Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Slippery Slope

I've been buying Le Petit Francais bread for several years now, ever since I found it in my local Publix's freezer aisle. While it can't really hold a candle to properly-made fresh bread, it is head and shoulders above the stuff distributed by Pillsbury and the average grocery-deli french loaf. I always keep a few packages in my freezer so I'm never without good bread for dinner.

One of the reasons why I like it is that it's very basic stuff, with an ingredients list that doesn't require a chemistry degree to understand: wheat flour, yeast, spring water, and sea salt. The bread is par-baked, and making it is simple: remove from the freezer, thaw on the counter for about 15 minutes, then bake at 425-degrees for eight to ten minuets. Perfect for that scrambling-to-get-it-together-cause-I-just-got-home-late-from-work family dinner.

Then, six months or so ago, I noticed a new little slogan on the package: "freezer to table in 10 minutes!". How can this be, I wondered, when the very instructions on the package say you have to thaw it for fifteen minutes before you even put it in the oven? I kept making the bread the same old way and it tasted fine.

Then, a few months ago, Le Petit Francais came out with a new version of the product: mini-baguettes, which are about half the size of the original, and have new instructions: "No thawing necessary--place directly on the center rack of the oven." The dough appears to be exactly same as the longer baguettes, so why no 15 minute thaw?

The other day, as dinner was about ready, I realized I had forgotten bread. I had a bag of mini baguettes in the freezer and grabbed a couple. Dinner would be ready in just 10 minutes, and the bag said "no thawing required"--so I tossed them in the oven icy and hard as a rock. 10 minutes later the outside was nicely browned, and when I split one apart it was cooked through and soft and steamy in the middle.

Midway through the meal, The Wife commented, "You know, I'm just not crazy about this bread." And, as usual, she was right. The bread just wasn't good at all--flat and tasteless. I nibbled at it, but left most of the hunk on the edge of my plate at the end of the meal.

So the next time, I was very careful and thawed it the full fifteen minutes (probably more) and--guess what?--the bread was crisp and crusty on the outside and rich and tasty on the inside, the way good bread is supposed to be.

So what's the deal? A wild guess: marketing. I can only imagine that someone for Le Petit Francais ran some focus groups and found their bread wasn't selling as well as it could because it takes too darn long to prepare--who has that extra fifteen minutes for thawing, after all? I can only imagine that Pillsbury is eating their lunch with their ghastly but (judging from the amount of it on my local grocery store shelves) strong-selling "Hot & Crusty in 5 Minutes Twin French." 5 minutes!?!? How can we compete?

And thus begins the slippery slope (or, rather, continues the slippery slope, since the reason I bought Le Petit Francais in the first place was for the convenience of always having pretty-good bread on hand.) To save a few extra minutes we settle for a product that is markedly inferior but before long we forget what the good stuff ever tasted like.

And before long we have Easy Mac.


Anonymous said...

What is your take on Euro Foods? I happen to love the wide variety of sausages and cheeses they have. It's on route 61 (Ashley River Road) opposite Trader Joe's Furniture and Market Street Munchies. Near 61 and Wappoo Road intersection.

Robert said...

I think Euro Foods is definitely an interesting shop. I've dropped in a few times and had fun just browsing the shelves, which are a testament to how diverse Charleston's international community has become in recent years.

I suspect that most of EuroFood's stock is the kind of stuff that is not necessarily high-cuisine but rather staples or comfort foods that appeal mostly to expats from various European countries living here in South Carolina--like peanut butter and Heinz ketchup might be to an American living overseas, a taste of home. I say "suspect" because many of the cans and jars have labels I can't even read, so I'm not exactly sure what's in them!

That said, I've found some really great stuff there, too, like the sausages and cheese you mention. I remember in paticular a delicious bag of dried spaetzle that I bought there on a whim and now have a huge craving for.

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