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The Parisians take their baguettes seriously. Every year, a jury of award-winning bakers, journalists and Parisians spends an afternoon chomping through hundreds of baguettes, heatedly debating the merits of each, before awarding a prize to the most perfect specimen.
The Meilleur Baguette de Paris award is a Cinderella prize: baguettes are submitted anonymously, with just a number, so that judges aren’t influenced by reputation or expensive branding. The winner becomes an overnight celebrity (every newspaper covers the award) and takes home €4,000. But most significantly, the victorious baguette gets to ‘go to the ball’—or more precisely, the Elysée Palace—since the winning baker supplies all the French president’s baguettes for the next twelve months.
How do you identify a superlative baguette? “The most important thing first of all is the appearance,” explains Djibril Bodian, a rare two-time winner (2010 and 2015) who has also served on the jury. “The knife marks should be regular, and it should have a caramel colour.” The crust should also be crunchy but thin, so that it’s easy to chew. As for the crumb, it must be light, with plenty of large holes, like a Swiss cheese. These are an indication that the dough has been gently handled and given plenty of time to prove. (Bodian’s baguettes take 8 hours from start to finish.) The crumb should also have a creamy, yellowish colour: a white baguette is one that’s been rushed. Finally, there’s the all important smell and taste; the longer the dough has fermented, the more delicious it will be.
Bodian sells on average 1,200 baguettes a day from his bakery in Montmartre, Le Grenier à Pain, where he has worked for more than 20 years. He started there as an apprentice and worked his way up to become the boss.
Around the corner are two other bakeries that won the prize in the two years following Bodian’s first win. They aren’t rivals, Bodian says, but good friends who often collaborate. Their proximity has another effect: “You’re obliged to always maintain high standards.”
This is one of the great legacies of the competition. A victory not only gives the baker a boost—in Bodian’s case profits increased by 30%—but it encourages other bakeries in the neighbourhood to up their game.
Across Paris you’ll find previous winners, in both smart and working class neighbourhoods. They’re as likely to be the children of immigrants—Bodian himself was born in Senegal, while this year’s winner, Sami Bouattour of Boulangerie Brun, is of Tunisian origin—as descendants of a line of French bakers.
Why do the French love their baguettes? “A baguette is accessible to all, it’s cheap and it goes with everything,” Bodian explains. “You can have it for breakfast, you can eat it with lunch, for a mid-afternoon snack or with your dinner. It’s the most versatile bread.”
A really good baguette should also be so delicious you can eat it on its own—which is how Bodian prefers his. However, he won’t be offended if you slather yours in garlic butter and stick it under the grill. The only sacrilege is to let it sit around. “You should always eat your baguette the day you buy it, it’s a bread that must be eaten fresh.”
Visiting Paris soon? Add either bakery to your must-do list alongside our 24 hour guide to Paris.