Is there anything more quintessentially French than the baguette? From the traditional breakfast (slathered with butter and jam) to the post-dinner cheese course, no French meal is complete without it.
There are many things I love about visiting the South of France — my husband’s homeland — each summer, but the simple pleasure of eating a freshly baked baguette, crafted by an artisan baker, is the one I long to replicate throughout the year.
Luckily, Charlotte is home to a growing number of bakeries that regularly bake baguettes. But how do they stack up next to the “real thing” — those golden, crisp and inexpensive loaves (around 1 Euro apiece in France) with an irresistible aroma that compel tourists and natives alike to break off a piece to taste on the way back home? I decided to find out…
Step 1: Asking real French bakers what they look for in a good baguette.
I interviewed two boulangers in the small Provençal city of Sorgues: one whose bakery had just opened its doors 10 days earlier and another, nearly 100 years old.
Both insisted that using a high quality flour is essential in creating an excellent product, one which really tantalizes all five senses.
“When you open the baguette, the inside is full of holes, which help hydrate the bread and enhances its flavor,” said baker Pascale Chuezikiewicz, manager of the sparkling new boulangerie, L’Atelier des Papes.
A good baguette is crispy on the outside with an interior that’s rich and thick, according to third generation baker Jacky Durand. “It crackles under your tongue,”he said from his family-run boulangerie, near the town center. “When the dough ferments slowly, slowly… the flavors develop more.”
Step 2: The taste test – comparing baguettes from three Charlotte bakeries.
I judged each one on a scale from 1 (worst) to 5 (best) on the following criteria: appearance, fragrance, texture, taste and price. They were tasted twice: as purchased and after 10 minutes of reheating in a 375 degree oven. Here’s what I discovered.
Though I purchased the bread at the Charlotte Regional Farmer’s Market, Renaissance also has a storefront at 2809 South Blvd, where baguettes are partially baked, then frozen until the day of sale when they are finished in the oven. This baguette’s exterior looked good but felt a bit limp. The aroma was somewhat lacking but texture and taste were greatly improved with heating.
Price: 2 ($3.75)
I also purchased this baguette at the Charlotte Regional Farmer’s Market, and it can be found at multiple locations in Charlotte. Fresh-made daily, this bread tasted good but didn’t really resemble an authentic French baguette. The color was pale and the crust was more flaky than crunchy. When heated, the texture became crumbly like toast but was not particularly enhanced.
Price: 5 ($2.20)
I made my purchase at the NODA flagship location; there are also multiple locations in Charlotte. Amélie’s baguettes are made by a company in New Jersey called Tribeca, then frozen and defrosted before being served.
“We try to be pretty transparent about them,” said Executive Chef Mary Jayne Wilson. “We just haven’t had the capacity to make (the large volume needed). This is the best (baguette) we found so we stuck with them.”
Even so, the look and taste was the most authentically French of the three candidates. The interior was full of different sized holes and the exterior was crisp. Definitely enhanced by heating it up, the “just baked” smell while not exactly like its French cousin, was superior to the other local baguettes.
Price: 1 ($3.95)
But a couple of bones to pick with the champion: (1) the exorbitant price; (2) with all the effort they go to in making their cafés have a French vibe, there’s no excuse for the glaring grammatical error on the fancy bag that wraps their bread. Any beginning French student knows it’s not le baguette but la baguette…
In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. As baker Chuezikiewicz said: “A chacun son goût” (to each his own taste). So, get out there, try a local baguette and see if you agree.
Note: An earlier version of this story contained inaccurate information about Amelie’s baguettes. It’s been updated to reflect that they come from a company in New Jersey called Tribeca.
Photos: Liz Bertrand