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Lessons in bread appreciation from a French master baker

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Kevin Pilley takes a slice off the old French stick and learns how to handle his bread.

In Paris, they really know how to appreciate a baguette. Photo / Ekaterina Pokrovsky
In Paris, they really know how to appreciate a baguette. Photo / Ekaterina Pokrovsky

Last year, Parisian baker Djibril Bodhan was crowned the Laureat du Grand Prix de la Baguette.

His winning baguette beat off 230 others in the annual competition held in Paris to decide the master Boulanger-Patissier. Bodhan, who runs "Le Grener a Pain" boulangerie in La Rue des Abbesses , won 4000 and will defend his title at the city's annual Fete du Pain next May.

There were no foreign flour-fingered competitors. The Commonwealth was not represented. Although the UK and New Zealand, in particular, are experiencing a baking boom.

If there is anything that separates the British from the French — and presents another insurmountable stumbling-block to a unified Europe — it is our differing attitudes towards bread. In Paris, if you aren't carrying a long piece of bread you are bound not to be a Parisian. Or French.

Whereas we British like to be seen in flashy cars with flashy hands-free smartphones, in France it is just as important to be seen in the company of a large, classy, very tasty-looking loaf of bread. No self-respecting Frenchman can allow himself to be seen with a plain loaf. A Frenchman must be seen with a baguette on either arm. It gives him a certain "je ne sais quoi".

A Frenchman considers himself improperly dressed without his bread. It is the ultimate status symbol and proof of refined good taste.

The French are not scared to be seen in public with their bread. They go for long romantic walks in parks with it. They take their bread for long drives. They dote on their baguettes. The French are not frightened of having a serious relationship with a loaf of bread.

We, however, take a less demonstrative approach to our bread. Or, at least, I do. As soon as I have bought it, I immediately hide my medium-sliced wholegrain in a plastic carrier bag. I'd rather not flaunt it in public. What I do with it is my own business.

But carrying around a stick of bread is as much a ritual in France as buying the Sunday newspapers is in Britain. Both end up in much the same state: half-digested and scattered in bits across the kitchen table or living-room floor.

Even if a British person doesn't feel particularly European, the least he or she can do is try to look like one. Learning how to sport a baguette correctly is a good start. That is why I enrolled at the world famous Baguette School in Paris.

Looking at my grip and general set-up my teacher shook his head in disbelief.

"Non! Do not carry it under the arm! It is not a cricket bat!" he said.

"Learn to be stylish with your breadstick! Carry it avec l'aplomb! Your loaf is your cheri. Cuddle it to the chest like a lover, comme ca! Alors! C'est bon, n'est-ce-pas? You are coming along! You will look like a true European yet, I think!"

My tutor, although a hard-crust task-master, is happy with my progress and predicts — with a bit of practise — I will soon be ready to go solo and start using my baguette in the typical French way. I will be able to hail taxis with it. I will be able to acknowledge the greetings of friends. I will be able to help people reverse into confined car park spaces with it.

My lesson ended with some advice.

"It should be understood," he said, "that the subject of the baguette must never be approached in a frivolous or light-hearted manner."

Au contraire, it is a serious continental art.

- NZ Herald

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