Parlez-vous Boulangerie? Demystifying the language of the French bakery

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Parlez-vous Boulangerie? Demystifying the language of the French bakery
You’d expect a business whose tagline is Feeding the Mind, Nourishing the Soul to offer travel experiences that are as memorable as they are unique. Recently, when the culinary tourism company Epicurean Exchange engaged me to lead a group of pain-o-vores on a bread trek through Paris, I jumped at the opportunity and couldn’t be happier that I had. Le pain français (French bread) is having a moment, so we spent one of our days in the French capital to see what all the fuss was about. Bicycling through the side streets, we collected baguettes and other treats from some of the most reputable boulangeries (bread bakeries) of Paris. Gathered around the wooden farm table at our VRBO, I shared techniques used by bread judges and sensory scientists as we sampled and evaluated our breads. If an upcoming trip to France includes tasting your way through the Parisian bakery scene, pump up your palate with the take-aways of our tasting trek. What the Names Mean The term baguette means a long, wand-shaped bread. The traditional baguette contains only white flour, water, yeast, and salt. Three hundred grams (10 1/2 ounces) is the official weight for competition breads in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (World Cup for Bread Baking) but it’s more common to find a weight of 250 grams (almost 9 ounces) for sale in boulangeries. Industrial versions often weigh even less than that and pump the bread with more air by adding more yeast to the dough. Any way you slice it, there’s lots of crust and little crumb (the inside of the loaf) to a baguette. Ingredients such as milk, butter, and/or sugar make the bread more tender while adding to its aroma and flavor. This type of bread is called a Viennoise, a baguette look-alike with a scalloped surface of narrowly-spaced cuts. Sweeter than the baguette and softer to chew, it’s a creamier choice as a breakfast bread with dark French coffee, especially when spread with butter or jam. The Baguette Integrale is made from whole-ground grain, similar to the American whole wheat bread. Until recently, the literal term pain complet (complete bread) described the French whole wheat bread. With the recent trend of milling whole grains in smaller batches to retain the nutrients in the wheat, the more poetic term pain intégral has come into style. You will still find breads labeled pain complet but this term is relegated to spongy, pre-sliced breads wrapped in plastic on supermarket shelves. You may discover Baguette aux Céréales. This multi-grain version can include barley, oats, buckwheat, soy, and millet. Pain aux céréales breads are more frequently baked in a boule (round) because this shape maximizes the keeping qualities of the bread. However, you may find a baguette aux céréales offered as a pain de fantaisie (a sort of baker’s choice or bread of the day) in a boulangerie of quality. Spread with preserves, the pain aux céréales takes the iconic peanut butter and jelly sandwich to ethereal heights. Le pain BIO, abbreviating the moniker Le Pain Biologique, is comparable to the United States’s organic label. Watchdogs require that bio breads be mixed on separate machinery at the boulangerie, fermented in a dedicated area so they are not contaminated by commercial yeast, and handled with tools dedicated to the organic dough. Flours used for les pains bio must be stone-ground instead of being processed with the more common and less costly steel rollers. Pain biologique must use natural wild yeast cultures, like the sourdough starter of San Francisco Bay Area breads. The use of pre-packaged commercial yeast (baker’s yeast) is prohibited. This takes us to the final category the French use in naming their baked goods– the method of fermentation. A Fermentation Primer The aroma and flavor of a Baguette is created by the boulanger during the dough’s rising phase, la fermentation. During fermentation, yeast creates carbon dioxide bubbles inside the bread. Simultaneously, bacteria in the flour and in the yeast starter create lactic acid in the dough, like the acid found in a chewy, buttery Chardonnay wine. The first gives the baked bread its open, airy texture; the second gives bread a deeper, richer aroma and flavor. As with wine, changing the fermentation of the dough creates different flavors as the bread bakes. Quality baguettes can ferment from 8 to 24 hours at a cool temperature. The industrial baguette contains more yeast, so it ferments faster and results in a puffier, less tasty baguette. To appreciate the flavor difference between these two types of baguettes, consider this analogy: Imagine the flavor, color, and bouquet found in a Beaujolais Nouveau wine available 6 weeks after pressing. Now imagine the complex sensory pleasures of a vintage Beaujolais Villages made from similar Gamay grapes but fermented with more tannins and bottled for up to three years. A (Very Brief) History of French Bread In the 1950s, mechanization of bread production eliminated the slow overnight fermentation of the dough. The flavor and chew of the baguette suffered greatly, earning the industrialized baguette descriptions like “tasteless and odorless monstrosity” and “a food not fit for humans”. Seeking to reinstate bread to its former culinary glory, the French government issued Le Décret Pain de 1993 on September 13th. This Bread Decree required that it be made using the original methods based on slow, cool fermentation. According to bread historian Stephen Kaplan, la baguette de tradition française (the traditional French loaf) would emulate the breads made in the 1930s, when the baguette had reached its peak. The government…

Lead photo credit : Baguettes. Photo: Michael Kalanty

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Michael Kalanty is an award-winning author, baker, and sensory scientist. He holds the patent for "The Aroma & Flavor Chart for Bread." His first book, "How To Bake Bread: The Five Families of Bread," won the Gourmand International Award at the Paris Cookbook Fair (2011) for “Best Bread Book in the World”.


  • Michael Kalanty
    2018-08-03 12:07:02
    Michael Kalanty
    Bonjour, Michael. Thanks for the recommendation. I will make sure to visit on my next visit. Michael