Guest Notes for Episode 324: A Conversation About Bread in France

Categories: France How To, French Culture, French Customs & Lifestyle, French Food & Wine

Notes for Bread Podcast

 

  1. The one absolute staple of French cuisine. Bread is eaten at every meal.
  2. Central France is the largest producer of wheat in Western Europe.
  3. Water, wheat flour, yeast, and salt – by law these are the only ingredients allowed in an item labelled “pain“.
  4. In feudal times wheat was ground into flour at a watermill owned by the local Lord, and bread baked in communal ovens called fours banaux, also owned by the Lord.
  5. The first four banal was in Paris near the Tour Saint Jacques, and grew to be an enormous complex with multiple ovens in the Middle Ages.
  6. Peasants paid the Lord one sixteenth of their grain production to use the four banal and another one sixeenth to use the mill (on top of the one sixteenth he took as a general tax).
  7. Those who lived close to the four banal were disturbed by the constant comings and goings, as well as the noise and heat.
  8. Those who lived some distance away complained that their dough was often ruined by the time they got to the four banal – in cold weather it stopped rising, in hot weather it rose too much and collapsed.
  9. The baker had to be available day and night.
  10. After the Revolution ended feudalism in France, commercial bakeries sprang up everywhere in urban locations.
  11. In the 19C rural houses had wood burning bread ovens – a separate little building to reduce the fire risk, similar to the fours banaux. A fire was lit inside them daily, when reduced to coals these were pushed to the back or raked out and the bread dough put in.
  12. Today these bread ovens are often restored to become pizza ovens.
  13. The traditional French loaf is not the long loaves like baguettes or standard pains, it is the boule, a round loaf.
  14. That’s why bakeries are called ‘boulangeries’ in French.
  15. A loaf in French is une miche. Because this refers originally to a round loaf it became slang for ‘buttocks’, just like you can use ‘buns’ in English.
  16. Baguettes don’t appear until the early 20C – due to the combination of a change in technology, with the introduction of reliable steam injection ovens, and a change in the law which meant bakeries were forbidden to start work before 4 am, so a small loaf that proved quickly was required.
  17. The newfangled steam ovens were perfected in Vienna.
  18. The term viennoiseries, for breakfast pastries such as croissants and pains au chocolat, is connected to the baking traditions imported from Vienna along with the new ovens. (Patisseries are the fancier cakes and tarts eaten for dessert and you need a separate artisanal qualification to make and sell these.)
  19. Up until the mid-20C savoury gratin dishes and desserts such as clafoutis could be sent to the boulangerie to bake in the cooling bread oven, for a small fee, because village houses often did not have ovens of their own. Think of pommes de terre a la boulangere, an old fashioned comforting dish with a name that is a sure sign it is one of those traditionally baked at the boulangerie.
  20. Today most commercial bakers have switched over to gas or electric steam ovens, but they still have stone or brick floors, as by law certain sorts of traditional breads must still be baked on the oven floor, not on a rack.
  21. The bread on the shelves of a neighbourhood boulangerie is an artisanal product. That is to say, it is made fresh, from scratch, every day. Frozen dough is not permitted. Not much mechanisation is involved (kneading machines are one of the few exceptions), and a lot of handling and time (unlike supermarket sliced bread, which is made using an accelerated rising technique in which the yeast is just added for flavour, not for leavening, and every part of the process is mechanised). The dough is laid out on linen clothes to prove. If the bread is not made on the premises in the way described, the shop cannot be called a boulangerie (so for example, bakery chains who make their dough centrally to be distributed and baked at their outlets are not boulangeries).
  22. No bread improvers, nutritional supplements, sugar or flavouring agents may be used if a bread is to be labelled as ‘traditional’. All of these things are commonplace, even legal requirements in other countries, and this is a big part of why French bread is so distinctive.
  23. A classic baguette costs around 90c and a baguette de tradition €1.05 or €1.10. A baguette is a very strictly defined weight of dough, and the price used to be regulated.
  24. About 10% of the cost of a baguette is the wheat flour. The single biggest cost of production is salaries.
  25. French bread wheat is what is called a spring wheat, sown in autumn, overwintering to mature in the spring and harvested in June. Weatherwise it needs good but not excessive rain over winter, a mostly warm dry May (to prevent fungal diseases), with a few days of good rain to plump up the grain, then a dry sunny June for harvest. It is a ‘soft’ wheat, that is, with a low protein (yes, I know all the bread baking advice is to use a high protein wheat for bread…).
  26. Boulangeries (and pharmacies) demonstrate a little known aspect of French law – the concept of ‘officially tolerated’. There is legal, illegal and tolerated in France. Parking in a no parking zone in France is tolerated, if what you are doing is just popping in to pick up your daily bread.
  27. French consumers don’t make their own bread much. They prefer to support their local artisanal baker, who has all the necessary equipment and know-how that a domestic kitchen and home baker does not.
  28. Boulangeries usually open to customers at 6:30 am, two hours after starting work.
  29. No traditional French boulangerie offers gluten free products, because the risk of cross contamination is so high – there is wheat flour everywhere.
  30. At home, on the dining table, the bread is put out and people cut slices as they want them. There are no side plates, your slice of bread is put on the tablecloth. It is eaten without butter, and used to sop up juices and push food onto your fork. You break it into bitesized portions to put in your mouth rather than take a bite out of it.
  31. Bread is an important part of the cheese course, as slices of cheese are normally consumed on a piece of unbuttered bread.
  32. Despite almost everyone eating bread every day at every meal, bread consumption is slowly falling in France. Average daily consumption now is half a baguette per person per day. In the 19C it was the equivalent of 3 baguettes per person per day.
  33. A typical village bakery employees about 6 people, 4 of whom could be apprentices (it’s the most popular apprenticeship in France).
  34. Nonetheless, village bakeries are struggling. Increasingly there is no one to take over the business when a baker retires.
  35. Yet French law requires that everyone has access to fresh bread, so municipalities have to come up with a solution.
  36. Young bakers often don’t want to take the risk of running their own business. They would rather have the safety net of being a 35 hour a week salaried worker in an industrial bakery instead of being saddled with a huge debt and working all hours.
  37. In the past, bakeries often had door to door delivery services, but these aren’t very common any more.
  38. In villages without a bakery, if there are other shops, one of those will act as a depôt du pain, and sell bread from a neighbouring village bakery for a small premium. But many villages today have lost all of their shops.
  39. The solution to providing everyone with bread that is popping up more and more is the baguette vending machine. These are installed in villages without a bakery, and stocked by the baker from a neighbouring village. The baker will replenish the supply two or three times a day. The machines take card and/or cash and give change.
  40. The baguette machine provides a sort of ‘office water cooler’ meeting point for people to catch up on the latest gossip and stay connected to their community.
  41. So what is it that makes French bread so special, distinctive and loved by French and foreigner alike? It’s a combination of things – the soft locally grown wheat, the local water, the lack of additives, the time given to the dough to rise, the steam injection ovens and the know how of the French trained artisanal baker. In fact, it is that famous French concept – terroir.
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Categories: France How To, French Culture, French Customs & Lifestyle, French Food & Wine