Baguettes straight from the vending machine

Industrial baguettes are pictured on a assembly line on April 18, 2011 in the French Holder group's bakery plant 'Chateau Blanc' in the French northern city of Marcq-en-Baroeul.

Bob Moon: Parisians are pretty much used to buying things from vending machines: Train tickets; condoms; bottled water; chocolate. Sometimes all four in the same evening.

But there's something that the French are especially famous for which doesn't really lend itself to being stocked up for later sale. In fact, since the use of preservatives is banned by law in this particular product, it tends to go stale very quickly. But where there's a will, there's a way -- and one enterprising Frenchman has figured out a way.

In Paris, John Laurenson has the story.


John Laurenson: This is the sound of bread dropping out of Paris's first baguette vending machine. It's a sleek design with a touch pad screen. Kind of looks like an ATM. But inside there's a little bakery.

Laurenson: Here it is, nice and hot.

Hot and fresh. Especially important for French bread, which is usually rock hard at the end of a single day. Jean-Louis Hecht, the man who invented the baguette machine, has been baking them all his working life. At his boulangerie in a small town in eastern France. Then one day he had a baking revelation.

Jean-Louis Hecht: I know all my customers. Some of them, when they'd forgotten to come before closing time, used to ring my bell because I lived above the bakery and I'd come down have a bit of a chat and sell them a baguette. But when I went back up my wife used to complain that the dinner was cold, "You're never there! Nag, nag, nag." So one day I said "Don't worry, I'm going to build a machine."

And he had a clever idea. He knew partially cooked dough stays fresh three days, so why not pack the machine with baguettes which are only two-thirds cooked? The machine completes the baking as the baguettes get near the front of the line to be sold. American student Megan Stahl came from a different neighborhood with her friends just to use this machine.

Megan Stahl: It's a great idea.

Laurenson: You think you could use this sort of machine then?

Stahl: Yeah. I would.

Laurenson: You don't like the idea of going to a traditional boulangerie -- "Bonjour Madame" -- all that kind of stuff?

Stahl: Well it depends if I feel good about my French that day. This is easier in the middle of the night, which is when I usually want a baguette.

This machine might be good for night owls, but experts are skeptical about the quality.

Steve Kaplan: There's a little bit of crustiness. You can hear it, a residual crustiness not really a song. There's not the resonance of a drum I'd like to hear. It's too flat.

Steve Kaplan is perhaps the world's leading authority on French bread.

Kaplan: It's just too insufficiently developed so it doesn't give me the tactile pleasure I want to have. Because bread, you know, is one of the few things we eat without the intermediation of utensils so it really is something very sensual to the hands. So let me open it up and see what we get...

Though his initial reaction to the baguette I'd brought him to test was that it was an "ugly mother", his final judgment was that it was "less awful than he feared". Strong praise indeed. Not good enough however to threaten France's network of bakeries -- the densest bread distribution network in the world.

Kaplan: Bakeries are places of sociability. In France, there are 32,000. The bakeries help to forge, to weave the social bond in France. They are important institutions. They are like cafes and churches and tribunals. They help to construct the landscape of French ontology, of French being, of French identity.

Baguette machine man Jean-Louis Hecht says traditional boulangeries have to adapt or die. He hopes his baguette-maker will catch on just like ATM machines have caught on. He'll install and rent a baguette machine for the cost of 40 baguettes a day. Hecht says if bakers can sell more than that number out of the machine, they'll make money. No matter what the critics say.

Kaplan: It doesn't have much aroma.

In Paris, I'm John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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