Stick around

Over here, 'baguette' has come to mean any old long white loaf
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A recent trip to France reminded me of a few French table manners. One is that while eating with a fork in one hand, the other feels denuded without that crusty piece of baguette with which to scoop, mop or dip. So I arrived home baying for proper baguettes.

Frankly we have been baying for proper baguettes for an awfully long time. Raymond Blanc may well have provided an early spark in 1979, when, in desperation, he decided that the only way of procuring authentic French bread was to set up his Maison Blanc operation and bake it himself. More recently, British supermarkets have responded by redefining French bread altogether, with a million variations but not a true baguette in sight, since "baguette" here has come to mean any old long white loaf. In France, it is the middle of three traditional sizes of French stick: the thinnest is the ficelle which by law weighs 150g raw, the baguette weighs 350g and the gros pain 550g.

Over here, in true British fashion, we've done our own thing. Marks & Spencer stores sell baguettes and half baguettes. Waitrose have flutes and triple grain baguettes. Sainsbury's prove the most imaginative with crusty white batons in a variety of guises, sticks, campagne longue and baguettine.

Producing authentic French bread has proved a struggle, and the right flour and leaven is only half the story. Waitrose produce their bread in the UK, freeze it, transport it and bake it instore. Sainsbury's have gone one step further with a range of breads they advertise as "made in France, baked by Sainsbury's": frozen dough is shipped over from France and finished instore. These premium French sticks cost 82p compared to a home-produced version they sell for 49p. Slice the two open and the cheaper one reveals the lily white crumbs of a highly bleached flour, and the close texture that comes of fast processing. You may get a bit more quality for your money out of their French sticks, but you are also landed with the bill for packaging, transportation, and the double processing. As for freezing dough, this kills up to 50 per cent of the fermentation, which is the key to flavour.

The real horror story is the shelf life. Supermarkets generously award their "sticks" several days, underbaking them to achieve it, which explains the typically anaemic and wimpish crusts. Traditional bakers in France produce up to four batches a day, on the premises: long-life baguettes are a nonsense, a real ficelle has a capricious life expectancy of around two hours. And there's the rub. Three or four batches a day? Fine, except that this requires skilled labour willing to start work at 1am.

But there is good news, for a small catchment area in central London, at least. Baker and Spice, which specialises in Continental and British breads, is a new bakery occupying what was formerly Justin de Blanc in Walton Street, Knightsbridge. Philippe Dade is a baker with a big reputation, who began his training in France at 15, and later worked as Albert Roux's trouble-shooting pastry chef at Le Gavroche. His wholesale factory supplies shops, sandwich makers and hotels, and his partner, Gail Stephens, distributes the bread along with other craft breads such as Clarke's and La Fornaia.

Dade is clearly dissatisfied with the compromises in quality inflicted by wholesale baking and distribution. At Baker and Spice ,100-year-old listed ovens with brick floors have been fitted with steam injectors and converted to gas. A mixer shipped over from Italy looks like a giant Kenwood, with two spiny, steel arms which simulate hand-kneading, and the staff are trained by Dade on the premises, a process he reckons to take two years.

You can indeed buy the three sizes of French stick, a ficelle for 50p, a baguette for 80p and a gros pain for pounds 1.30, and there are three daily bakes. The bread boasts the large holes produced by lengthy fermentation; we British happily did away with these, not least because of the inconvenience of their filling up with butter. Their hard golden crust comes of being fully baked, and their wonkiness is a healthy sign that they have been moulded by hand.

If Baker and Spice fulfils its intentions, then it will provide a tiny pocket of perfectly-crafted French bread in central London. The message, though, is broader: think local. "We are trying to get back to this business of being a local bakery which should serve the local community," says Dade.

It is a refrain that is already being sung by the Conran Group who have onsite bakeries at Butler's Wharf, Mezzo, and plans for another at The Bluebird, the food emporium due to open in the King's Road in 1997. "The idea is to emulate the French system of a bakery on every corner," says Joel Kissin of Conran. And if Conran's doing it, others may well follow

Baker and Spice 0171-589 4734; The Food Store, Butler's Wharf 0171-403 4030; Mezzo 0171-314 4065