Some of my most memorable French breakfasts have been eaten outside France, where imagination or memory perform better than reality.
But when I think of a typical breakfast in France and visions of buttery croissants drift past me, I know I'm in a dream and about to wake up.
And now we can debunk Myth Number One: we do NOT eat croissants for breakfast every single morning.
Although fresh croissants may be the quintessential image many foreigners have of our standard morning meal, reality is far more banal: we DO eat croissants, but mostly on weekends, or if we're late and need to grab breakfast on the run. At home? Occasionally.
But more about that in a minute. First...
(Oh, and by the way, breakfast in French is "petit déjeuner", or little lunch.)
For a country that prizes its culinary excellence, our breakfasts are surprisingly plain.
Unlike many other countries, breakfast is considered the least important meal of the day. Our big meal is lunch or supper.
While in many countries, breakfast contains savoury elements – cheese, cold meats, eggs or bacon, breakfast in France tends to be sweet and carb-heavy. The so-called English or American breakfast, a hefty meal, is only served in hotels with international-type buffets, or in highly touristed restaurants with an expanded French breakfast menu.
Also, many of us don't eat breakfast at all (shame on us!), rushing out the door with a cup of coffee and postponing gratification until lunch.
Not everyone eats exactly the same thing for breakfast across France – for example, there are plenty of regional variations – but these are the staples:
There's no real translation for 'tartine' – it sometimes means toast but not made with the square, sliced stuff that passes for bread in some countries.
Usually it means a half or a quarter baguette, sliced horizontally, with butter and jam (or jelly). Sometimes the baguette is sliced into small, round pieces, but that is rare and round slices are used mostly for lunch or dinner. At breakfast, you want to be able to "dunk" your tartine into your café au lait... And the baguette may be grilled, though not necessarily so.
Everyone has their favourite jam or jelly. The most popular (judging by the bare shelves in my local supermarket) are berries or marmalade, or honey. Jellies like quince are also well liked but breakfast toppings is one place where our individuality can shine. I, for example, am partial to sour orange marmalade.
Butter is optional although common, and can be either unsalted (doux) or salted (salé). It really is a question of taste, and often of region.
Breakfast was not always as we know it today.
Around the 16th century, someone began dunking buttered bread into milk (coffee wouldn't make an appearance in France for another century or so). Once coffee became the queen of beverages, the dunking habit stuck, but breakfast as such didn't become popular until the 1800s, and even then, it was mostly a city thing. By mid-20th century, today's breakfast had become the norm.
This translates roughly into "from Vienna", which is where it is believed France's flaky breakfast buns originated.
Unless you're grabbing one at the boulangerie on the way to work, these are rarely eaten on weekday mornings. One exception is when you're staying in a hotel, which usually serve these pastries for breakfast. There are a few other exceptions, as I'll explain below.
The croissant is the most famous of the viennoiseries and would seem to trace its ancestry to the Austrian kipferl, shaped as a crescent because it was first designed to celebrate a victory over the Ottomans.
In another story, a Viennese baker moved to Paris and served kipferl to his bakery clients. The discerning Parisians fell in love, adopted it, changed it significantly, and turned it into the croissant we know today.
Sadly, there is no evidence to confirm these and several other stories of the croissant's origins. But frankly, who cares where it came from... what's important is that we have it today.
There are several common types of croissant:
As I mentioned, croissants aren't everyday breakfast fare, at least not in the countryside but we certainly do eat some, usually on weekends.
Known in some English-speaking countries as a chocolate croissant, this one rivals the croissant in popularity. It is often eaten by children and students in mid-afternoon for their goûter, or snack. For the rest of us, the pain au chocolat is reserved for weekends, as a special treat, or, like the croissant, for the occasional disorganized early morning rush.
Should you be visiting southwestern France, best to ask for a chocolatine instead. A friendly cultural tussle has been going on, with each side claiming it holds the correct name for this delightful French breakfast pastry.
Both are correct, and both taste the same.
Your local bakery will have plenty of viennoiseries. In addition to the basic croissants and pain au chocolat, you'll usually find:
A few years ago, I would have insisted you avoid buying anything at a supermarket. However, these days, few are the bakers who prepare everything from scratch. Often, they receive dough from a central sales point (or, horror of horrors, buy frozen dough) and bake or reheat things in their ovens.
While bread in France is highly regulated, you cannot say the same about viennoiseries: there is no legislation that prevents bakeries from selling you an industrial croissant. So how can you tell?
In the end, you'll have to trust your nose and your taste, because there is really no failsafe way of knowing. Each year, France has a television show called "La Meilleure Boulangerie de France", a contest that selects the best baker each year. By looking at the list of winners and finalists, you'll at least be able to sample what they offer if you happen to be in that part of France...
Let's face it, breakfast in France is changing.
Cereals are becoming a staple of the typical French breakfast, at least among the younger generation and for children. Plenty of ads on television enjoin us to eat cereals, and they are having an impact.
According to a survey several years ago, 59% of French ate cereal for breakfast. Going forward, that number can only have increased.
With cereals, all you have to do is pour into a bowl and add milk, no fuss, no muss. The temptation of simplicity in a busy world is understandable.
Of course there are always a few who break the norm and eat differently, although here too, habits are slowly becoming mainstream.
One trend is the sale of special breads in bakeries. A decade ago, in my local rural boulangerie, I could buy a few different baguettes, a crown-shaped loaf, some larger breads called pains (this is the generic word for bread but is a loaf about twice the size of a baguette), and a few others.
Now, I can find several dark breads, baguettes with seeds on top, breads with cheese or bacon or olives, tall loaves and flat loaves and rye or linseed loaves. This diversity is extremely welcome, but it was a long time coming.
The so-called healthy breakfast is also making inroads in certain quarters. It might include muesli or a healthy cereal, yoghourt, fruit – anything that isn't a refined grain.
Brunch on weekends is becoming popular in large cities where it is available, and that's where you might find such dishes as Eggs Benedict or pancakes or a full English or American breakfast.
I used to think this was a peculiarity of my mother's, cutting a radish, slipping some butter into the gashes and sprinkling with salt. But no. I've since seen these at friends' homes for breakfast. Neither unique nor widespread, this breakfast choice is a bit quirky and demonstrates we are not that stuffy when it comes to breakfast.
There are plenty of foods that people may think we eat for breakfast... but that we do not.
Morning hot drinks are quite similar to those in other countries:
This seems a good time to tell you about the canard, or duck (a term which may come from the way ducks dunk themselves into the water and come out soaked). A canard is a sugar cube dunked in coffee (or in some sort of alcohol, but not usually at breakfast). And at least one friend of mine uses the term canard for her dunked tartine.
La carte du petit déjeuner.
The stereotypical French breakfast is a hot drink, usually coffee or tea, and a tartine, which is a baguette, sliced horizontally, slathered with butter and/or jam.
It is either lunch or dinner. Often, working people will sit down for a long lunch and eat a light dinner. In families, dinner is often the main meal as everyone sits together. On weekends or evenings out, dinner will be more important than lunch.