by Graham Lea
(Swans - June 15, 2009) French bread is both evocative for foreigners and an emotive matter for the French. The local boulanger (or boulangère), of whom there are some 34,000, make bread five or six days a week for the 70% of French people who buy locally-made fresh bread. The décret pain of 1993 (1) limits the use of boulanger and boulangerie to professional artisans and their bakery. Walking to the boulanger makes a small contribution to fitness, and usually provides some local gossip. Very few people make their own bread, and mercifully, domestic bread-making machines are virtually unknown in France. A village without a baker lacks its heart, so sometimes there is even some form of local subsidy to ensure that there is a boulangerie rather than a dépôt de pain in a village shop (which of course cannot be called a bakery, even if factory-made dough is put into an oven there). There is an infinite variety of bread shapes and sizes, often varying by region, with some loaves weighing several kilograms. Bread names vary according to shape: baguettes may be regarded as being of medium size, while ficelles are slender, flûtes are thicker and longer, and couronnes are ring-shaped. The word baguette is also often used for the bâton de chef d'orchestre, for self-evident reasons.
It is curious that French bread of the stick variety is not at all a French invention, nor particularly traditional. The baguette [Latin: baculum: a walking stick, staff] was first produced in Vienna, and came to France after World War I, with the advantage that bread could be made more quickly. Special ovens create the crust by caramelising the starch near the surface, but the product lacks the taste and texture derived from traditionally made bread, especially if a feu de bois (wood-fired oven) is used. A law forbade bakers to start work before 04h00, with the result that the traditional round loaves that take many hours to make could not be ready for breakfast, so quickly-prepared baguettes became popular, at least with bakers. Mechanical mixers were used for the soft French wheat flour, as well as a short-period of dough maturing as a result of new forms of commercial yeast becoming available. For connoisseurs, the product was both inferior and different: chewiness had been replaced by a soft, cotton-wool texture, with less taste. The biggest snag is that baguettes quickly become stale, so another batch is often made for lunch, and a third batch in the late afternoon for dinner.
As the possibility to travel increased, many foreigners discovered French bread after WWII, and took to it enthusiastically. The British had suffered from extremely poor bread after the war, particularly with the introduction of the Chorleywood bread process, where cheapness of manufacture, shelf life, branding, slicing and wrapping, as well as the property that it went mouldy before it went stale were considered by some to be advantages. Pre-slicing was necessary because the bread had too little structure to permit it to be cut: such loaves could be compressed to a tennis ball of dough. Some claimed it was soft and easy to eat, but they did not follow the example of the toothless and dentureless in France, who dipped their bread in their coffee or soup to soften it. It is of course well known that in the United States, 98% of felons are users of sliced bread, so clearly there is a need for sliced-bread-free zones, particularly near schools.
The fate of the baguette in a restaurant is rather like that of French aristocrats in the 1790s: it is rapidly guillotined, in this case to fill breadbaskets for the baguette-crazed customers who demand it in vast quantities. Our favourite restauranteur always feared a large unbooked party of French people in his isolated restaurant, because they demanded so much bread and it was often wasteful for him to have much on hand.
Bread is made of flour, water, salt, and a rising agent, such as yeast. Historically, three Frenchmen played key roles in the elucidation of the role of yeast in fermentation. Single-celled yeasts such as Saccharomyces and Candida reproduce not by photosynthesis, but by feeding on carbohydrate, excreting ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide, which combines with water to produce carbonic acid, something that Antoine Lavoisier worked out in 1789. (2) This was elaborated by Joseph Gay-Lussac in 1810. (3) Finally, Louis Pasteur elucidated how yeast worked, and ways to avoid the production of lactic acid rather than alcohol during fermentation. Bread yeasts differ from brewers' yeasts, which yield more alcohol from sugar in anaerobic vats. Yeasts are a significant source of protein and B vitamins, with the exception of B12. The cuts in the dough, seen on the crust at the top of the loaf, are made to assist the escape of carbon dioxide during baking.
Three bread sub-cultures have developed in France: those who prefer the baguette; a smaller group who prefer the traditional, flour-dusted pain de campagne (country bread), including revived speciality breads; and the uncultured, who do not buy bread from a boulanger, but lurk around supermarkets. Traditional bread is left for many hours to begin the fermentation or natural leavening. A portion of the dough is kept back for some 15 hours to form the basis of the next batch of bread (the levain de chef). More flour is kneaded in and the mixture left for another three hours, followed by the further addition of flour, water, and yeast to produce levain de tout point. In the U.S., such bread is called sourdough, since certain kinds of yeast multiply in the medium causing fermentation. (4) The slow process became unpopular with bakers since French bread price controls and customer price sensitivity made it difficult to charge a premium, although such bread remains eatable for two or three days.
There is less interest in France in wholemeal bread than in northern Europe. This may be because not too may French people have had the opportunity to buy it from their local baker or markets. Bread made from the whole grain has of course a considerably greater food value than the sanitised white variety. It may be debated whether the common desire for bread whiteness may derive from some deep racial overtones, a desire for re-virginification, or a belief that somehow white bread is cleaner (rather than poisoned) -- although personal dentition quality may play a more pragmatic role. The fibre of wholemeal bread is certainly useful in lessening the incidence of some cancers. In the U.S., the Center for Science in the Public Interest successfully stopped Sara Lee's false claim that suggested that its bread had as much fiber as 100 percent whole wheat bread. (5) Unfortunately, there is much deception about non-white bread. Brown dye is widely used to make "brown" bread (although not in France it seems), but no doubt it fools many people into thinking it is healthier. French pain complet (supposedly wholemeal, but usually with only a small percentage of whole grain) is often particularly dry and rather unpleasant when baked like baguettes. Pain intégral is the wholemeal variety, but it is not advisable to eat either form unless it is pain biologique (from organic grain) in view of the much higher proportion of pesticide that would otherwise be present as a consequence of not removing the husk.
An increasing number of people seek bread made from stone-ground flour from a traditional mill, rather than a grinding machine in a factory. There are now very few meuniers operating either windmills or watermills with grinding stones. There is nonetheless a devoted following for stone-ground flour, not just in France but generally in northwest Europe. André Duval, conservateur of the 13th century Moulin de Combelongue that he restored, explained that in the 19th century the French each consumed a kilogram of bread a day as the mainstay of their diet, and could afford very little meat -- although game was sought. (6) Today, 160 grams of bread per person is bought each day. In 1850, there were 100,000 mills in France, but they declined rapidly around 1900 with industrialisation. Despite eating bread, butter, cream, cheese, fat and oil, the French are rarely obese. They avoid les grignotages entre les repas (snacks between meals), including sandwiches, named in 1762 after John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. The 11th Earl has moved his sandwich business to the United States. (7)
Until this decade, three generations of French people had mostly been brought up on baguettes. Suddenly, an increasing amount of pain de campagne is being made again, different grains are increasingly being used, and additions such as olives, nuts, raisins, seeds, and herbs (rather than something only added on feast days) became relatively common, so creating a new market for specialty bread. Apart from rye, which was often added in rather small amounts to wheat bread, the French began to use again petit épautre, (Triticum monococcum), which had been grown in France for around 9,000 years, and is today genetically unchanged. We know this, because it has been found by archaeologists, and its DNA analysed. This is a very exciting development, since it certainly makes most excellent bread, as well as giving a doubly pleasant feeling of communing with ancient people and escaping the genetic warmongers. Petit épautre is indeed the caviar des céréales. Another variety is (grand) épautre (Triticum spelta), known more widely as spelt. (8) Homer wrote about spelt in his epic poem the Iliad: "And the horses champed white barley and spelt, and standing by their chariots waited for the throned dawn," (9)
It is noteworthy that Poilâne, probably the best known French boulangerie, uses stone ground flour with 30% épautre, 15% wholemeal, as well as salt from Guérande (10) in southern Brittany, and wood-fired ovens. The enterprise was founded by Lionel Poilâne in 1932 in Paris, continued by his son Lionel from 1970, and his granddaughter Apollonia from 2002. (Lionel's brother, Max, also has three of his own bakeries in Paris.) The main product is a two-kilogram round miche, which may be the most expensive bread in the world -- especially as it is also distributed by world-wide courier services, from Paris or the London bakery.
It seems most unlikely that France will become a sliced-bread country. Hurrah!
4. William Jago & William C. Jago: The technology of bread-making, including the chemistry and analytical and practical testing of wheat flour, and other materials employed in bread-making and confectionery. The Northern Publishing Co., Liverpool, 1921. (back)
9. Books V and VIII of Homer's epic poem, around 850 BC (according to Herodotus), when Hector was fighting for the Trojans against the Greeks, under their leader Agamemnon, during the Trojan War. (back)
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