Welcome to France, the home of high-falutin’ haute cuisine and down-home cuisine paysanne–both of which, when exported, end up three times more expensive than any other international cuisine. Go figure. The good news is that you can always count on the neighborhood bakery to feed you something delicious for a few euros, provided the abundance of choices and stress of ordering don’t discourage you from carbing up.
I’m here to offer you a cheat sheet to French bakeries, with a sampling of iconic breads and pastries to try and the vocabulary to order them. Now you can step in with a pastry in mind, order it, and get out having escaped the scathing Parisian sneer, so that next time you have the confidence to try something new, and go off-list. Let’s get started.
Here’s what we’re going to do: learn the sentence skeleton to say “hello, I would like a ______, thank you,” and then read on to decide which lovely pastry will fill that blank. When you step up to the counter, say Bonjour, un(e) ____________ s’il vous plaît (Pronounced “uh _____ see voo play”), and then merci (“mare-see”) after they hand it to you. As far as numbers and prices go, you’re welcome to learn them of course, but if that’s too intimidating, just use your fingers and look at the price on the display of the cash register. This is a cheat sheet, y’all, so I can’t teach you everything, but I can give you a strong start.
If you only remember one thing from this article, remember the Bonjour. Even if the rest of the conversation goes down in grunts and hand gestures, French shopkeepers will always expect a good bonjour.
Now, the important part: the food itself. In general French boulangeries (bakeries with mostly bread) and boulangerie-pâtisseries (bakeries with bread and pastries), can be divided into three sections. You’ll have your buttery breakfast pastries, breads, and dessert pastries. I didn’t include the savory options, but just get the jambon beurre if you’re looking for lunch.
Buttery Breakfast Pastries, AKA ‘Viennoiseries’
The Buttery Breakfast Pastries category, or BBP’s if you must, or viennoiseries if you’re Francophone, is comprised of croissants and all their brothers and sisters. They’re the tasty little morsels you imagine nibbling alongside an espresso atop a spindly-legged table. If it makes your fingers shiny with butter or papery with pastry flakes, it’s a viennoiserie–so named for a bakery in Vienna that many claim made the first croissants.
If you want to keep it simple and delicious, just go for the croissant. You can’t go wrong there, and even in Paris, a plain croissant is just a smidge above a euro. Otherwise, my personal favorite is the pain aux raisins, a swirl of croissant dough with sweet pastry cream and raisins between the layers. Don’t forget the classic pain au chocolat, or chocolatine, or chocolate croissant, however you want to call it, or the chausson aux pommes, which is like an apple turnover made with croissant dough. It can also be translated as ‘apple slipper,’ which is just a nice little fun fact, isn’t it?
Yes! I am leaving out a whole lot! Hold your angry comments! The point of this cheat sheet is to be as non-overwhelming as possible, so y’all don’t get paralyzed by choice. It’s all going to be okay. Stay whelmed.
Baguettes, baguettes, baguettes as far as the eye can see. This country may have had absolute monarchs in the past and a heavily disliked president in the present, but don’t get it twisted, y’all. The baguette rules all. Baguettes in bike baskets, baguettes in baby carriages, baguettes in backpacks–typically with the crusty end bit already ripped off before it made it so far as a meter away from the bakery.
Now, you should absolutely try a baguette, in one of its many renditions (une baguette tradition if you want to keep it simple), but there’s a whole other world of bread out there! You can’t miss it! Unless you’re gluten-intolerant. In that case, please come contribute a gluten-free guide to Paris, because the public needs you.
There’s the crusty pain de campagne for people who prefer the guts to the crust, or a seedy pain aux céréales for the crunchy folks. I’m partial to the pain au levain, with its lovely sourdough tang. You can even order them pre-sliced (tranché), although I get a lot of satisfaction out of tearing chunks off in my fingers. Do that in private, though. The French do not approve.
Room for Dessert
Now we get to the rainbow. These are the rows and rows of shiny, colorful little things called pâtisserie, from éclairs with all of their fillings to tartes and macaron. Here, there’s no going wrong with the classic lemony tarte citron, or the tarte citron meringuée, which cuts the acidity of the lemon with a cloud of sugary meringue. Macarons are always a hit (pronounced mack- are- AHN, not mack-are-OON, by the way); although, to be honest, they’re too sweet for me.
Eclairs are lovely, if you enjoy large mouthfuls of straight pastry cream or chocolate ganache, and a fat wedge of French flan will get you through an afternoon–though not if you’re one of those people who can’t stand uniform, soft textures. If you’re one of those people, get the millefeuille, which has plenty of crispy layers to crunch through.
Every French bakery is going to be different, with its own specialty and regional differences. This list of basics will be what gives you just enough information to walk through the door and order confidently, without holding up the line, but after that just point at what looks the tastiest and say, ça aussi, s’il vous plaît! (“Sa oh-si, see-voo-play!”)
Better yet, muster up the courage to ask a local, who will point you to the spot with the crustiest baguette, the fluffiest flan, the richest moelleux.
Let me know down below–what’s your go-to in a French bakery? Share the knowledge!