August 10, 2007

The baguette problem

Baguette.JPGI came to France for the bread. There, I said it.

OK, I had lots of reasons for moving to France, but even though I joke about it, it’s absolutely true: I have what some might call an unnatural fondness for traditional French breads—especially baguettes. I’ve gotten into several arguments animated discussions recently about whether one truly can’t find a decent baguette anywhere in San Francisco. My position has been, and remains, that I personally was unable to find any, despite considerable looking (that is to say, tasting). There were breads that looked like baguettes and even smelled like baguettes, but they Just Weren’t Right. In other words, they made the wrong sound (or none at all); an incorrect texture was simply a natural consequence.

I mentioned the sound of baguettes three years ago on Interesting Thing of the Day, and this summer, in the movie Ratatouille, Colette spelled it out during a lecture to Linguini: it’s not the appearance or smell of a baguette that lets you know it’s fresh, it’s the sound it makes when you break it in half. Right on.

So what’s the problem? Since moving to France I’ve had a lot of baguettes that were excellent, though very different from each other. I’ve had exactly one decidedly substandard baguette (yes, it’s possible, even here). And I’m confident in my ability to distinguish good from bad baguettes. What I’ve discovered I can’t do at all is to discern which of half a dozen great baguettes is the best. On the Baguette Perfection Scale, I can tell the difference between a bread that scored a 3 and one that scored a 7. But when the choices range from 9.1 to 9.9, I’m totally out of my league.

It’s very much like wine: I can tell a lousy wine when I drink one. But my palate isn’t refined enough to distinguish a merely good wine from a fantastic wine. Particularly if I’m trying them on two separate days—side-by-side comparisons are definitely easier.

One of our local bakeries sells two species of baguettes: the “normale” variety (pictured here) and the “traditionnelle” variety, which is shorter, denser, chewier, and more expensive. I like them both equally, for different reasons, and can’t even come close to deciding which is better. Likewise, we’ve had fresh (normale) baguettes, hot out of the oven, from at least four different bakeries. We’ve smiled, we’ve sighed, we’ve moaned. But I am completely unable to compare them in quality. And yet, clearly there are lots of people who do make such evaluations and who, moreover, agree with each other (“Oh, everyone knows X’s bread is way better than Y’s bread.”). How do they do this?

Obviously, I need a great deal of practice.

8 Responses to “The baguette problem”

  1. This is what it’s all about | Truffles for Breakfast said:

    […] 10-Aug-2007: for more on baguettes in Paris, see The baguette problem on The Geeky […]

  2. Brian J. Geiger said:

    Oh, I don’t know. The question is whether “everyone” could tell the difference between X and Y in a double-blind test. A lot of subtle taste difference is highly-influencable by external sources, such as reputation, experience dealing with the shop, etc. Plus, you won’t actually be happier, per se, gaining this extra palate, so I don’t know if it’s worth the effort.

    Still, it’ll be interesting to see if you develop your own tastes as time goes on.

  3. Shannon Williams said:

    I’d like to see a feature comparison spreadsheet. X rates high on the crust and sound but low overall. Y has a lovely chew but the aroma could be better. Problem is, what would be your control baguette?

  4. Joe Kissell said:

    Brian: You’re right, this could be more of a psychological effect than highly trained palates, but I’d love to find out one way or the other.

    Shannon: Oh yes. I’ll get right on that. I’ll use Apple’s new Numbers app to make it look oh so pretty too. I think the control baguette will have to be the standard model at La Flûte Gana, which is a fine standard against which to judge any other bread!

  5. Allan Michael said:

    I too have a fondness for French breads. I grew up in Montreal on that city’s version of the Baguette and finally learned how to make it for myself. Years later in Nova Scotia I opened up my own bakery that specialized in rye breads and bagels but I occasionally baked Baguettes, mostly for myself and friends, which sold like…..hotcakes?

    I have really enjoy reading your food articles and look forward to reading more in the future.

  6. flute gana said:

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  7. zentai suit said:

    It’s very much like wine: I can tell a lousy wine when I drink one. But my palate isn’t refined enough to distinguish a merely good wine from a fantastic wine. Particularly if I’m trying them on two separate days—side-by-side comparisons are definitely easier.

  8. zentai said:

    I’d like to see a feature comparison spreadsheet.