For the French, bread is a major part of their lives. And if you are going to be involved in their lives, you better pick up on the rules of bread etiquette for the results could be unpleasant . You don’t mess with their food!
Mornings start usually with brioche–a light, white bread, slightly puffy, enriched with eggs and butter (not low-cal) with a dark golden and flaky crust. Its the stuff Antoinette offered to the French when she was told they were rioting over not having enough bread. And we know how well that turned out (for those not too up on European history, think French Revolution). Or, they’ll settle for leftover bread from the night before that they cut up and heat in the toaster making it eatable again. This is about the only time they’ll make due with leftover bread.
A dash is made to the local bakery first thing in the morning to pick up fresh bread; brioche for breakfast and a baguette for lunch. Its back to the bakery before lunch (and before they close) for more. If you are late and its already closed you’ll have a long walk back and plenty of time to dwell on how this piece of news will be received over lunch. Hint: not well.
Snacking on the baguette on the way home is permitted or not permitted depending on the French family you are with – be sure to confirm this. And if you are going to snack on the way home, you may want to buy an extra baguette, especially if the walk home is a long one, and especially if the baguette is fresh out of the oven and still warm…
For dinner, back again for another baguette for the cheese plate that follows dinner. If you forget to get the bread for dinner (oh la la… sacrilege!), well, get ready for a long drawn out silence as this sinks in around the table and then they try to make due with leftover lunch bread. They’ll frown, and shake their heads from side to side and sigh, “C’est pal mal”; which is really just them taking pity on your situation. You won’t forget tomorrow.
The design of the baguette is ingenious. Very long while wide enough for your hand to fit around it quite easily, making it handy for carrying, stuffing and sticking out of a packsack or the basket in front of a bike. The crust is hard so its not easily crushed (or tainted by your hands), while the inside is soft and fluffy. Ahh, French engineering! Americans still haven’t figured this out and and for years have had to put up with squished bread in the grocery bags when returning from the supermarket.
A good baguette should bend first when you go to break off a piece and cause some crumbs but not a lot. And although slicing the bread up is permitted, often it is done by just ripping a piece of the baguette. The hard crust again protecting against grimy hands. Split it in two (so you have two pieces with crust on the bottom) and load it with pate or cheese and stick it in your mouth. Take a bite. The upper teeth should easily glide through the top part, meet up with the bottom teeth, leaving you with a wonderful sensation as the teeth break through the crust and tear. Think crisp. The sensation is thin, crisp and should release plenty of pent-up saliva from anticipation of the moment.
Some will think I’ve gone way to far in describing eating bread with the French. Try sitting down for lunch or dinner with them sometime. They can go on for hours about the proper ripeness of a camembert or whether a wine has been aged or not. They simply love their food and its the thing they most love to talk about. So don’t mess with it. Tip: Just in case you do forget the bread, a back-up is to keep a baguette in the freezer. Certainly not the same, but could save you when there’s a camembert on the table with a great bottle of Bordeaux.