Our daily bread

One of the greatest pleasures of living or holidaying in France is the daily trip to the boulangerie. Kate McNally takes a closer look at the baguette and the boulang�re

If you were to play a word association game starting with the word France, chances are the word baguette would be next. As well as onions, garlic, the beret and the 2CV, the baguette remains one of the enduring symbols of France – and it is certainly the most visible today thanks to its long, thin shape, making it easier to carry in the hand, and to the continued tradition of purchasing a daily loaf. And although it may be a daily transaction, we aren’t talking about just any old purchase. Clearly bread is no longer king in the Frenchman’s diet as it was in centuries gone by, but it remains an important element, like a trusty (or crusty) old friend. French citizens are prepared to go the extra mile, literally, for a good baguette, walking past the boulangerie on the corner in favour of one on the other side of the village to get a baguette, or a fl�te, or a ficelle (there are so many varieties) that has that extra crunch on the outside or that ultra doughy lightness on the inside. Sometimes, it may not be the baguette they want, but the pain campagne or the boule aux fruits sec or whatever the speciality of a particular baker is.The quality of bread is sufficiently important that it is a regular topic of conversation among locals, so if a bakery isn’t up to the mark it needs to act fast because the word convenience isn’t one that goes a long way in many parts of France when it comes to things edible, especially le pain.It’s hard to imagine, then, that the craft of proper breadmaking was almost lost halfway through the twentieth century as industrial bakers came to the fore. They used machinery, chemicals and preservatives to produce baguettes that were quicker to bake and lasted longer. By the late 1960s artisan loaves were in huge decline and small bakeries were closing rapidly as the larger co-operatives and supermarkets took hold. Luckily, the sophisticated French palate saved the day. People noticed the increasing lack of flavour – the baguette had lost its je ne sais quoi – and thankfully the 1970s and 80s saw the re-emergence of traditional bread values. Eventually the government introduced legislation forbidding the use of preservatives, which explains why the slimline baguette stays fresh for just 24 hours, and passed another law to the effect that bread could only carry the label pain de tradition’ if it contained nothing but flour, yeast, water and salt. These laws, together with a discerning food public, effectively saved the artisan baker and explains why almost everywhere you go in France you will find a boulangerie nearby, in contrast to the UK where few independent bakeries remain.

Fresh doughThe legislation is also behind the different labelling in various bread-selling outlets, according to Nathalie Baudouin, who owns a boulangerie with husband St�phane in Vernoux-en-Vivarais in the north of Ard�che. Certain outlets, for example many supermarkets, have what are known as bake-off terminals, buying in frozen ready-mixed dough that they then cook on site. While perfectly edible, and legal, this bread is not up to the standard of a baguette made from freshly mixed dough, says Nathalie. What is not legal, however, is for outlets selling bread made from frozen dough to call themselves a boulangerie, as another law insists that a boulangerie can only call itself by that name if it mixes its own dough and bakes the bread in an oven on site. So if you want the real deal, be sure to look for the word boulangerie as opposed to a sign saying pain. This labelling helps, certainly, but are there further steps that could be taken to support artisan bakers in a highly competitive marketplace? Definitely,’ says Nathalie. For example, the viennoiserie (croissants, pains aux chocolat etc); 75 per cent of boulangeries don’t make their own for various reasons, often difficulty finding personnel, and so again they buy it in already frozen and simply put it in the oven. In this case, the difference between those who make it themselves and those who don’t isn’t flagged up. It’s like the flour. There is a big difference if you mix it yourself or buy it ready mixed and again that could be easily highlighted, just as we indicate that we use AOC butter for our viennoiserie. But at the same time, I appreciate that in reality it’s difficult because there’s only so much information that customers want to be bothered with.’So how does an artisan boulangerie seek to set itself apart from its competitors and stay ahead? It’s difficult. It’s word of mouth, quality – we buy our flour from millers in the south of Ard�che and next-door Dr�me for instance. We also have house specialities that will please the clientele, and it’s the welcome. A boulangerie is a small business so the welcome is hugely important. People come every day, and there is contact which is important; people want that, especially those who live alone. We chat, explain our products, invite them to place orders and generally provide a service over and above selling a daily baguette.’Even so, it’s the daily baguette that remains the revenue mainstay. St�phane begins baking at 2am, usually cooking around 400 baguettes, 400 fl�tes – in Ard�che fl�tes are bigger than baguettes though in some regions they are the smaller – and about 40 loaves of various different types each day.Yet statistics show that the French are consuming less and less bread – roughly about 160g per person per day, way below levels of around 700g to 800g towards the end of the nineteenth century, according to Anne Vantal in her book Le Pain. As she points out, society grew wealthier after World War I, enabling them to afford meat, fish and dairy products on a regular basis.The decline in hard physical labour (post industrialisation) also played a part, reducing the population’s food needs,’ she writes. Nathalie believes that even over the past decade, the amount of bread French people eat has continued to decrease. Eating habits have changed, she says, with more people eating at work or on the go, and misinformation in recent years about bread causing weight gain has impacted negatively.As Anne Vantal points out: What might lead to weight excess is what we put on the bread: butter, jam, charcuterie… but eaten alone bread is an extraordinary source of lasting energy, unlike the short energy release from snacks based on rapid sugars as in viennoiserie. Bread releases energy bit by bit, as and when it is needed.’While bread consumption is unlikely to return to levels seen just 20 years ago, says Nathalie, she is encouraged by the renewed emphasis on bon pain’ and is confident that her countrymen will never completely turn their back on a food that is such an integral part of French culture and history. After all, the shortage of bread following a catastrophic harvest in 1788 was the catalyst for the French Revolution.Bread is our heritage,’ says Nathalie. It’s tradition in France that we eat some every day, and even if we are eating less, we still eat a lot more than in other countries. We are losing many of our traditions, but good bread, we’ve hung on to that one.’Many countries, the UK included, have adopted the baguette or French stick’, yet a baguette baked anywhere other than in France simply isn’t the same. Connoisseurs point to the flour – type 55 is used for a baguette. Nathalie agrees: It’s the flour and the savoir-faire. We thought about going to live in Canada but we weren’t sure what flour they produced there. We didn’t know if they had proper millers who grow their own wheat and transform it into flour using traditional methods.’

Lasting energyAs for the savoir-faire, a boulang�re undergoes a 2-year professional apprenticeship to learn the trade, often followed by a year-long business course for those wanting to set up on their own.It isn’t just a case of mixing the ingredients,’ says St�phane. There are lots of things to interpret. For example, if the weather is hot or cold, if it rains, if the wind is blowing from the north or the south – all that can affect the bread. You have to keep an eye on the temperature at all times, both during preparation and when the bread is cooking in the oven, and adjust as necessary.’While a daily baguette is much loved by all, the daily life of a boulang�re isn’t for everyone. Early rising, long hours, hot ovens, attention to detail – there are easier ways to earn a living.St�phane laughs. Yes, there are definitely problems finding personnel! You have to love the process – the quietness of the early mornings, the texture of the dough, the smell of bread cooking in the oven, the challenge of getting it right every day. I guess you have to have a passion for it.’Perhaps that is why bread, made in France, is so very special. It's all in the detail...

A baguette is made from wheat flour, water, yeast and salt.Laws governing the weight of different types of bread must be strictly adhered to and most bakers use a special machine to cut the dough to ensure it is the correct weight.Larger rounder breads last longer – 3 to 4 days – due to the wider radius of the crust that helps protect the softness inside.Flour is graded by levels of extraction (ie the percentage of flour extracted from 100g of wheat) and by levels of ashes (based on the quantity of residual ashes after heating 5mg of flour at a temperature of 900 degrees centigrade). Type 55, most widely used by bakers, contains from 0.5 per cent to 0.6 per cent levels of ashes and 75 per cent levels of extraction. The lower the percentage of extraction, the finer the flour – hence type 45 is more suited to viennoiserie.Weight and shape

       Baguette – 250g, elongated        B�tard – 250g, shorter and wider than a baguette       Pain – 400g, short, wide shape       Fl�te – 200g (though in some regions heavier than        a baguette), elongated       Ficelle – 125g, long and thin       Petit pain individual – 50g, elongated

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