Breakfast musings — comparing European breakfasts (mostly in France) to American breakfasts (1 of 2)

By Philip Wagenaar, MD
This item appears on page 50 of the April 2016 issue.

Satillieu, Ardèche, France (May 2002) — I felt heavenly as I ate the buttery croissant slathered with butter and strawberry jam. My late wife, Flory, and I were enjoying our petit dejeuner (breakfast) in the lovely, 2-star Hôtel Restaurant Chaléat-Sapet, on Place de la Faurie in Satillieu, France.

After the croissant had melted in my mouth, I tackled the sections of baguette, making sure to decorate them with more butter and jam. Where else would I get a breakfast with the crispiest and freshest bread but in France?

French bread

The French love their bread. A typical loaf of French bread is called “une baguette,” and it’s crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. The contour of the baguette offers the maximum aggregate of crust to bread. However, because of the lack of preservatives, it doesn’t stay fresh very long. Therefore, the French usually visit the boulangerie (bakery) several times a day to make sure that the baguette complementing their meal is fresh.

 Bread is so essential in France that there is a Grand Prix de la Baguette (Grand Prize of the Baguette). Once a year, bakers in Paris enter a contest for the title of the best boulanger (baker). The winner provides the French president with day-to-day bread for a year.

In addition, boulangers have a patron saint, and every year on the 16th of May, festivities take place all over France to sing the praises of the daily bread.

There is never any charge for bread (or water) in French restaurants. It is served with every lunch and dinner.

Bread also is used to push your food onto a fork and to mop up the sauce on your plate.

My first visit to the Satillieu bakery

On our first day in Satillieu, at 6 a.m., before breakfast, I followed the heavenly fragrance of the freshly baked croissants and pains aux raisins (raisin rolls) to the boulangerie to pick up an airy, crusty baguette, which I carried, wrapped in its usually flimsy piece of paper, back to the hotel for our picnic lunch.

I was not alone. Many of the town’s inhabitants followed me into the bakery to collect their supply of the morning’s offerings.

After the boulanger and I exchanged the usual French pleasantries of “Bonjour, monsieur” (“Good day, sir”), I requested a baguette (“Une baguette, s’il vous plaît, monsieur”).

Subsequently, I made a terrible gaffe. I asked if the baguette was fresh: “Excusez-moi, monsieur. Le pain est frais?” (Pardon me, sir. Is the baguette fresh?”).

Now, asking a French baker at 6 a.m. if his bread is fresh is similar to asking a mother whether she had just drowned her baby.

The boulanger, who, surprisingly, didn’t seem upset by my question, pushed his thumb through the baguette’s crust, which gave way to his onslaught by emitting a noticeable crunch. At the same time, the baker proudly declared, “Mais, bien sur” (“But, of course”).

It assured me that the baguette had just been baked and made me realize that I never should have asked that question.

“European” breakfasts

ITN readers who visit Europe invariably rave about “European” breakfasts and particularly make compliments about the ubiquitous fresh breads, rolls and pastries.

Of course, “European” breakfasts may include, besides multiple types of sweet rolls and other crusty or noncrusty breads, various types of eggs (often made to order), cheeses, different cold cuts, multiple juices, whole and cut fruits, fruit salads and multiple varieties of jam.

Although a number of French hotels do serve the above breakfast as a buffet, the regular French breakfast consists of a buttery, divinely tasting croissant accompanied by sections of baguette, jam, butter and coffee, and it’s served individually at your table (no buffet).

In a number of hotels, pains aux raisins, pains aux chocolat (made of dough similar to that of a croissant but with several pieces of dark chocolate embedded in it) and brioches (consisting of flour, eggs, butter, milk, water and cream) are also provided.

If you need more coffee, baguette and jam, just ask; you won’t be charged anything extra. Additional croissants or sweet pastries are another matter, and they might not even be available.

The baguettes, croissants and other sweet rolls are usually delivered to the hotel by the baker around 6 a.m. and typically are hung, ensconced in a bag, on the kitchen door.

Is your breakfast included?

Note that, in France, breakfast is not included in the room rate. If breakfast is not offered in a French hotel (rare) or you want to have a cheaper and/or earlier breakfast, go to a bakery to buy the desired breads and sweet rolls and take them to a café, where the staff will be happy to furnish coffee, butter and jam and whatever else you need. Make sure the café, itself, doesn’t sell croissants, baguettes or sweet rolls.

Unlike in France, throughout Europe many hotels include breakfast in the room rate, something that travelers rave about.

Unfortunately, a minority of European hotels no longer include breakfast in their room rates, something that you might want to check out. Regardless of whether or not the morning meal is included, if you have to leave earlier than the time breakfast is served, you can talk to the owner or manager and request a lower room rate when omitting this meal.

The American breakfast

If Americans love European breakfasts so much, why do they revert to the American breakfast, consisting of mostly stale bread, when they return home? Perhaps it is because many don’t know where to find fresh bread.

It is true that you can buy fresh bread in the bakery section in a number of American supermarkets. These breads will have a firm outside crust and a soft interior. (Just squeeze it; if it’s soft, it will be fresh.) However, most of the bread sold is not soft; it is firm and doughy when you squeeze it. Even bakeries sell bread that is not soft when compressed.

However, a number of supermarkets (and Trader Joe’s) do offer parbaked breads, partially baked breads that are kept in the freezer section of the supermarket. These will stay good for two to three months (longer if correctly wrapped) when you keep them in the freezer at home, and when subsequently baked in your own oven, they will offer a “European” experience.

Note that Trader Joe’s parbaked panini are not in the freezer section but are kept on the shelf with other rolls.

I will continue this article in the next issue. 

Dr. Wagenaar welcomes questions but may not be able to answer them individually. Write to him c/o ITN.