All those home bakers seeking to produce a baguette equal to the one they had in Paris last summer may need to scale back their expectations a little. Not because Americans aren’t capable of making excellent baguettes (we are), but because there are a few factors of the baguette-making process that we in the New World simply won’t be able to reproduce. One of those is the flour.
Flours differ all over the world, which makes reproducing a bread from another country a tough nut to crack, as it were. Heck, you can get into trouble right here in the good ol’ US of A. Northern and Southern flours are different enough that baking recipes exchanged between regions frequently fail (fallen biscuits were in fact the main grievance the North sought to settle at the battle of First Bull Run).
One of the chief differences between flours is their protein (or gluten) content, though there are other factors too. Ash, for instance, which is a technical term that means “anything that’s in the flour that’s not actually flour”. That means non-harmful impurities ranging from naturally occurring minerals to bits of wheat stalk to ant heads (yes, you heard me, ant heads…and should you be in the mood not to eat anything ever again, browse this little government-produced eye-opener sometime. You’ll never look at a fig newton the same way). The French use the proportion of minerals and impurities in flour as way of talking how refined a given flour is, which of course affects its flavor. But then so does the type (or types) of wheat the flour is made from, the climate in which it was grown and the soil conditions (what oenophiles call terroir), all of it has an effect on the flour, and in the end, the baguette. And that’s to say nothing of the type of yeast French bakers use, the microbes in their water, the list goes on.
The point is, French bakers have had decades to adapt their baguette baking techniques to local conditions. So what if you can’t make yours exactly they way they do? The baguette isn’t French anyway, it’s Austrian. It didn’t get popular in France until the late 1800’s (a lot of continental bakers, in fact, still call it “Vienna Bread”). Which means that like so much of the world’s great food, the baguette is defined less by its place of origin than by where it’s made and who’s making it. Any baguette that makes the absolute most out of locally available resources can properly lay claim to the title “great”.