Fri. Jan 27th, 2023

No one in line was there for a new passport. Outside the stately Charles E. Mitchell mansion that houses the French Consulate in New York, a hungry crowd waited their turn, eager for a bite of French bread. Organized by French Morning, the preeminent French information site in the United States, this competition and the accompanying gastronomic extravaganza saw 15 finalist bakers (selected by readers) presenting their baguettes to a jury of experts and an audience ready to cast their votes.

Soon, food lovers from all five boroughs roamed through the beautiful, gilded rooms above Central Park, sinking their teeth into crunchy, golden baguettes but also Provençal fougasses, sourdough spheres studded with moist olives, dark rye miches, and all kinds of cheeses and charcuterie. Late into the evening, judges including Chef Laurent Tourondel and photographer Melanie Dunea sampled, evaluated, and argued. Baguettes were ranked for appearance, aroma, structure and, of course, flavor. In the end, Breads Bakery’s pointy, chewy sourdough baguette came in first. Bread Story, founded by the former Maison Kayser baker Yann Ledoux, came in second and also won the special prize. Bourke Street Bakery came in third.

“In Breads Bakery’s I tasted the flavor of real flour,” said Mr. Tourondel. “A combination of lightness and crustiness, honeycombed almost, a true traditional French baguette.”

Breads Bakery landed on Union Square in New York City back in 2013, and today, owner Gadi Peleg runs four different outposts. Even though he’s known for his luscious chocolate babka and rugelach, he’s thrilled to get his baguette noticed.

“At our bakeries,” he said recently, “We bake throughout the day, every day. The bread is the hero.” When they started making baguettes, not every customer approved of their take.

“With all due respect,” said Mr. Peleg, “This is our way. This is the baguette we like.”

In the able hands of head baker Darwin Castillo and his team, the sourdough takes 48 hours to become baguette. Both tips are pointy and crispy, while the first bite yields a chewy and seriously sour mouthfeel. Blisters on the crust mean more fermentation and a stronger flavor.

“During the pandemic I came here every day,” said regular Claire Steinberger. “And with bread, they offered solace.”

It was to offer solace but also fun that French Morning founder Emmanuel Saint-Martin created the Best Baguettes and Best Croissant competitions in more than a dozen cities in the United States and Canada. This year, one major player, Maison Kayser has closed its doors, but half of the contestants are new to New York.

“We wanted to promote artisanal bakers and give our community a culinary, cultural feat,” said Mr. Saint-Martin.

The image of the Frenchman and his beret holding a crusty baguette under his arm may be a cliché, but rumor has it every French citizen eats about 5.5 ounces of baguette a day. So what are the origins of the baguette? Well, this being France where Paul Bocuse was known to split his days amongst three different women, there are three viable theories:

One historian places its invention with Napoleon’s bakers and the ease with which it was transported in the soldiers’ pockets; another credits August Zang, a Viennese baker who may have invented the baguette and brought it to France. Finally, the baguette may have been invented in 1900 during the massive construction of Paris’ subway system. But historian and bread scholar Steven Kaplan doesn’t believe any of these fables are true.

“The baguette is the result of the modern evolution of the baker’s job,” he said, “as well as the public’s changing taste.”

For more on bread, check out his excellent book Good Bread Is Back: A Contemporary History of French Bread, the Way It Is Made, and the People Who Make It (Duke University Press Books).

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