In France, the neighborhood boulangerie (bakery) is a tradition. Every French village with a population of 1000 or more has at least one boulangerie. Smaller villages that cannot support their own boulangerie usually have a “dépôt de pain” (bread depot) in the local café or general store. Even smaller remote villages and hamlets have a bread truck which passes by several times a week with fresh baguettes.
The local boulangerie is the center of daily life. Each morning you go out in search of your fresh baguette, which must be consumed that day. By the second day, it is only good for toast, or to make croutons. For a weekend treat, it is common to pick up some croissants or pains au chocolat. For special occasions or when you have “invités” for dinner, you might choose a freshly baked tarte or beautifully decorated gateau.
Every boulangerie has its own version of the traditional baguette with its own special name. Our favorite bakery calls its baguette “l’authentique.” Other “artisanal” breads, such as peasant bread, nut, olive and raisin bread, quiches, sandwiches and fougasses (breads made with olive oil) are usually on offer. A “boulangerie pâtisserie” sells a full range of “viennoiseries” (breakfast pastries like croissants and pains au chocolat) and “pâtisseries” including eclairs, cookies, cakes and tartes. Sometimes you can also buy jams, candies and ice cream novelties.
Everyone goes to the boulangerie. It is the most reliable source of local gossip and current events…”Have you heard that Monsieur Untel had to go the hospital last night?”” “The family in the big house by the church is back from vacation”. “The Martins have just put their house up for sale” . . . You can’t keep — or keep from hearing — secrets when you go to buy your bread. The baker’s wife will always know if you are having a dinner party or special event or if you have been out of town or sick.
When you need advice on where to go for the best hairdresser, the most reliable dry cleaners, the freshest tomatoes, the best source of black truffles, you ask the baker’s wife, who is usually the person behind the counter. We have found gardeners, house cleaners and local producers of melons. In the boulangerie you find out who has just died or who is getting married. There are notices posted for upcoming concerts, wine tastings and dance lessons. Babysitters, handymen and caretakers advertise their services on little handwritten pieces of paper next to the counter.
Sooner or later, you run into everyone in the local boulangerie. It is a great meeting place. The line-up is longest first thing in the morning when the bread is just out of the oven and there is the best choice of baguettes, with light, medium and dark baked crusts. Just before noon there is also a mad dash for baguettes right before the boulangerie closes for lunch. One time I got to the boulangerie late and all that was left were “baguettes congelées ” (frozen bread from the day before.) The disappointment is overwhelming when you get there too late and your favorite “croissants aux amandes” are all gone. Your day is never quite the same.
When we first moved to France a few years ago, we would go to the boulangerie every morning for fresh baguette, a pain aux raisins and a croissant aux amandes or some other luscious treat. After two weeks, we had overdosed on all this pastry and started a healthier breakfast routine of oatmeal, fruit and yogurt. We have adhered to this ever since. These days we only eat baguettes and croissants when we have house guests or dinner parties.
The French are very particular about their bread. Everyone has a strong opinion about his favorite bakery. A considerable amount of time is spent at dinner parties discussing the bread variations and pastry options at competing boulangeries. We have switched our allegiance three times since moving to France. We too have become very exacting. It is a problem when your favorite boulangerie is closed for vacation and you have to resort to plan B. One time we ran into this problem when we were preparing for a dinner party. We had to buy our bread at a bakery we had never tried before. The bread was tasteless and squishy. We were so embarrassed to have served it to guests.
The baguette is part of the traditional triumvirate: bread, cheese and wine. Bread is served at every meal. A hunk of baguette makes a great sponge to soak up whatever sauce is left on your plate at the end of the meal. Bread is always served with cheese. Butter is never put on the table with bread. A typical after school snack for French children is a “tartine” (a slice of baguette with a bar of chocolate.)
The test of a truly good baguette is that it can stand on its own with nothing on it. The aroma of freshly baked bread is truly one of life’s greatest pleasures. One time we tried an artisanal bread in a special boulangerie in the Luberon. The baguette was so amazing that by the time we were leaving the parking lot, we had already consumed half of it and we had to run back in to buy another loaf.
The traditional baguette is considered a necessity and the price was regulated for many years. Today there is so much competition that the prices have remained low. We generally pay between .90 and 1.10€ for a baguette, which we consider to be one of the best bargains in France. Now it is popular for a boulangerie to offer a “formule” at a special price of 3€ for four baguettes. If we are having house guests or a dinner party, we usually buy the “formule” and freeze the leftover bread to use for toast.
When we first bought our house over twenty years ago, we were impressed that our village boulangerie offered not only wonderful breads and pastries, but also an impressive array of artisanal chocolates. We found out that the baker’s son was in culinary training, specializing in making chocolates. Eventually he became a “maître chocolatier” and moved on to build his career. One day our baker retired and turned the operation over to a younger couple. The boulangerie was never the same. Then on one fateful day in December 2016, the bakery closed without notice. The baker and his family had snuck off in the dead of night, leaving the boulangerie in a terrible state. The elderly ladies who have always lived in the village were in tears. We had become a village without a boulangerie. It was a local scandal.
The week after the boulangerie closed, our little grocery store became a “dépôt de pain” and fresh baguettes and croissants were delivered there daily from a neighboring village. This was critical to the elderly people in the village who did not have cars and therefore had no access to daily baguettes. It was considered a stopgap measure until another baker was found and our boulangerie reopened.
The next year there was a rumor that the retired baker, who owned the building, was in negotiations with a man from Marseille who was interested in taking over the business. This was immediately considered suspect because he “wasn’t from around here” and because there were rumors of drug-related Mafia connections. The prospect of a boulangerie front for a dope ring in our village became the source of much gossip.
After several months, the negotiations fell through and the villagers began to give up hope. People became used to buying their baguettes elsewhere. Then one day we noticed a sign outside of town that said “Prochainement Boulangerie Pâtisserie Ici à Vacqueyras” (In the near future a bakery/pastry shop will be opening here.) The town was abuzz with excitement. Speculation about the new bakery became the hot topic of conversation. Rumors were running rampant. Who was the new baker? Where was he coming from? What were his plans for the new business?
This went on for several months. “Prochainement” is a very vague term that can mean just about anything. Then one day when I was in the Presse buying a magazine, the proprietor (a very reliable source on local gossip) told me there was an opening date for the new boulangerie. We started to see signs of new life in the old location. Pretty new signs were going up and workmen were scurrying back and forth, doing painting, plumbing and electrical work. The excitement was mounting as the opening date was approaching.
We had to pack up and prepare for our departure to Mexico before the new village boulangerie opened. Next year when we return to France, we will be able to walk around the corner and pick up our fresh baguettes whenever we want. And our village will once again be complete.