Thoughts on baguette and culture

The last post was my attempt at Anis Bouabsa’s award winning baguette. Not just any baguette, but the baguette that was judged to be the best in France in 2008. As others wrote:

The young baker slices one of his piping-hot loaves lengthwise and shows off his art. He can rhapsodize about the fluffiness of his dough and the crispness of his crust the way a music lover might talk about a Mozart sonata. And indeed, to bite into Bouabsa’s baguette is to know that a few moments of sheer bliss can bought for a bargain price. “Hey, boss, you like it?” The question is rhetorical. Anis Bouabsa knows the answer already.

Both the Guardian and Bloomberg report winning the title meant Bouabsa supplied baguette daily to then-President Sarkozy’s residence for a whole year.

The perks of being the French president (and being Carla Bruni).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Anis Bouabsa’s award raised questions about the social model in France, where success stories by immigrants are reportedly disproportionately low for the number of immigrants, and where migrants only succeed by becoming ‘the archetype of Frenchness and thus being more French than the French’. And by comparison, in Britain, someone of Bouabsa’s heritage and family history may well win accolades for making Tunisian bread that is better than any British bread (Eric Roux, in the Guardian).

On the other hand, I believe there is something inherently pride-worthy in making a product that is recognised as the best of its kind. Anyone should, without geopolitical-cultural guilt, be entitled to seek to make the best bratwurst in Germany, or Raclette cheese in Switzerland, or dumpling in Shanghai. Culturally (and thereby politically) charged as these prizes are, having an outsider as the winner can be a powerful leveller too. Bloomberg business week wrote,

To better understand what happened to Bouabsa, imagine that in Germany naming a Turk the country’s best bratwurst butcher. Or a Portuguese being proclaimed Pickle King of the Spreewald, Germany’s cured cucumber capital. It really is a beautiful, unexpected sensation.

Sometimes I hear jokes that if you go into the kitchen of many Italian restaurants in Sydney, even around Leichhardt, you will find Chinese cooks plating up your authentic Italian experience, and in the kitchen of many sushi restaurants or eateries, you will find Korean chefs. This joke highlights what we think of or look for as ‘authenticity’ can be only skin deep. But it also suggests ‘authenticity’ and quality should be open to anyone who has the dedication and talent to strive for it. Perhaps the flip side of French snobisme about archetypal French produce is the expectation that people from a certain cultural backgrounds are, or should be, experts in that branch of cuisine.

This would deny others the ‘beautiful, unexpected sensation’ to chefs that cross cultures and become experts through learning, not heritage. In (or from) Australia, we have Tim Pak Choy and then Chui Lee Luk taking on French fine dining at Claude’s, Christine Manfield documenting Indian flavours, Neil Perry wowing taste buds in Spice Temple (in the footsteps of Fuscia Dunlop), and David Thompson popularising classical Thai cooking in the west. In somewhat different contexts, David Chang’s take on the chinese steamed bun and pork belly roll, or those food trucks in LA dishing up a mix of flavours from the cultural mixing pot of LA suburbs. Some of the best coffee I have found in Sydney and Melbourne are not made by ageing (male) baristas from Rome. Going back in history, Sicily’s classic grouping of pine nuts, raisins, cinnamon owes much to Arab invaders to the island, and their farsumagru originated from French chefs who cooked for Sicilian nobility, but adds the sort of extravagance that is worlds away from the French classics.

As a home cook in Sydney, I want, and take, the liberty of trying my hand at brioche and baguettes one week, ciabatta or challah the next, or going from cupcakes and candied fruit to an evening of drunken chicken or won tons. And I want my challah to be judged with the same eye and palate as my drunken chicken. I learned to make both from recipes and through trial-and-error, and I don’t expect my Chinese cooking to have inherent ‘authenticity’ any more than I expect inherent shortcomings in my Italian baking simply because I was not born into an Italian-speaking family.

Food can be (and may be inherently) political. How we eat, the measures of quality, how food reaches the plate, and who is allowed to prepare it. But, its political nature also allows food to be a sign of change, and a vehicle for that levelling message. Yes, it would be great if Bouabsa could have opened a Tunisian bakery and won similar accolades, and still be the official supplier of bread to the President. But maybe the President should simply stroll into his kitchen and say ‘yesterday I had traditional baguette, today I want Tunisian bread, with Indonesian steamed banana cake for dessert.’

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