Want to buy bread like the French? Bread is almost a religion in France. And the boulangerie is where devotees come to worship.
As with many long established traditions, there are unspoken rules that must be upheld if you want to be brought into the fold and not be treated like a tourist. Follow a few simple guidelines and the rewards are worth it.
1. Don’t cheat on your boulangerie.
If you’re in a little village, you may only have one option. But in the larger cities, there will be choices, all within walking distance. Make friends with your neighbours and ask them which boulangerie they go to. Or choose the one with a snaking line of eager customers waiting patiently for their turn. Locals always know best. Once you’ve chosen “your” boulangerie, don’t even think about “cheating” on them and buying bread anywhere else.
2. Keep it fresh.
If you want the freshest loaf, you’ll need to buy bread like the French and arrive early. Later in the afternoon, most of the good stuff will be gone. Some boulangeries bake twice a day, so many customers visit morning and afternoon. Look for baking times or ask at your local boulangerie.
3. Be patient.
Even if you do go early, you may still notice that others seem to walk away with fresher bread than you. This is normal. Why would the baker give a tourist, who they may never see again, the best bread when behind you in line is someone who has been buying their bread there every day for thirty years? Follow these rules and after a few days, you’ll become a friendly, familiar face. Then watch smugly as the tourists try to figure out why you’re getting nicer bread than them.
This is the BIG one! To buy bread like the French .. on entry, or when you get to the counter if there’s a queue, you absolutely MUST make eye contact and say “Bonjour Madame” or “Bonjour Monsieur”. If the shop isn’t busy, you can add “Comment allez-vous?” or other pleasantries. And be sure to say “Merci, au revoir. Bonne journée!” as you leave. In fact, you should do this in every shop you go into in France. Not negotiable!
5. Speedy is good.
A busy boulangerie is not the place to try out your rusty French skills, particularly if there’s a long queue of hungry Parisians behind you. After the obligatory greeting, feel free to point at the items you want and hold up fingers to indicate how many. Practice some useful phrases and learn the names of what you want beforehand to make it easier. You’ll be going there every day, so listen to what others say, steal a few phrases and each day, your French will improve.
6. Be decisive.
Decide what bread you want before you get to the counter. Buying bread should be relatively quick, but salespeople are happy for you to ask questions about the more expensive cakes and fruit tarts. Don’t be afraid to ask what they would recommend. Remember, this is usually not a teenager picking up some extra pocket money. The salesperson is often an expert with an in-depth knowledge of the products on display.
7. Show me the money.
Unless you have a large order, be sure to pay with coins or very small notes. Pay for a single baguette with a 20 euro note and you’re sure to be rewarded with a scowl.
8. Be friendly.
You’re staying in the neighbourhood, so you’re bound to walk past the boulangerie during the day. Be sure to smile and as you get to know them, give them a wave. You want them to accept you as a local so you’ll get better bread and better service. Be prepared to suffer the consequences if you’re seen walking past with bread bought somewhere else! (See rule number one!)
9. Friends in high places.
Your bonus tip … a sneaky way to win over the baker. A good boulangerie is usually a busy place. If there’s no-one there, you’ve picked the wrong one!
You’ll probably find there will be an older person lining up for their daily purchase. It’s possible they’ve been buying their bread there every day since you were in nappies. They probably know the baker’s parents and even grandparents. Be extra polite to them; smile, let them go before you, say hello and have a chat. Ingratiating yourself to them will help you step up the ladder of respect in the eyes of the sales person.
Anyway, you should always be nice to older folk – it’s the right thing to do and it might be the start of a fascinating conversation.