Among members of the Charleston French Conversation meet-up group, fluency varies wildly. Stalwarts include a native speaker from Haiti and an enthusiastic newcomer to the language who’s mastered the art of chatting without verbs that might require conjugation.
Momentarily switching to English at a recent meeting, a tongue-tied attendee turned to a more practiced French user for help: “How do you say, ‘how do you say?’ ” he asked earnestly.
What unites club-goers, though, is an intense affection for French culture, especially in its edible form. They enjoy a good baguette, ideally accompanied by a smear of brie and a bottle of earthy red wine. (What does a baguette taste like when taken with water? Who knows? The baguette-without-wine conundrum is the Francophile’s version of a tree falling alone in the forest.)
But in keeping with the Gallic reputation for discernment, local French conversationalists are most interested in the very best baguette. So, last month, a dozen group members gathered at co-chair Jason Trinklein’s downtown home to determine which area bakery produces the finest version of France’s signature bread. Armed with score sheets that doubled as baguette vocabulary lists, the tasters gnawed their way through 10 unidentified specimens that they variously described as spongieux, elastique and uniforme.
Yet club members kept reverting to complimentary adjectives, a reflection of how thoroughly U.S. bread bakers have raised their baguette game.
While French bakers have lately been vexed by patrons demanding whiter, softer loaves — and significantly fewer of them, as daily per capita consumption’s slipped to half a baguette — American bakers have forged a baguette renaissance from new techniques, improved equipment and swelling consumer appreciation of the traditional crusty loaf.
“American bakers have raised the standard for what bread can be,” says Peter Reinhart, a faculty member at Charlotte’s Johnson & Wales University and the author of nine books on baking. “In a city as food savvy as Charleston, there’s nothing holding anyone back.”
Reverence for baguettes is a relatively new phenomenon, since the baguette didn’t exist in its familiar form until the 1920s. Although wand-shaped bread likely predated the 20th century, a Jazz Age-epoch law prohibiting bakers from working before 4 a.m. reputedly forced French bakers to come up with a breakfast bread they could produce in a matter of hours. The baguette became the shape of choice, and was soon as indelibly associated with France as curly moustaches and red berets.
Professional boulangers complain the quality of baguettes nose-dived with the mid-century introduction of bread-making machines. But San Francisco’s Chad Robertson, christened a “bread genius” by Food & Wine Magazine, says nostalgia for old-style artisan baguettes was always more pronounced here than in Paris.
“I feel like Americans obsess over these things more,” says Robertson, the owner of Tartine Bakery and author of the forthcoming “Tartine Book No. 3,” the third entry in a highly esteemed whole grain-baking series.
“People say ‘that’s not authentic,’ ” he says of reactions to the emerging class of sourdough baguettes and baguettes goosed with multiple pre-ferments, or mother doughs. “But when you go around Paris, none of the baguettes are the same.”
For Robertson, the baguette is most valuable as a springboard for creative riffs and adaptations. The baguette recipe in “Tartine Book No. 3,” which Roberston concedes is so complicated that “it’s kind of ridiculous,” or would be if the end result wasn’t so stunning, calls for the addition of corn flour. Robertson drew his inspiration from a gently sweet French baguette that reminded him of corn flakes.
“The French people I was with had no reference point,” Robertson recalls. “If you’re from Charleston, you know what corn tastes like.”
Sweetness isn’t the only quality Robertson prizes in a baguette.
“Nowadays a lot of baguettes are cottony and tight-textured,” he says. “I’m looking for an extremely tender crumb that melts in your mouth. And it really should have nice caramelization. I don’t want a dark, dark crust, but I want toasty.”
Reinhart also hunts for “big, irregular holes” when he’s browsing baguettes.
“These holes lead to better flavor,” he explains. “The flavor should be balanced, with just the right amount of salt. What I teach my students is the mission of the baker is to evoke the full potential of the flavor trapped in flour.”
Although members of the French Conversation club didn’t settle on a specific set of baguette standards, nearly every taster expressed an overwhelming preference for firm, webbed bread.
“This is machine-made,” Trinklein scoffed, examining a baguette slice as white and smooth as a notepad. “I want to find out where this one came from.”
“Americans tend to like softer foods,” fellow member James Carlino replied, squishing another slice from the same Earth Fare loaf between his fingers.
For the tasting, which co-chair Amalia Leifeste proposed after reading a baguette round-up in Charleston City Paper, club members collected baguettes from Saffron, Pane Di Vita, Normandy Farms, Harris Teeter, Christophe Artisan Chocolatier, Brown’s Court Bakery, EVO, Earth Fare and Baguette Magic.
To make the tasting as fair as possible, organizers gave each participant a paper plate with inch-thick slices of the competing breads, arrayed in a pinwheel pattern and labeled with letters.
“G” emerged as an early favorite. “That’s the real thing,” Carlino said of the baguette he’d later learn belonged to EVO. “I think ‘F’ (Brown’s Court Bakery) was close, but they underbaked it.”
“They’re very similar,” sighed Allisyn Miller, a Slow Food Charleston board member whose carb curiosity propelled her to dust off her scholastic French for the occasion.
Gourmands have taken plenty of flack in the Food Network era for overthinking what’s on their plates, but club members skirted insufferability by tempering their opinions with lots of breaks for more wine, charcuterie and non-bread conversation.
Leifeste had to remind tasters to finish filling out their scorecards, and nobody seemed too ruffled about Normandy Farms, a predicted victor before the contest’s start, finishing in the middle of the pack.
In the end, the alluringly aromatic baguette Brown’s Court was declared the winner, with EVO and Pane Di Vita in the runner-up positions.
While there were a few whimpers on behalf of Pane Di Vita’s impressively craggy loaf, everyone was charmed by the bread from Brown’s Court. The club’s holding its next meeting there.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.