the block, like we were holding ration tickets.
||This particular bakery not only made the best bread in town, but also specialized in fantastic cakes and pastries. My daughter, whose favorite animal is the pig, loved their little marzipan cakes shaped like pigs so much that when it was her birthday, I decided to forgo the traditional cake for a collection of little pigs.
I placed my order, trying to calculate the number of pigs I needed, when the owner scratched her head and asked if I wouldn't just prefer one giant pig instead. A giant pig cake?! Would I?! Another satisfied customer.
I've since changed towns, although I still order cakes from this bakery. I learned from a friend who still lives there that there has been quite the bakery shake-up since I left. One of the other bakeries inside the town changed owners and suddenly, began to bake terrific bread. This brought the bread trade back inside the little village, no doubt causing traffic jams and parking shortages. Just like that, there was a new king in town.
In my new town, I don't yet have a favorite. There is a chain bakery that makes decent baguettes, baked fresh several times a day. They also bake often on Sundays, which is unheard of, and a distinct advantage. It feels impersonal, though. The staff rotates often, and I never recognize them from one day to the next. They don't recognize me either, not even with my American accent and noisy, English-speaking children. Sometimes, it's nice to be anonymous, but in a small town, you have to try to ignore someone as foreign as I am. I know they wouldn't have made me a giant pig cake.
Sometimes I go to a smaller, private-owned bakery, where the pastries are delicious, and the bread tastes like firewood. But the aging owner loves her shop, and her customers, and you can tell. Her employee, who must be family, perhaps her granddaughter, has defeated me with her bright smile and relentless good cheer. I return, again and again, to buy great pain au chocolat and bread I don't like.
My freezer remains stocked with the week's bread. To be without bread, in a half-French household, is a crisis indeed. Still, I tend to go more often than once a week, sometimes for a snack, sometimes for something fresh for the evening. I float from bakery to bakery, the chain to the small one, and back again to my old town. I'll need to commit soon and quit gallivanting around. Bread is a serious thing, and not to be trifled with.
© Amanda Callendrier April 24th 2010
acallendrier at hotmail.com
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