The Baguette and I
An unlikely love story
I had no intention of falling in love with the French baguette. My Parisian food fantasy was straight out of A Moveable Feast or maybe Midnight in Paris. I would be sitting at a café on the Blvd. de Montparnasse, beautifully dressed, immaculately made up, nibbling on a croissant and sipping a café crème with Simone & Sartre, Dali and Brunel (Rhinoceros!) or Jane and Serge. But like everything else that is true about love — and true about Paris — it sneaks up on you when you least expect it.
The seasoned Parisian travelers always warn newbie tourists away from the English breakfasts of eggs, bacon, home fries and whatnot. They are usually Team Baguette. They command you to prepare for a day of walking and sightseeing, walking and shopping, walking and picture-taking, followed by still more walking, sightseeing, shopping and picture-taking fortified with what sounds like a meager breakfast of bread, coffee, and a thimbleful of juice. Some of the more evangelical demi-expats will even encourage you to bypass all those lovely art nouveau bistros and suggest instead you make dinner out of a baguette, some meat, cheese, and olives while sitting on a park bench somewhere. Mon Dieu! I mean seriously? A piece of bread? In the food capital of Europe? What, are you kidding me?
This is how I fell in love with the the baguette. When I went to Paris, I stayed in a tiny room on the top floor of a small boutique hotel, not too far from the Luxembourg Gardens. Upon my arrival, I was thrilled to discover I had what could generously be called a ‘view’ of the Eiffel Tower from the window of my room. Every night and every morning I would sit on the edge of the bed drinking strong coffee or mellow wine and just staring out the window. At night, my view looked exactly like a Magritte painting. It was divine.
I eventually became friendly with the night desk clerk, a large, friendly teddy bear of a man named Mohammed who warmly welcomed me back at the end of every day. He loved to talk and knew all kinds of amazing factoids about Paris and its literary past. I would sit in the overstuffed armchair beside the desk, put my tired feet up and tell him about my sightseeing adventures. Then he would tell me stories about unsung heroes of French history or funny, slightly scandalous stories about previous colorful hotel guests. We spoke in a choppy mixture of French and English that was somehow very comforting. After only a few days, the boutique felt less like a hotel and more like the hotel particulier of a distant, but much-loved relative.
Mohammed’s shift lasted from about 7 at night to 7 the next morning. He was responsible for preparing and serving breakfast to the guests. One morning, I heard a slight tapping on my door. At first I ignored it because I thought it was just my neighbors — a noisy pair of German backpackers who always seemed to be banging things and dropping other things. But the tapping continued and when I got up to look through the peep-hole, there was Mohammed, at the end of his shift with a breakfast tray overflowing with baguettes.
Apparently, the bread man forgot to bring croissants that morning and left a double order of baguettes instead. He handed me the tray. “Please Madame,” he said with a sigh. He gestured to the tray: a carafe of coffee, little pots of raspberry jam and Nutella and a tiny breadbasket overflowing with split baguettes surrounded by lovely little gold-wrapped pats of butter.
Pas de croissants, ce matin? I asked him. He shook his head. “Non. Just the baguette.” He made a gesture with his hand that I think was intended for the bread man and not for me.
I tried not to look too disappointed. At the time was I was firmly Team Croissant. Team buttery, flaky, silky ribbons of goodness that are nothing like the things they call croissants in the United States. I was not particularly inspired by bread, no matter how much of it Mohammed had generously piled in front of me that morning.
But I was hungry. I sat down on the edge of the bed and carefully unwrapped a nugget of butter and spread it over the long, thin slice of warm baguette with its large, Swiss cheese-like holes. Looking out at the neighboring rooftops toward the tiny little top of the Tour Eiffel, I took a bite of baguette.
I can say with some certainty that this was among the best bites of food I have ever had in my life. (Other contenders are, in no particular order, the puddingchomeur at M. Wells diner in Queens, a lobster roll from a take-away shack near the Gay Head Cliffs on Martha’s Vineyard and an amazing Jian Bing or Chinese breakfast pancake purchased from a street vendor near the university I was attending in X’ian.) It was simple. It was elegant. It was crunchy, but soft and chewy at the same time. And the butter just, well, you know, is completely gilding the lily — but in the very best way. I also think I finally know the true meaning of the phrase ‘a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.’
To paraphrase John Lennon and all those demi-expats: Baguettes are all you need.
I spent the rest of my Parisian holiday roaming the city with slices of baguette tucked into a corner of my tote bag. I covered them with butter, with thin slices of prosciutto, with wonderfully stinky slabs of Brie and figs the size of tennis balls I bought at the fruit stand near the metro. I ate them while sitting on benches under leafy trees by the Seine watching the boats and the bouquinistes selling books and prints along the river. I ate lunch on a bench right on the Pont des Arts while an accordion player busked something vaguely French mostly likely sung by Edith Piaf in the years after the war while couples bought dreaded love locks and sharpie pens from street vendors to declare their love. The whole tableau looked and sounded and tasted so wonderful that had I been a different sort of person, I might have cried.
But the problem with being a tourist is that I eventually had to stop being a tourist and go back to the place where I came from — the place where, alas, I am just another one of the locals. I returned home with a little pile of sliced breakfast baguettes wrapped in a red and blue striped tea towel purchased from Monoprix for this exact purpose. I love my home, but I’m afraid it is a place without the baguette. Well, that’s not entirely true; it’s a place without easy and plentiful access to the French baguette. I wasn’t sure how I would manage. But I can report that I’m doing okay. Every now and then I pick up a baguette St. Germain from a bakery that’s not all that far away. They’re close enough, but they’re never going to have the same as the buttery crunchiness of those made in France French baguettes. And I’m okay with that. Nothing ever really compares to a first love, after all.