All hail the baguette
When I learned on Thursday that UNESCO had designated the baguette world heritage status my reaction went something like this: What? I assumed UNESCO had given the long crusty loaf of French bread world heritage status decades ago.
In many areas of life I consider my education appallingly deficient – history and philosophy, for example. I’ve never read Kant or Hegel, Erasmus or Nietzsche. My relationship with poetry, with Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, ended in a breakup somewhere around 10th grade.
But there is one discreet area of human enlightenment in which I defer to no one in my expertise – breakfast pastries. I’ve been privileged to have some of the best, at home and abroad, and the experience has helped educate my palate. I’d go so far as to say that if my brain was as intelligent as my taste buds I could teach a graduate level course on the great books.
But, you might say, what does the unembellished baguette have to do with pastry? Isn’t pastry something with topping or filling, with cream or nuts or jam? Isn’t it sweet? Isn’t it supposed to induce guilt?
By the way, I’ve never felt guilty biting into an almond croissant or a sticky bun. If the experience arouses guilt that only happens when the confection is disappointing and I have to ask myself, while consulting my glucose levels, why am I wasting my time?
But a perfectly rendered cinnamon roll or cheese Danish is its own reward. It lights up the senses. It makes you happy to be alive. It reminds you that as precarious as civilization appears there might be someone or something looking over us, leading us to the light.
A conversation I have with myself many mornings is what breakfast confection stands above all the rest? The answer, after not too much soul searching, is the baguette. This isn’t an easy call. If someone were to argue there’s is a perfectly flaky croissant I wouldn’t try to mount much of a defense. They’re both great.
It sort of goes back to that existential question – if you could have only one beverage for the rest of your life what would it be? Water, obviously. As much as nothing hits the spot like a Coke or a beer or a glass of good wine one requires water to survive. The baguette is baking’s equivalent of water. It’s bread but bread that manages to combine simplicity with sublimity.
The problem with baguettes, especially in the United States, is that it’s hard to find a great one. There are lots of bad ones. And some good ones. What makes a baguette great is that it engages all the senses. Sight, smell, taste, touch and sound.
It’s possible to buy, if not a bad baguette in France, then an indifferent one. But the reason the loaf has so richly earned its UNESCO designation is because it’s just as easy to get a great one. At almost any corner bakery. And there are lots of corner bakeries in France. The only possible explanation for how all of them survive is that they’re supplying the French people with something that transcends food. They’re offering them a connection to the divine.
Let me offer you my baguette consuming ritual. It involves going for a run in Central Park and then traveling slightly out of my way to purchase a baguette at Eli’s, a gourmet food shop on Third Avenue that sells one of the city’s finest. (It’s their kosher baguette, by the way, not their regular baguette.) The baguette costs $4.95. That may not sound like a lot of money these days, especially with a single breakfast pastry costing as much or more, but in France a baguette can be acquired for one Euro. At least that’s what the Times story reporting the UNESCO designation says. Which just goes to show that the French treat the baguette less as a food than a utility, like heat and electricity, something that one can’t live without.
After I select my baguette – I like it to be slightly charred to set up a contrast between the hard crust and the soft, cloudlike bread within – I sheath it in a long wax paper bag made for the purpose. The French typically tote their baguettes home without any wrapping. However, I do turn down the cashier’s offer to bag the baguette in a second bag, with perhaps excessive self-righteousness.
The reason is that you want to be able to whiff your baguette on the way home; you can’t if it’s buried in layers of paper. The scent of fresh baguette is a minor form of ecstasy, appealing as much to the intellect as the senses. Or rather, it makes you realize that the distinction between the two isn’t as defined as you might think. We’re equal parts animal and god. At its best the baguette taps into both, resolving any tension that might exist between the two.
There are purists who take their baguette plain. But mine requires excellent butter, jam and cheese, preferably Swiss Gruyere. Some prefer to tear their bread from the loaf. I slice it into thin bit-size pieces with a knife, spreading it with butter and then alternating the jam and cheese.
I’ll consume about half the baguette. But that creates a painful dilemma. What am I supposed to do with the rest of it? The half-life of a baguette is approximately that of the female mayfly. I’ve tried to freeze it but that doesn’t work. Its magic evaporates within a few hours, the ying and yang between it tough exterior and beckoning interior all by gone.
In the end, I suppose that’s what’s most special about a baguette. It requires you to live in the moment. Anything that can do that richly deserves world heritage status.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.