Sunday, April 19, 2009

Stale French bread, a/k/a concrete

A kind soul at school suggested that I might enjoy eating plain bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar as a meal. I tried this, and I liked it. I've made it an important part of my diet, because it's cheap, and because it is (hopefully) good for me (olive oil, vinegar, fresh bread—they are all supposed to be good for nutrition).

The only problem with this plan is that French bread has a shelf life of about 35 seconds. The standard French baguette is about one yard in length and an inch or two in diameter, and when fresh from the oven, it has a soft interior and a hard crust. About 60 minutes after leaving the oven, the interior mutates into reinforced concrete, and the crust mutates into tungsten steel, making the baguette inedible for anything smaller than a tyrannosaurus. An excellent way to break a tooth while visiting France is to make the mistake of biting into a three-hour-old baguette.

This isn't necessarily a problem for independently wealthy men and women of leisure, who can afford to trot off to the local boulangerie thrice daily to buy just enough bread for their next meal. For anyone who wishes to save time or money by buying bread in advance, however, it's extremely frustrating.

I've managed to work around this in a number of ways. First, not all French breads have a hard crust. Another type of French bread loaf, the parisienne, is fatter around the middle and has a much softer crust than the baguette, so often I try to buy one of these (they seem to go faster than the baguettes—I wonder why). There are also Italian panini-style breads in many bakeries, which are shorter, more rectangular, and quite soft, and sometimes I buy those. All of these breads have the same ingredients; only the way they are shaped and cooked seems to differ. They are all good fresh out of the oven, but the parisiennes and paninis survive a lot better than the baguettes.

I have also learned that bread keeps poorly in the fridge, but very well in the freezer, so I buy several parisiennes or panini loaves and stuff them into my tiny freezer. They will keep for days in the freezer. When it comes time to eat them, I put them into my tiny microwave and nuke them for about 2½ minutes, and they come out feeling and tasting as fresh as when I bought them. With the aforementioned olive oil and vinegar, they make an excellent little meal. (It helps that it is much easier to get top-quality olive oil and vinegar in France than it is in the U.S.)

I don't mean by this tirade to insult French bread generally. It's delicious when it's fresh. It's just that the traditional hard crust is difficult to chew, and it turns into porcelain so quickly that it's not very practical to keep French bread around for more than a few hours without eating it. And what really makes bread tasty is the freshness, not the Frenchness, so other fresh breads taste pretty good, too. Fresh breads of every description are extremely easy to find in Paris.

Stale baguettes are not completely useless. If you have a sledgehammer, you can use them to pierce holes for conduit in granite or marble walls and facades. With a suitable launching device, you can use them as armor-piercing ordnance (void where prohibited by law). You can attach two of them together with a length of cord and use them as nunchaku. You can bolt a few of them together, shape them with diamond-tipped tools, and use them as propellers for aircraft. And the lead-like density of the stale crust makes them useful for shielding against x rays or gamma rays. So they need never be wasted, even though they are dangerous to teeth after 180 minutes.