The Sandpoint Eater: The upper crust

By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Columnist

Man does not live by bread alone; though, I must say, the French were giving it their best shot during my visit last week. There was much to celebrate on the avenues of Paris, as their iconic and beloved baguette was just recognized on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It joins other foods such as Neapolitan pizza, Moroccan couscous, and Korean kimchi as an integral part of human culture.

The name baguette translates to “baton,” and was first created about 100 years ago in Paris. During that period, it was illegal for workers to bake between the hours of 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Since the baguette was quick to make and bake, breakfast bread could be offered in about three hours. Not all French bread is baguette-style, though certainly, baguettes are the most popular of the more than 200 varieties of bread offered in France. 

While I didn’t sample that many types last week, I did eat my way through my fair share of the 10 billion loaves produced annually.

According to Decree 93-1074, of Sept. 13, 1993, a baguette can only be made of flour, water, yeast and salt. It must be 65 centimeters to one meter in length and baked on the premises where it’s sold. To the French, their daily bread is a ritual and a way of life — toasted for breakfast, sliced for a midday sandwich and served with the evening meal. Because of the simple ingredients (and no preservatives), this bread tastes best when consumed within 24 hours.

It’s easy to spot the best boulangeries in Paris. Just look for a long line of Parisians, sometimes winding around the block, waiting to make their morning purchase. While a French bakery might sell a variety of pastries and loaves of bread, a boulangerie sells only bread baked on the premises. Little compares with the first bite of a warm baguette, and it’s not uncommon for people to buy two loaves at a time (though often Parisians arrive home with only a single loaf).

There is an annual competition in Paris to choose the best baguette. I’ve heard that one can apply to be a judge at that competition (you know what’s now topping my to-do list).  

On the morning of the competition, hundreds of bakers line up and enter two of their best baguettes. Unfortunately, some don’t even make the cut, as they didn’t follow the strict requirements (in this contest, baguettes must measure between 55 and 65 cm long and weigh between 250 and 300 grams), and they are turned away. During the day, each juror must sample and score 50 baguettes based on several criteria.  

The winner is awarded about €5,000, and the Elysée Palace (the official residence of the French president) will serve their bread for a year. This year’s winner is Damien Dedun, artisan baker of the Frédéric Comyn Boulangerie at 88 Rue Cambronne, in the 15th Arrondissement. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it over there, but I did sample plenty of others that I still found perfect, with a crispy upper crust, soft interior and fragrant to the nose.

Though baguettes are best eaten the day they’re made, leftover loaves are often used in dishes like French onion soup. Last week, on a chilly afternoon, after touring the opera house, my nose led me to the perfect bowl of French onion soup I have ever eaten. I nearly passed by Le Grand Café Capucines, but the aroma drew me right inside the noisy café that’s been serving opera-goers for almost 150 years.

My waiter was attractive and attentive and helped me choose a selection of Brittany oysters as a starter and a Bordeaux to accompany the soup. When the aromatic and bubbling soup arrived, I made my way through several layers of cheese to find the savory chunks of baguette bathed in a sublime, rich broth.

When I inquired about obtaining the recipe, the waiter’s English disappeared. Fortunately, I have a recipe I’ve used for years that I am pretty happy with, and I pulled it out of the Reader archives so we can all enjoy a bowl of this classic soup. I promise, it’s the perfect December meal. Bon appetit.

French onion soup recipe • Don’t be in a hurry — cook the onions low and slow to develop the color and flavor of the soup. I like to use a mixture of all three cheeses. If you aren’t making your own beef stock, Better than Bouillon is an excellent base for stock. Serves 4-6.


• 2 ½ pounds yellow onions

• ¼ cup butter

• 2 tbs olive oil

• 1 tsp salt

• Freshly ground black pepper

• 2 tsp sugar

• 8 cups beef broth

• 3 tablespoons flour

• 2-3 tsp Herbs de Provence (or other herbs of your liking)

• ½ cup red wine

• ¼ cup cooking sherry

• 6 to 8 baguette slices, grilled until lightly browned

• 2-3 cups shredded Gruyère, Comté or Parmesan cheese (⅓ to ½ cup per serving)


Peel onions and slice in half lengthwise, with cut side down; slice into thin, even slices. Over medium heat, melt the butter and oil in Dutch oven or heavy saucepan.

Add the onions and stir to coat. Reduce heat, cover the pan and cook for 15 minutes.

Stir in salt, pepper and sugar, and cook the onions for 40 minutes to 1 hour: Turn the heat up to medium and cook, uncovered and stirring every few minutes, until the onions are deeply browned. Stir often so the onions don’t scorch.

Add the flour to the cooked onions and stir for an additional few minutes, stir in the red wine.

Heat broth in separate vessel. When hot, add to the onions and the herbs. Stir, lower heat and simmer for an hour.

Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if needed. Now, add the sherry.

(At this point, you can chill overnight and reheat.)

On a heavy cookie sheet, place small crock-type, oven-safe bowls. Divide the soup between bowls. Top each with a round or two of browned baguette and sprinkle grated cheese in a thick layer over the bread and up to the edge of the bowl (if some of the cheese clings to the sides of the bowl, it won’t all sink).

Place in oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15-20 minutes, then turn oven to broil for 1-3 minutes (depending on your oven), until the cheese is lightly browned and bubbly. Don’t let it burn!

Remove carefully from the oven and let cool for a few minutes before serving.

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