Monday, December 7, 2009
the upper crust
O.K. today we start off with a simple quiz .A French quiz if you will, only it's in English. Ready? What are the first three things that come to mind when you think of 'The French?' and when I say 'The French', I mean of course 'The Parisians'.This isnt a trick question . Oh I know what your thinking, go on say it, we are all grown up here.Top of the list .They pong (usually the armpit area and always on the metro, and for some reason, even in the winter) 2.They strike at the drop of a hat (or rather a berat) Number 3. The woman dont shave there armpits'. Really! is that what you are all saying? (actually its what I am saying, but for the sake of argument, we will pretend its you) Well you might be right. But personally I was thinking something more like this (play a piece by Debussy when reading the next few lines).....Beautiful woman in skirts gliding on bicycles down avenues with names that sound like exotic pied piper-like perfumes.Or, strange seductive cigarette fumes that dance and drift in and around cafes. Inhaled by the likes of Jean Paul Sartre, Serge Gainsbourg, Juliette Greco.But really, When I think of what Paris means to me, It is something closer to this.The amazing buildings that loom over me with a knowing smile, while running there fingertips gently through my hair as if to say, 'welcome my skinny English boy to my warm ample bosom.'The erotic smells that waft in and around this city,looking for a soul to inhabit. A whisper that seems to say 'eat me, drink me take me. One whiff and I'm all yours. Or the feeling you are walking and living and yes breathing , in one huge flirtatious sensual expo with an accent or subtitles. O.K. dear reader, I know what you are thinking. Philip is on his third galss off wine.Well you are wrong, its my second. But I did have an amazing martini around 7 crammed with olives......O.k. getting back to the essence of 'The Parisian'......Oh! forget the essence and forget the quiz. Today I'm writing about that national instituation that rises with the sun ever morning. BREAD! yes BREAD! yes French! BREAD.
It seems that on every street in Paris and I mean every street, at all times of the day (with the exception of 1.30am -5.30am or there about) there is a person or persons walking casuallly with a baguette under his or her arm (and when I say arm) I mean arm-pit (more about that later) And when I say baguette, I'm talking about that fantastic, warm crusty, out of this world stick of bread, with a smell that should be bottled or arrested or both. O.K. before I waffle on too much, here is the answer to the quiz I posed 3 glasses of wine ago..The answers dear readers (or reader), in no particular order (Drum roll please) has to be ' The Baguette' (forget the other 2 on the list) THIS very very very French icon that we have all come to know and love and smell and YES! even eat, is the clear champion ..only its not, dare I say, FRENCH! (but its still the winner and an icon)
I will tell you why (yes I actually did some investigative reporting on this one) those years at the Miami Herald actually payed off. Im glad something did.
Im not sure I have ever walked down a rue or an avenue without someone carriying a baguette. It almost seems like a joke or an artist happening or a huge campaign set up by the French government or the French bread commission to make you buy bread. BUT NO! People here do it as a natuaral daily routine.Sometimes its more than one loaf, sometimes its up to 6 sticks (I suppose for those tres chic parties that I never seem get invited too) I have seen men woman children and yes even dogs carring these amazing sticks of bread.I have seen grown men using them to practise there golf strokes or young boys trying to perfect there fencing technics or woman caressing the end as if to say 'if only if only'. A young woman beating her boyfriend over the head with it. A boyfriend wacking her on the ass with it. I have seen people eating the ends of the bread on there way home,or the middle( also on there way home) I have seen a woman drop 3 of them in a poopy looking street, only to brush them off and be on her merry way ( the guests will never know) Trust me, its all a set up.I know, or think I do. That these various people are employed on a daliy basis just to carry these things around with them to entice others (tourists) to buy, as if the smell wasn't enough to lure us all in..But I hear what you are all saying 'philip, didnt you say something about this French instituion not actually being French at all?" What good SOBER memories you all have.
O.K. let me take you back to last tuesday or was it wednesday? ( it should be said,I knew as much about baguettes as you do, maybe less) I wandered to my local boulangerie (a good place to start I thought) to ask some soul searching dough rising questions..It went something like this, 'Bonjour Madam' (then it went to English with the help of an interpreter(Yes i know, I really must learn French.) I asked 'can you tell me something about the Baguette? She looked startled at first (maybe it was my new haircut) then I offered her some help ;'The history maybe?' Even more startled. Then she shrugged her shoulders so high, I thought she might hurt herself and other people nearby.Her poetic reply was 'you want to buy something or not' I pressed on, and asked her another tough question...This time she answered 'we sell the best bread in the area maybe Paris..You want to buy something or not? What a sweetheart, and what a smart beard she seemed to be sporting.It will look just fine when its grown in.
Not the type to be easily defeated (with distant memories of the battle of Waterloo flashing in front of me) I moved on to the next boulageroie and then the next..Same answer, same shoulder shrug 'we have the best bread in the region and maybe all of Paris..At least the last ladies reply was a little different 'why do you want to know? Dont ask so many questions, just eat the bread...Then she went on to say she sold the best bread in the region and Paris and even France.I did notice that she forgot to shrug her shoulders.Maybe she did it when I left. So with all this wealth of knowledge and a warm baguette nestlled firmly under my arm, I went to the Bibliotheque National (the mother of all French libraries)to find answers. I will save you all the boring bits, but here it is in a nutsdhell. When did the Baguette become an icon in Paris? Why didnt any of these woman know anything about the history of the bagette? Why did I cut my hair so short, (its winter for goodness sake?).....What I found out answered all my questions (apart from the bad haircut one) Brace yourselfs readers, you may not like the answer........
(WARNING!) There is almost no history to this story either. I know what you are saying (yes! I read minds also) You are saying, 'What? Europe? and NO HISTORY"? O.K there is a little bit, but not as much as you may want...It goes something like this.
In the early 19th century an Austian artillery officer called August Zang who opened a very famous bakery in Vienna in 1838. BUT! Also founded the daily newspaper 'Die Presse' which still exists today (this doesnt have much to do with this bread story at all, in fact nothing at all.Well maybe a little. One uses dough for bread and gets dough to work at a newspaper but thats about it). Quite a clever geezer if you ask me. Anyway, he also introduced the new 'Deck oven' (a combination of gas and steam) into Paris.The steam, as Im sure you all know, allows the crust to expand before setting, thus creating a light fluffy dough inside, yet a golden crusty skin outside. Voila!! This is the bit where it gets very French (you may want to sit down). In 1920 a law was passed forbidding bakers to bake bread after 10p.m.till 4 a.m. making it impossible to bake the tradittional round bread in time.So the problem was solved by baking the thin Baguette.It could be baked and ready for the grumpy French customers in the morning. And so was born le Baguette. ( rod, wand stick, Baguette has a few meanings..you get the crust or rather drift).In 1960 an ad campaign was launched to further the popularity of "La Baguette", a woman dressed in a smock walking through the streets claiming "Ben, que c'est bon!"( Well! its good! ) and grinning. The sales went through the roof ( of the oven no doubt) .Im sure being a French ad, she was really only wearing a smile, making not only the bread rise..Oooo la la.So this crusty icon of the Parisians is in fact a late bloomer as far as icons go.Because they sometimes go far.
Im always amazed at the passion the French have, for most things. Usually most things that are a food. Im going to the boulangerie tomorrow.It's a sunday and most shops are closed Except for (yes you guessed it) There will be lines of people coming out of these places.Lines not seen since the end of the war or lines still whitnessed in Russia or whatever its called these days.People will stand for a long long time (patient,nearly smiling, all very unlike the Parisians) Looking and acting almost like crack additcts getting there daily high. Or demented teens lining up for a Britney Spears tickets.These customers will stand in a gastronomic trance. I will be with them, staring at them 'standing in a trance'
O.K. I want to end this Blog entry the way I started (and I don't mean another martini) I want to finish with another quiz. Question: What part of a Baguette should you never ever ever eat.? (I will give you 30 seconds)....Would you like a clue? (A CLUE) Espically on a summers day.....Oh come on, the answer is a breeze....WHAT!You need another clue? oh! your'e the pits...