On the road… again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Why can’t anybody in the USA make decent French bread? With all due respect to each and everyone whose taste buds may be on a different scale of acceptability from his own, it is at last time for a dissatisfied Footloose Forester to publically challenge the notion that the French bread we Americans consume is even remotely acceptable as table fare.
Everyone has a personal opinion about ethnic foods: taste, ingredients, aroma, appearance, etc. So it should not be debatable that authentic French bread also has its own qualifiers regarding legitimate authenticity. A long bakery loaf that looks like a baquette and is kneeded like a baguette might be labeled a baguette; but unless it passes the pusser* test of the Footloose Forester, he will not call it real French bread. Now is the time and the opportunity for all comers to call him a snob for rejecting the American supermarket versions of French bread(s); the frozen packages labeled as such; and the local bake shop creations that are baked daily and sold as French bread. Unless those concoctions pass the crackle test and; most importantly, the 3-day tear test—the snobby Footloose Forester will not be satisfied.
We in America don’t have to have a French cultural heritage to know what real French bread is like. The real deal can be purchased on street corners in former French colonies in Africa and in the Middle East; in the countries of the former French Indo-China; and probably in Canada. That is to say, the citizens of places like Morocco, Mali, Cambodia and Lebanon don’t have to have French blood in their veins to know how to make real French bread. But they do know how to bake it; and the 3-day tear test told the Footloose Forester that, long after the French left, the people there can still buy and enjoy French bread.
The contrast and main thesis of this rant against American “French” bread is mostly about the experimental evidence with a loaf of 3-day old bread. If you can smash it into a hundred pieces with your fist, then it is not legit. If you can rap it on the edge of the table and it breaks in two distinct pieces, you need not go on to the tear test. If it crumbles, there will be no tear test. And if it does not taste pretty much the same as it did when it was fresh, then what you have is a bakery product that a snobbish and pusser-type Footloose Forester would rather not buy again.
There are fairly deep and perhaps hard-wired impressions about French bread that reside in a special place in his brain. Sometimes all he had to eat was 3-day old bread, real French bread. Rather than feel sorry for his misfortune; however, he was grateful for the authentic taste of bread that had the texture of a fresh loaf, and one that instead of being stale, he could tear before enjoying its chewiness. Like other small blessings in life, he did not take the small chunks of bread for granted. But he hopes that someday American bakers will recognize the obvious differences and be able to craft and distribute widely a legitimate French baguette.
After a trip to France in late 2013, it seems advisable to mention that the quality of flour has everything to do with preparing real French bread. On the advice of Sothi Rech, cousin of my wife Thu, the would-be baker of a genuine baguette should first seek out Flour #55; and kneed it before adding salt. Since a baguette is literally nothing more than flour and salt in its most basic form, the proper flour can make or break your heart. One huge assumption, however; is that French Flour #55 does not contain the additives that are blended into American flour. Enriched flour as we Americans know it most likely acts as a cementing agent that causes all that crumbling effect the day after the loaves come home from the store or bakery. So, if you can find and use French Flour #55--unadulterated, or course-- then you have a shot of making authentic French bread.
*Pusser is an Australian term that means discriminating; and a pusser-type is a person who demonstrates a certain fastidiousness.
About the author
I LOVE real French bread but then again, I'm of French descent. But don't be fooled by my seemingly discriminating taste. While visiting Montreal one day I actually asked the server for some French toast for breakfast. Speaking no English the waitress looked at me in complete bewilderment. I insisted that if ever there was a place I wanted to try some real French toast for breakfast this would be it. 10 minutes later she brought two pieces of dry toasted bread. That would definitely be considered French toast!
Tom, I'm pleased with your reaction. What I did not put in the story was my disappointment about not getting real French bread the first time Thu and I went to Quebec. Buying baguettes was definitely on the "TO DO" list, but we were not lucky enough to find any at all, wherever we went.
Now that disappointment prompts me to revise a chronicle about Trinidad and my unsuccessful search for real chapattis in restaurants with East Indian owners.
Thanks again, for the grand opportunity to share memories on Legacy Stories.
Oh, Dick...how right you are!! I lived in New York City for a while as a kid, and they DO know how to make real French bread there, and once you've tasted the real thing, nothing else comes up to snuff. I LOVE the real McCoy, which I haven't tasted for years.