There is nothing more French than a warm baguette. Other symbols of national identity – berets, yellow headlights, yellow cigarettes – may have disappeared, but the baguette survives as a universal emblem of France.
The 2010 prize for the best "traditional baguette" in Paris has been won by a young man who was born in Senegal, Djibril Bodian, 33, who moved to France when he was six years old.
President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a "great debate on national identity" last year which generated so much anti-immigrant rhetoric that it embarrassed the Elysée Palace and had to be quietly shelved. Immigration, it was claimed by many participants in the debate, threatens to destroy French identity and the French way of life. Not according to Djibril Bodian. And not according to the jury of gastronomes, minor celebrities and ordinary people who voted that his baguettes were the best in the French capital.
"This prize is the best response there could be to some of the remarks that were made [in the national identity debate]," Mr Bodian told The Independent. "All of that was just politics and blah blah. Personally, I consider myself to be completely French, as French as my own bread."
As part of his prize, Mr Bodian will supply all the bread for 12 months to President Sarkozy's official residence.
The bakery where he officiates – sometimes starting his shift at 1 am – could not be in a more traditional part of Paris. Mr Bodian bakes for a branch of the Grenier à Pain chain in the Rue des Abbesses, one of the higgledy-piggledy streets in Montmartre celebrated by the 2001 comic French movie, Amélie. At his third attempt, he beat 162 other bakeries to the €4,000 (£3,600) prize offered annually by Paris town hall for the tastiest and best-smelling "traditional" baguette in the French capital. A baguette de tradition is a slightly shorter, chewier version of the classic, long, white baguette. By law, it must be made from double-fermented dough, with no artificial yeast and no chemical additives.
"The only secret is not to take short cuts," Mr Bodian said. "You have to follow the recipe scrupulously. You have to allow enough cooking time. Most of all you have let the dough rest for a while before you bake it."
Mr Bodian's father was also a baker, and he trained at a patisserie and baking school at Pantin, in the Paris suburbs 12 years ago.
"You couldn't imagine anyone more French than Djibril," said Michel Galloyer, the founder of the Grenier chain, and a celebrated French pastry chef and baker. "He deserves his success. He is modest, he works hard, he is respectful of the people he works with. He teaches us something every day."
The baguette de tradition, despite its name, is of relatively recent invention – or reinvention. By the 1980s, the chewy, pre-war baguette had almost disappeared in France and had been produced in the familiar, light, white version, which becomes as hard as teak by the end of the day. It took a campaign by "real bread" enthusiasts to prod the government into promoting a retro-baguette revival. In almost all Paris bakeries, the light, white "standard baguette" is now sold alongside the succulent, longer-lasting, creamy-coloured, crunchy baguette de tradition, defined by law since 1993.
Mr Galloyer said, "The recipe does not change much from bakery to bakery but the care in the choice of ingredients, and the way that they are put together, varies a great deal." From next week, President Sarkozy will be able to sink his teeth into the most traditional of all traditional baguettes – baked by a Frenchman born in Senegal.
Recipe: Baguette de tradition française
Ingredients 500g wheat flour, 350g water, 12g common salt, 7g natural yeast
* Mix yeast with water. Mix flour and salt in large bowl, and then add to water mixture gradually. Cover with damp cloth and leave to rise for one hour.
* Divide into three pieces and place on a lightly-floured surface. Fold each into baguette shape and place on a baking paper-lined tray. Cut five slices in the top, cover and leave to rise for another hour.
* Pre-heat oven to 230C. Bake for 15-20mins until rich golden brown.
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