Unlike other French icons that have fallen by the wayside—the beret, the cigarette, Brigitte Bardot—the baguette remains a celebrated part of France's national culture.
That's especially true in Paris, the birthplace of the baguette, which hosts an annual competition to identify the city's finest loaf. The Grand Prix de la Meilleure Baguette de Paris (the best baguette in Paris) contest has been making headlines every year since it began in 1993. That's the same year the government passed a law to distinguish an authentic baguette de tradition from the frozen imposters that had become a bane on the city.
How can you tell which is which? Authentic loaves have a deep golden-yellow hue, a crust that smells nutty or grilled, and an interior texture that is elastic and tender, containing holes of uneven size. If your baguette is fluffy and uniform, you've probably been had.
A record number of authentic baguettes were entered into the annual competition on March 22. After ploughing through a pile of 141 loaves and rating each on appearance, aroma, crumb, and taste (no word on the swimsuit part of the competition), the jury handed down the 2010 prize.
THE 2010 WINNER
LE GRENIER À PAIN ABBESSES
38 rue des Abbesses, 18th arr. Nearest Métro stop: Abbesses (line 12) or Blanche (line 2). Open 7:30 a.m.–8 p.m. Thursday to Monday; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Baker Djibril Bodian from Le Grenier à Pain bakery, which placed fourth in the 2007 competition and fifth in 2009, snagged a cash prize of $5,400 (€4,000) and a contract to keep French President Nicolas Sarkozy in bread throughout the coming year. Bodian's baguette, which attracts long lines outside the Montmartre bakery, has a crispy and flavorful crust with hints of roasted hazelnut. Its chewy interior is marked by the irregular holes that are a sign of long and traditional fermentation.
Beyond the baguette: Bodian's pain de trois—a dark, crusty, and intensely flavored loaf—is fantastic. As the name suggests, it's composed of three flours, including sourdough, and keeps well for several days. The bakery also makes gorgeous glazed breads stuffed with dried fruit and candied nuts.
In the 'hood: Climb a few hundred stairs to reach the Sacré-Coeur cathedral, or take a rest while gazing at the nearby "I love you" wall.
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9 MORE STANDOUTS
LE GRENIER DE FÉLIX, baker Franck Tombarel
64 ave. Félix Faure, 15th arr. Nearest Métro stop: Boucicaut (line 8). Open from 7 a.m.–8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m.–1:30 p.m. on Saturdays; closed Sundays.
Baguette awards: First place in 2009 and fourth place in 2008.
Beyond the baguette: Tombarel's pain Allemand is a darker German bread studded with sunflower seeds. The salty-sweet combination of hazelnut, walnut, and raisin in the céréales aux fruits secs is delicious, as well.
In the 'hood: The futuristic Parc André Citroën is far off and makes a nice spot for a Seine-side picnic. For those who are attending a fair or festival, like the Salon International de l'Agriculture, the Paris Expo center is in the same arrondissement.
LA PARISIENNE, baker Daniel Pouphary
28 rue Monge, 5th arr. Nearest Métro stop: Cardinal Lemoine (line 10) or Jussieu (line 7). Open 7 a.m.–8 p.m. Monday through Friday; closed Saturdays and Sundays.
Baguette awards: Second place in 2010.
Beyond the baguette: Don't miss Pouphary's unusual variety of croissants, including noix de coco (coconut) and chocolat lait noisette (milk chocolate and hazelnut). Substantial sandwiches like ham and chèvre on a poppyseed baguette are packaged into a daily lunch special with a drink and dessert for €3.30 ($4.50).
In the 'hood: In the heart of the Latin Quarter, La Parisienne is near the sprawling gardens of the Jardin des Plantes and the mosaic-tiled tearoom of the Paris Mosque. The market street of Mouffetard is just a few minutes away by foot.
BOULANGERIE 134 RDT, baker Benjamin Turquier
134 rue de Turenne, 3rd arr. Nearest Métro stop: République (lines 3, 5, 8, 9, 11). Open 7:30 a.m.–8:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m. on Saturdays; closed Sundays.
Baguette awards: Second place in 2009.
Beyond the baguette: The addictive Schwarzbrot (black bread) from this bakery is a standout and is especially nice paired with cheese or salmon. The pavé des près, dotted with flaxseed and sunflower seeds, is a lovely alternative.
In the 'hood: The northern Marais is filled with independent designer shops, especially on rue Charlot. Chocolate junkies should be sure to hit the Jacques Genin boutique and tasting salon—it's directly across the street from the bakery.
LA BOULANG'EURY, baker Stéphane Eury
98 rue de Meaux, 19th arr. Nearest Métro stop: Laumière (line 5). Open 7:15 a.m.–8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; closed Sundays and Mondays.
Baguette awards: Third place in 2009 and Ninth place in 2008.
Beyond the baguette: The round loaves stuffed with figs and nuts are the perfect accompaniment for cheese. Eury's apple tart, which won third place in the Meilleure Tarte aux Pommes-de d'Ile de France apple tart competition, is a treat nobody should miss.
In the 'hood: This bakery is perfectly situated between two prime picnic spots: the Parc des Buttes Chaumont and the Bassin de la Villette. It's also a short walk from the Parc de la Villette, where you'll find an open-air film festival in July and August.
BOULANGERIE RÉGIS COLIN, baker Régis Colin
53 rue de Montmartre, 2nd arr. Nearest Métro stop: Sentier (line 3) and Étienne Marcel (line 4). Open 6:30 a.m.–8 p.m. Monday through Friday; closed Saturdays and Sundays.
Baguette awards: Seventh place in 2008 and second place in 2007.
Beyond the baguette: Colin has picked up a pile of awards for his croissants beurre, or plain butter croissants. The bakery's galette des Rois—a traditional tart with almond frangipane—is arguably the best in the city.
In the 'hood: The Palais Royal, with its secluded interior garden, is just a short stroll away. You can reach this bakery from the Louvre in less than 10 minutes.
BOULANGERIE ALEXINE, baker Alexandre Planchais
40 rue Lepic, 18th arr. Nearest Métro stop: Abbesses (line 12) or Blanche (line 2). Open 7 a.m.–8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sundays. Closes at 8 p.m. on Saturdays.
Baguette awards: 10th place in 2008 and eighth place in 2007.
Beyond the baguette: This bakery's famous baguette aux céréales is a delicious departure from the traditional white baguette. The whole-grain loaf is decorated with a confetti of seeds—a sort of long and lean "everything" baguette.
In the 'hood: A few doors down from Le Grenier à Pain, this second top bakery in Abbesses allows you to compare and choose your favorite baguette. Alexine is near the spectacular Montmartre cemetery, as well.
ARNAUD DELMONTEL, baker Arnaud Delmontel
39 rue des Martyrs, 9th arr. Nearest Métro stop: Saint-Georges (line 12) or Pigalle (lines 2, 12). Open 7 a.m.–8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Monday; closed Tuesdays.
Baguette awards: First place in 2007.
Beyond the baguette: Try Delmontel's pure-rye round loaf called tourte auvergnate or his Kougelhopf, a sort of Alsatian coffee cake. You can celebrate the neighborhood by ordering the SoPi (named after the South of Pigalle district): a towering red and black cake erected from chocolate and piment d'Espelette (hot peppers).
In the 'hood: SoPi is a trendy stretch along the rue des Martyrs and includes a good number of boutiques, cafés, and restaurants. It's a great area for exploring on foot and only a 10-minute walk from Montmartre.
GOSSELIN, baker Philippe Gosselin
258 blvd. St.-Germain, 7th arr. Nearest Métro stop: Solférino (line 12). Open 7 a.m.–8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7:30 a.m.–7:30 p.m. on Saturdays; closed Sundays.
Baguette awards: Fifth place in 2010.
Beyond the baguette: Desserts like the Everest—a small mountain of cake topped with bright-red gooseberries—are even more tasty when taken and nibbled at one of the nearby monuments. The pain au levain, or sourdough bread, is a simple but delicious option.
In the 'hood: The Musée d'Orsay is just around the corner, and the Esplanade des Invalides and the Seine River are only a few minutes away by foot.
LA PRAIRIE DE COQUELICOT, baker Thierry Racoillet
50 rue de Douai, 9th arr. Nearest Métro stop: Blanche (line 2) or Place de Clichy (lines 2, 13). Open 7:30 a.m.–2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.–8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7:30 a.m.–2 p.m on Saturdays; closed Sundays.
Baguette awards: Seventh place in 2009 and sixth place in 2007.
Beyond the baguette: Racoillet's baguette de tradition is the one that takes home the ribbons, but locals also adore his Picolla baguette. This hand-worked loaf has a denser and chewier crumb than the fluffy traditional baguette. A second location in Montmartre, called simply Coquelicot, features an upstairs dining room where you can pair the baguette with eggs and bacon.
In the 'hood: The prize-winning location in the 9th is just around the corner from the Moulin Rouge.