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So why are baguettes in France so much better?


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When most professional bakers use the term "sourdough," they mean a wild-yeast starter or bread made from such a starter--not just one made in San Francisco or one with a pronounced acetic acid taste. Bourdain's friend was maintaining (okay, forcing Tony to maintain) a sourdough starter.

Sure, you can seed a starter with yeast from a variety of natural sources (flour, grapes, other grains, and so on), but we're still talking about a couple dozen species of unicellular fungi and their bacterial pals. There is, as you would expect, much debate over just how much local variation there is in these populations, but there is definitely some, and that's responsible for some of the difference in taste between sourdough breads made in different places.

The basic point here is that there are three ways to make bread: straight dough with commercial yeast, sourdough, or commercial yeast with preferment (or a combination of the latter two). Two of those methods can produce great bread, one of them can't, and most bread nuts would agree that the world's best breads are sourdoughs--meaning wild yeast breads.

Incidentally, my favorite style of beer (lambic) is also a wild yeast product. I love those little guys. Yeast cells, not Belgians.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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I just saw this thread, and didn't see anyone bring this point up: how much of the wonderfulness is from the setting: they're IN FRANCE?! The atmosphere probably adds something, hey?

(said from the ignorant perspective of one who has not been there myself YET!)

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The basic point here is that there are three ways to make bread: straight dough with commercial yeast, sourdough, or commercial yeast with preferment (or a combination of the latter two). Two of those methods can produce great bread, one of them can't, and most bread nuts would agree that the world's best breads are sourdoughs--meaning wild yeast breads.

Mamster, I'm surprised at you. You're almost, but not quite, as bad as Fat Guy. Most American bread nuts would agree that the best breads are sourdoughs. I don't think you could say that of most European bread nuts, who don't tend to favor sour flavors the way Americans do.

I'll give you a pass on your disrespect toward all direct method breads, since I take it you're talking about lean breads such as baguettes. Obviously world-class enriched breads (and others) are made using the direct method. And to say that sourdoughs are "better" than these breads is just silly.

Edited by SethG (log)

"I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast;

but we like hot butter on our breakfast toast!"

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Yes, I was talking about lean breads.

Seth, I was the one defending commercial yeast against Fat Guy's cruel and unwarranted attack. But I still think we're getting hung up on the word "sourdough." I mean, pain poilane is sourdough. It's not very sour, and they sell a squillion loaves a day in Europe. No, it doesn't outsell baguettes any more than Grand Central outsells Wonder Bread in Seattle, but I'm not convinced that Europeans fear sourdough.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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I just saw this thread, and didn't see anyone bring this point up:  how much of the wonderfulness is from the setting:  they're IN FRANCE?!  The atmosphere probably adds something, hey?

(said from the ignorant perspective of one who has not been there myself YET!)

Hi,

Well, San Francisco Bay Area is damn beautiful, too! And I do love Acme bread, I have it almost everyday. Honestly, though, that generic baguette I ate at the cold, uninspiring environment of the Gare de Lyon, while waiting for my train, was of better quality.

Alex

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Just want to report that yesterday I baked some Pain a l'Ancienne baguettes. The kind derived from the methods of Parisian Phillipe Gosselin, as described in the U.S.A. by Jeffrey Steingarten, Peter Reinhart, and others. Not the kind of Pain a l'ancienne made by sourdough-scarfing American pig-dogs (just kidding, Mabelline! And see below.).

The reason Reinhart flipped when he had this bread is that it has color and complexity-- a sweetness, a nuttiness-- that one would associate with long pre-ferments. And yet the bread has NO PRE-FERMENT. It is the simplest white bread one could imagine. The trick is to combine all the ingredients cold-- the water preferably at 40 degrees, and refrigerate overnight. Then let it warm up and rise in the morning at room temperature, spread out the bread in baguette shapes (this is a wet dough, hard to shape, so you just stretch it out in pieces), and bake 'em. And damned if they ain't pretty amazing.

I raised this issue regarding Pain a l'ancienne in the first place simply to make the point that there are many different ways to coax bacteria into creating flavor in our bread (and it's the bacteria, not the yeasts, which create the flavors we want). Using a wild yeast starter is just one of these. If Gosselin's direct-method, commercial yeast, delayed fermentation bread can be awarded "best baguette" status, as it was in 1996, then doesn't it call into question this recieved wisdom about what the best bread method is?

Likewise, I made some Ciabatta last week using my sourdough starter. It was very nice, but it was not traditional. All of these wet dough, big holed, delicious Italian breads like Pugliese and Ciabatta are generally made with a pre-ferment called a biga, using commercial yeast. Yet they are complex, rustic loaves, as full of character as any bread on the planet. Would the bread nuts of Italy concede that their bread isn't legit, isn't the height of bread achievement, because they use commercial yeast? Steve Shaw thinks they should, and Mamster, even though he conceded preferring this type of Italian bread, agrees. And I think that reflects a silly kind of chauvinism.

P.S. I looked back at Steingarten's article on baguettes, and there doesn't seem to be any agreement on what Pain a l'ancienne has to be. Another award-winning baker named Teixeira makes his with a very young, mild, wild yeast starter. And I called up Le Pain Quotidien's production facility and talked to a guy there who said theirs is made with a combination of levain (mild sourdough starter) and commericial yeast. None of this takes away from my point, which is that world-class bread is often made from non-sourdough leavening, as Gosselin has proved.

Edited by SethG (log)

"I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast;

but we like hot butter on our breakfast toast!"

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Damn, I knew someone was going to bring up the Gosselin direct-method baguette, and you're right, it's wonderful.

So maybe I'll try steering my dogma back to what Fat Guy said and say that making a good loaf takes time. Of course, as soon as I say that, SethG is going to come up with a great bread made in 90 minutes.

I was the one saying that ciabatta and other breads made with commercial yeast preferments can be absolutely fantastic, but that, personally, if I think of the best breads I've ever had, most were wild yeast breads. It's not a far-and-away difference, though, by any means, and when you need ciabatta, only ciabatta will do. Same goes for banh mi.

-Pigdog

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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I don't want to dumb down this discussion now that we've elevated it beyond gastronomy and into the realms of chemistry and agronomy. I would like to suggest, however, that once you begin exploring the bread at these levels, you're moving way past general observations and into the realm of personal taste - not what you need to make great bread, but what you want in a particular loaf. You like this yeast, I like that yeast. You like this wheat, I like that one. Some hate baguettes, I love ficelles.

So, let's go back to a variation original question -- "why are French breads so much better?" The answer is, in a lot of ways, they're not. As with New York Bagels, the excellence of the top few purveyors lends a cachet to lesser producers that, frankly, they don't deserve. I know from rueful experience as a tourist in New York City, that if you randomly walk into the first store claiming to sell "authentic New York Bagels" you will likely get crap. Sure, you may be only a block from some legendary bagelry, but you're a tourist (you forgot to check eGullet) and you're eating donut-shaped Wonder Bread.

My experience in Paris has been better. I had Patricial Wells and, since I compulsively check out boulangeries as I walk by, I have never lacked for good bread in my few trips to that city. But, of all the bakeries I check out, maybe a third are worth looking into seriously.

If you pay attention, Paris beats DC, where there are now several excellent bakeries, for sheer variations on the theme -- they surely have more breadmakers making distinctive stuff. But outside of Paris, French bread sucks.

Small towns seem to have no real breadmakers left; even if you get to the market ("we're out of bread, honey, what village is having their damn market today?") at least half the bakers there are turning out pedestrian loaves, and you can forget this "fresh twice a day" routine. I can only handle that many tourists every 48 hours.

Even in Courchevel, the ski resort so posh that Beckham brings his personal secretary there when he needs a good shagging, the bakers -- especial the one that called itself "artisonal," sucked.

Regardless of the wheat and yeast and shape they choose, bakers who care about their product will turn out a pretty good stuff, and bakers who don't, won't. The last breadmaker to make me look back at my plate and say "holy shit" was the guy who seems to have just started baking for the (extremely fracophilic) Pentelikon Hotel in Athens. In Greece, and in the U.S., there seems to be proof that the number of bakers who love their craft are rising. I hope the reports of their repopulation of France are true, as well.

There are wonderful bakers in France. But, the idea that you can just explore any corner baker and strike a worthy boule -- equal to the cheese and wine the French still seem to churn out effortlessly and affordably -- strikes me as more romance than fact.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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FWIW the gosselin baguette method does not involve a cold "delayed fermentation".

This is an invention of Reinhardt's and if it works so be it, but it shouldn't be attributed to gosselin, who following both steven kaplan and ed behr doesn't do anything like it.

As far as the bread in Paris is concerned there is a lot of crap, but I would venture to guess that in almost every neighborhood you are in walking distance of extremely good bread, and in some places you may have the choice of two or three places that produce exceptional products. This is probably not true of any city in the US, certainly not to the same degree. It is definitely not true of New York City where I live. As far as the baguette goes, I have yet to have a baguette here that would be in the top 10 that I've had in Paris. Altho I recognize these comparisons are extremely subjective I feel I can say with confidence that the majority of the NYC baguettes from the better bakeries aren't at the same level of Paris' best. Of course, your taste and idea of what constitutes a good baguette may be different than mine.

As a professional baker I have yet to see any clear consensus on whether sourdough or commercial yeast produces better bread. Perhaps this is because bread plays so many roles in cuisine; it is eaten alone, with condiments and as an accompaniment to various types of food. A hearty sourdough that goes well with a rustic dish may not be the best choice for a more refined dish or maybe too sour for certain sweet jams.

One could go on and on coming up with favorable and unfavorable combinations for both types of bread.

In general I am in agreement with Calvel that a well made commercial yeast bread, with the subtle taste of wheat and fermentation, goes better with a wider range of foods. That said I love a mild sourdough, like at Poilane, as well. One of the enlightening things in Kaplans book, "Le retour du bon pain", is that he details the methods of a handful of his favorite bakers. Their radically different techniques and philosophies make it abundantly clear that blanket statements like "sourdough is better" are insupportable. At the very least before holding to one side or the other you should make an effort to try the best examples of both approaches (when you begin to factor in hybrid methods even this excercise becomes decreasingly worthwhile) and try not to confuse not very well tested preferences (or even well tested preferences) with the mythical consensus of world bread nuts.

Roger

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The term sourdough simply means "a leaven consisting of dough in which fermentation is active." (Merriam-Webster.) In other words, sourdough bread is bread that is risen by yeast cultures that are active in dough, as opposed to crapola industrial yeasts that are added as a powder or goo. Sourdough bread does not inherently taste sour. Some of it does -- as in "San Francisco sourdough," which is a specific style of sourdough that does have a sour taste -- and some of it nobody would describe as the slightest bit sour. You can even make a sourdough baguette.

The reason is simple: in breadmaking, as in many types of cooking, it takes time for excellent flavor and texture to develop. If you make bread in just a few hours with commercial yeast, it will not have the flavor of bread that has risen long and slow with sourdough. Bring on the taste tests, and prepare to be offended again and again and again.

I have never had bread made with commercial yeast that is as good as good sourdough bread. Never, not once.

Perhaps the problem lies in nomenclature: the vast majority of "sourdough bread" sold in the U.S. sucks, period. If anyone knows where to find a good version in the entire Washington DC area, please PM me: when a baker is describing his-or-her wares to me in DC, I generally ask, "is it sourdough?" And, if so, I ask them to please move on to something that isn't. Yes, it's that bad, on average.

I do, however, wait to be enlightened, sort of like I'm waiting to be enlightened with "really good California wine." Yes, I believe they both exist in quantity, but the burden of proof is no longer on me to find them.

Time for a DOCG regulation?

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FWIW the gosselin baguette method does not involve a cold "delayed fermentation".

http://www.yeastgenome.org/VL-what_are_yeast.html

You know, I am not sure what you mean here...; let's see, are you talking about a sponge method of bread making, oh wait a minute here while I digress, actually not all starters are sour dough or should I say all natural yeast are sour dough’s, I really do not want to re-right a lot of the science stuff I have read, but from what I can gather they do all have very different structures, This bacteria that attaches itself to the West Coast San Francisco sour dough, which is SOUR DOUGH, is very unique, if you want bread like it you have to buy a starter from the region, from what I can gather this bacteria is isolated to the san Fran area.

Bread yeast used to come from beer yeast, which I understand there is a brew pub somewhere in Oregon that uses the beer at the bottom of the tanks, sludge, if you have a better word or an actual word that will be it; any way they make the bread using this yeast, from what I can gather it is not a sour dough, there is that stupid word again.

Yes!!; You are right, we are to hung up on sour dough, is this a San Francisco based word, because when the same yeast is used with out the bacteria, there is no sour taste.

Sponge method of bread making will produce different kind of bread, from what I can understand, a cold or isolated method of making the sponge, letting it rest will break down the glutten without having to rise the bread and work it so much.???

I am working and reading

will be back

Just want to report that yesterday I baked some Pain a l'Ancienne baguettes. The kind derived from the methods of Parisian Phillipe Gosselin, as described in the U.S.A. by Jeffrey Steingarten, Peter Reinhart, and others. Not the kind of Pain a l'ancienne made by sourdough-scarfing American pig-dogs (just kidding, Mabelline! And see below.).

Nice work SethG

Edited by stovetop (log)
Cook To Live; Live To Cook
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I wonder if that's the first link ever from eGullet to SGD. Back when I worked in a yeast lab I used to use that site every single day.

stovetop, if you're asking what we mean by the Gosselin/Reinhart method, basically you quickly mix a dough with cold water and instant yeast and stick it in the fridge overnight, then bake it in the morning. There's no room-temperature rise and no kneading. It's weird that it works so well.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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I wonder if that's the first link ever from eGullet to SGD. Back when I worked in a yeast lab I used to use that site every single day.

stovetop, if you're asking what we mean by the Gosselin/Reinhart method, basically you quickly mix a dough with cold water and instant yeast and stick it in the fridge overnight, then bake it in the morning. There's no room-temperature rise and no kneading. It's weird that it works so well.

Does it have enzymes that break down the protiens or gluten???

So you do not have to work the dough

stovetop

Cook To Live; Live To Cook
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Just got back from a drive from Paris down to the southwest, and the bread - all bar one place - was simply the crap that dare not speak its name.

Absolutely the most unremittingly bland shit imagineable. And the only thing worse than the bread were the excruciatingly painful croissants. 17 layers of cardboard wrapped around numbingly tasteless butter and yack yeast. Made me want to throw a chair through the window.

Finally found a small traditional bakery with beautiful boules, and even their baguettes were uninspired.

Edited by MobyP (log)

"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

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"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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I'm really on the fence about this, for the simple reason that beside Poilane loaves shipped to me, and many artisanal breads from very fervent bakers right here, I am limited in my perspective.

But one thing I do want to say; my afformentioned step-grandpa, who had been a master baker in Dusseldorf before WW1, made the most incredible breads I've ever tasted...and I've yet to hear from anyone with a German upbringing sticking up for their bread!

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I read somewhere that there was some fanatical French baguette baker who moved to Los Angeles. He supposedly sells his baguettes out of a side door, and supposedly they are fantastic.

Anybody heard of this guy?

Personally, I actually couldn't tell the difference between the Parisian baguettes I had and the ones I get in newport beach. I think one Parisian bakery was more delicate, crackly and tender in the middle, but they all go stale in like an hour anyway.

I love cold Dinty Moore beef stew. It is like dog food! And I am like a dog.

--NeroW

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Welcome, and jump in the fire! I'm with you, good bread's good bread, no matter who or where. And I am not so touchy, but sometimes I feel like I'm apologizing for a whole pack of people who don't need it!

And, no German bread eaters have even bothered to answer! SG-Paul made wonderful ryes and black breads...as a kid I thought you had to have black bread with chicken soup...ah well. Just a memory.

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I think this thread is interesting. However, I think it is based on the wrong question... It would be wrong to judge baker's from one country to another. As a person who very often finds himself in rural US and from French background, I would re-issue the question reguarding food culture in general or the ability to find good bread in general. I think that in general, food culture is a more entrenched social factor in France than in the US. Even Rumsfeld said it when he spoke of old world europe (hahaha).

Serioulsy, bakers for bakers, there are plenty of good spots in US cities, large cities. Step away from these areas and you can get in trouble, especially in those anonymous W Mart average town. I remember vividly driving across Italy and being struck by the amazing coffee and paninis made in truck stops. I also remember driving from Montreal to Florida and be stricken by the incredible multiplications of centralised service spots on the east coast, the multiplication of bad coffee houses, donuts for lunch concept and megasize-killaCEOwithcloggedarteries chains. We've been pretty diligent in trying to flavor local products on our way down the coast, in many places in the US, there is still a huge void in food culture, I therefore second FG comments about the general awarness in Europe compared to the US. I also visit San Fran a lot, I agree that sometimes I am just repulsed at how sour one actually describes sourdoe bread. Last time I picked up something in SF, I asked the baker if it was sourdoe bread, he said yes, I said does it taste sour, he said hell ya, it's sourdoe bread... That's kind of a ridiculous statement no ? All my breads are sourdoe, not one tastes like supersour pound of sour cream doe.

I also want to comment on flour. King Arthur for example, in general, US economy structure is never meant for multiple medium size players to create market segments, this does consolidate a lot of choices for flours. Just here in Montreal, I can access, three organic, rock milled flour companies, from Abanakies, to Milanaise to Moulin bleu. Not sure if this is a signature of all 1 million resident or bigger cities in the US. And again, don't get me wrong, I am totally respectfull of some great Amercan traditionnal bakers, nothing matches their will. I just find it quite odd that there is a huge separation between a regular consumer and a foodie in the US, just like general income charts, it is clear for example that lower living economies are specificaly targeted by large scale food industrials in the states, as opposed to other countries. I think this a social phenomenon that many countries cannot escape from but is hitting the US harder, expanding foodie discussions and technical awarness of gluten content sure hell comforts me as a North American but it would be somewhat of a running gag if I recognised that the average american is more aware of bagettes (insert many great foods here) than the average French (or european) for example, still it takes nothing away from great american bakers.

Don't think because I speak French that I am inclined to French culture. After all, the french bagette protection label laws came into effect after a complete industrialisation of the bagette in large chains in the form of frozen doe. This is something that got to the core of French values and was reversed by a lot of work and awarness, they are as guilty in a way but the reaction was positive. Much like the raw milk march that Quebecers brought to Ottawa to save it from complete extinction with new manufacturing rules from Health Canada.

BTW, the best bagels were always in Montreal, right FG ?

Edited by identifiler (log)
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But one thing I do want to say; my afformentioned step-grandpa, who had been a master baker in Dusseldorf before WW1, made the most incredible breads I've ever tasted...and I've yet to hear from anyone with a German upbringing sticking up for their bread!

I don't have a german upbringing, but I will wholeheartedly agree that german breads and traditional french rye breads are another absolutely wonderful category of breads. Which supports the theory that there are many different styles of breads that all can be delicious in their own right, and come into their own when used in different ways.

Fred Bramhall

A professor is one who talk's in someone else's sleep

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Call me silly* for leaving the kitchen/bakery with my response - but is it at all possible that the seeming superiority of the French baguette has to do more with your prejudices? This discussion seems to parallel the great (yet tedious) pizza or bagel debates [sure, it's the water...can you all return to NYC now?] - as long as you project your own subjectivity to the process, how could any bread compete with a French baguette?

My personal standard for white bread is the bolillo or the telera of Mexico, sandwich rolls that are pure ambrosia at the point they're tossed HOT by the basketload into waiting bread bins in neighborhood bakeries. (And variations in size DID make a difference in flavor.) By the time all the oven's heat has dissipated from one of those divine mini-loaves, it is already acting as a sponge to absorb whatever ambient schmutz there may be in the air** and heading downhill fast. We routinely bought our bread fresh in the morning, toasted leftovers for lunch (for those who hadn't switched to tortillas), and bought fresh again for dinner. I understand that my early days spent in Mexico City may interfere with my acceptance of the yuppie/foodie gospel according to Escoffier (and, no, we haven't forgotten about Maximilian, or the French Olympic team bringing its own water back in '68...), but the baguette hardly seems the apex of the bakery arts.

Do blind taste tests even prove that bread aficionados can consistently pick out their preferred loaves? I have to imagine that a good French baguette is more about going to France to enjoy it than anything inherent in the bread.

Buen provecho,

Richard

Berkeley/SF, CA

*well, call me anything but late for dinner...

**wait - how's THAT for the reason French baguettes are superior? There's less ambient schmutz reabsorbed to mess up the flavor?

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Thanks for a clear judgment! I am probably too defensive of U.S. products, and I'm totally with you about panaderias and Mexico. It's all good.

It's been ages since I gave up on getting bolillos here in Califas - it's SO much easier to NOT complain, and just book myself a flight to go visit kinfolk, suck up all the tortas and/or teleras/bolillos I can stomach, and come home for all the non-Mexican nibbles I also love. Why ask why?

(Of course, it's never that simple - even my American relatives will occasionally tempt me with what they claim is a good "authentic" bolillo...how often I've felt like Charlie Brown, lured by the Siren-Football-Holder Lucy!)

P.S. Will the tardiness of my first posting go on my permanent record?....

P.P.S. And - truth be told - as good as bolillos are, neither they nor "good ol' American" hot dog buns, can hold a candle to a proper German Broetchen for wrapping around a Wurst, sausage, wiener, or 'dog.'

P.P.P.S. And you heard it here first: authentic American barbecue [KC, Memphis, Carolina - wherever it come from, it don't matter] will take off like a rocket in the international community when it gets divorced from the nasty slices of sponge loaf that get served with it outside the south. In a baguette, a pita, or even rolled up snug in a grilled flour tortilla [as a "barbecuerrito"?] - why use a bad slice to clean that paper plate when you could just save all that sauce to begin with?

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I read somewhere that there was some fanatical French baguette baker who moved to Los Angeles. He supposedly sells his baguettes out of a side door, and supposedly they are fantastic.

Anybody heard of this guy?

Yes,I believe his shop is called Le pain du jour(?) it is on Pico, in Santa Monica

The baguette is very good, I also think that Le Pain Quotidien's(sp) Baguette are

also very good

Tarek Mokhtar

Laguna Beach, CA

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