No French meal is complete without bread. It’s indispensable for mopping up the last smear of sauce, for balancing a slice of pâté or cheese on, or simply for eating on its own to stave off the pangs of hunger before the entrée arrives.
Spoilt for choice
The varieties are endless. Walk into any boulangerie and it’s difficult to choose. There’s rye bread for eating with smoked salmon or cured fish; walnut bread that is wonderful with salty, creamy Roquefort; pain complet, wholemeal bread, that I think goes best with charcuterie. If you are having trouble deciding, la boulangère will happily tell you which bread goes best with the dish you are planning. A queue builds up behind but nobody minds and the other customers usually offer their opinions as well.
Perhaps the best-known and most popular variety is the simple baguette, the long, thin, white loaf that is the staple of most French lunchtimes. Fresh, the crumb is soft inside the chewy crust. Stale – and it does only keep a day – you can slice it thinly and rub it with garlic, fry it and float it onto soup as croûtons. Or you can grind it in a food processor to make châpelure (breadcrumbs) for coating fish or veal or for making stuffings.
If we have guests we often choose a flûte, which around here is a thicker, longer version of a baguette. However, the terminology obviously varies depending on which region you are in. Walking in Cantal once with friends, I went into the village boulangerie to buy bread for our picnic. I asked for a flûte and was presented with something that looked more like a piccolo – in fact, what you would expect a flûte to look like.
The staff of life?
In the countryside, bread was the basis of the French staple diet – soup. But it was not an accompaniment: it was sliced or crumbled into the dish and then the soup was poured over the top. This is partly because most French peasants ate fresh bread only every fortnight when they lit the communal bread oven. French people still rarely serve bread as an accompaniment to soup.
French bread consumption tumbled from a high of 900 grams per person per day in the early 20th century to 153 grams in 2000. According to a study quoted by La Confédération Nationale de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie Française this has dropped even further to 130 grams in 2007. The principal reasons are the change in dietary habits over the century and the price of bread, which consumers perceive to have risen in recent years beyond that of other products. The Germans are now the biggest consumers of bread in Europe, way ahead of the French.
Until 1998 anyone could put up a boulangerie sign. From that date this became illegal if a professional artisan-boulanger had not been involved in the kneading of the dough and the shaping of the bread. They are not permitted to use frozen ingredients, either.
Our village – a commune of 1,500 souls – boasts three boulangeries. One of the food stores also sells bread which they cook from pre-prepared dough in an oven in the shop. It’s not bad, but it’s not the real thing. One boulangerie opens on a Monday, which is rare in this area. The problems arise when the proprietors go on holiday since the other boulangeries don’t want to open up on a Monday instead. The options are: eat day-old baguette; buy the ersatz version from Casino; or make your own. Or go without, I suppose – but that’s unthinkable.
Let them eat rolls
We used to buy our bread religiously in the village every day. For the past 18 months or so, though, we have been making our own – or to be more precise, the SF makes it. The main reason is cost. We spent around 1.50 € per day on bread (that’s nearly 550 € per year). Normally we would eat around half of what we bought; the rest went stale and we threw it away. There’s a limit to the amount of croûtons or breadcrumbs you can make. This struck us as a terrible waste of money and food.
So, once a week, the SF bakes rolls to a Swedish recipe that requires no kneading. They taste good, they freeze well, there’s no wastage and they cost us a fraction of what we spent on boulangerie bread. I must admit that I feel a twinge of guilt every time I pass the boulangerie we used to frequent. If we do venture in, Madame is a little cool with us. She probably thinks we’ve gone to the competition. I feel treacherous to a longstanding French tradition and long to explain but suspect that it wouldn’t really help.
By the way, it’s almost certain that Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI’s Queen, never uttered the immortal phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ when informed that the peasants had no bread to eat. There are various theories about who did say it or what Marie-Antoinette might have meant if she did actually utter these words but the truth is lost in the mists of time.
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