France is a country that takes its bread very seriously and in particular the baguette reigns supreme.
This simple stick of bread in a sense symbolises France and is a celebrated part of French national culture, recognised instantly by foreigners and idolised by the French. It is both a stereotype and a genuine French icon. In his book “Anthropologie des mangeurs de pain” (Anthropology of bread eaters)* Anthropologist Abdu Gnaba says of bread “it is what defines and characterises the French”.
So let’s take a closer look at this humble food item. Here are some fun facts: 320 baguettes are consumed per second in France resulting in a total of 10 billion a year! 98% of the French population eat bread and for 83% this is every day. They munch through 130g of bread a day or 58 kg a year! Bread is considered healthy by 86% of the population and essential for a balanced diet by 82%.
Bread is taken so seriously that in 1993 a law was passed, le Décret Pain, declaring that to be called a baguette “maison” (homemade) only 4 ingredients could be used – flour, water, salt and yeast . The baguette must be entirely made on the premises and not brought in from elsewhere. In addition, to be called “tradition” (traditional) it could not be frozen nor contain preservatives and additives. French are very loyal to their favourite boulangerie (bakery) which may not necessarily be the closest, they may go a long way out of their way to buy what they consider the best bread. 70% of bread is still produced in boulangeries rather than industrial factories and they are plentiful, often being only commerce in a small village. I once lived in a town with 5 boulangeries in one city block and they all had queues every morning.
A baguette is baked to be crusty and golden on the outside and fluffy, white and soft on the inside. When fresh it should spring back into shape if pressed but because of the lack of preservatives it doesn’t last and is meant to be consumed within a day. However, how people like their bread baked is entirely personal and while waiting in line to buy bread you’ll notice different words being used by customers to select their baguette : “pas trop cuite, s’il vous plaît” (not too cooked please), “bien cuite, s’il vous plaît” (well cooked please). Regular clients don’t have to say anything as their preference is remembered and handed out daily. Or even twice a day. As I just mentioned, baguettes don’t last so many people buy fresh for every meal. On weekends and other days off JF regularly walks to our local boulangerie twice a day. Once for breakfast and once in the late afternoon for bread to go with dinner. Our little kid begs to be allowed to go and get the baguette on his bike and the teenager grumbles when asked! In many places baguettes are still delivered daily, just like milk is/used to be in Britain. In the picture below I had the baguette posed to stick out of its box for illustration purposes, but note that there is a lid and normally the bread would be inside safe from the weather. And from birds. My mother-in-law used to have her baguette delivered to a home-made tube cut from a length of drainpipe, fixed horizontally on the garden wall. However she regularly found it on the street well and truly pecked. On investigation she discovered some cheeky crows were pulling out the baguette and eating it!
This leads me to how the French eat their bread. It is provided with every lunch and dinner, sliced into small portions and usually served in a communal basket. Everyone helps themselves to a bit which they place by their plate, directly on the table. Separate side plates are not used and butter is rarely offered. This bread is used as an extra piece of cutlery, pushing food on to the fork and mopping up sauce at the end. There’s even a verb for this action “saucer”, to sauce, i.e to mop up. This, I hasten to add, is very familial behaviour and not considered proper etiquette in high society or when trying to impress. But my boys barely know how to finish their meal if they don’t have a piece of bread to sauce with and have to remember that it’s not normal to expect bread with every meal when they’re not in France.
Baguette, when eaten at breakfast, is usually sliced lengthways and grilled. Prepared in an open stye like this it’s called a “tartine”. In this case butter and jam or honey are spread on the tartine and it’s often dunked into a bowl of hot coffee/tea or chocolate. Another favourite way to eat baguette, particularly for children at goûter (tea-time, for more on this click here), is with a slab of chocolate wedged in the middle, or slathered in Nutella. I make no secret of loving this myself!
Bread is so much a part of French culture that even the word for “mate/pal/ buddy” copain comes from Latin cum pane (with bread) meaning the person with whom you share bread. Bread is so important it has a Patron Saint and every year on the feast day of St Honoré, on the 16th May, processions, tastings and other festivities take place throughout the country. But for me a favourite example of how seriously bread is considred is that there is a Grand Prix de la Baguette. Once a year bakers in Paris compete for the title of best boulanger which comes with a financial reward and the prestigious contract to supply the President of the Republic with daily bread for a year. Isn’t that great?
Do you love Fench bread like I do? What’s your favourite type? Is bread a big part of the diet where you live?
* Anthropologie des mangeurs de pain, published by L’Harmattan, 2011