Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Baker's delight--memories of French bread

Several years ago, when Jacques Chirac was President of France, he gave an internationally-reported speech to the country's master bakers, causing a storm by lamenting the fact that so much of the bread that was now sold in France was no longer fit to be called real bread.
Bread certainly arouses passion in France; remember the fate of poor Marie Antoinette, who, supposedly upon being told the people had no bread, blithely advised them to eat cake. Of course she never said such a thing; it's a nasty slander designed to destroy even further the 'Austrian woman's' reputation; but it is an illustration of the fact that to say such a thing is not only insensitive, it's also complete heresy. Cake is all very well; but bread, ah, bread! It was always the first thing I and my siblings would dive on when we came back to France for holidays; real bread, yes, and real butter, long before we even thought of nice little gateaux!
In France, people still drive kilometres out of the way to queue up in more or less patient lines outside bakeries reputed for their bread. (A visiting East European friend of ours, seeing this once many years ago, couldn't believe his eyes."I never thought you had rationing here!" he exclaimed.) Today, the battle rages over whether the fluff contained in cardboard which too many supermarkets and hypermarkets hawk under the name of bread, should be declared illegal to save France's reputation. Meanwhile Poilane breads and their imitators--wholemeal, multigrain, rye--have also made inroads into the traditional wood-oven-fired, crusty white baguettes and ficelles that are still very much the stereotypical image of French bread (and if you truly want the real thing, ask for baguette tradition at the baker's, and not just baguette) .
People argue over whether 'real' French bread is the city type (baguettes, ficelles and their ilk) or country breads such as pain de campagne, a big round whitish bread made using not baker's yeast but sourdough, which keeps much better than the city breads.
In many villages, the baker still calls in his van every few days. It is an occasion for gossip and the surreptitious summing-up for more gossip opportunities. I remember when we used to go on holidays to Empeaux, the little south-western village where my parents had a house, being pumped by all the village women as to what my parents, 'the Americans', as they were called(despite the fact they were actually French and lived in Australia!) were up to now. Old people no longer capable of hobbling out into the street to commune with the baker, like the 95 year old woman across the road from us one summer a few years ago in yet another little Southern village, hoisted baskets down to him into the street on ropes. The baker knew everyone's preferences; and for the old lady, a countrywoman through and through, who had scarcely ever left the village, (and had some deliciously scandalous stories to tell about the intrigues that went on that little hothouse society!) it was fine city bread she preferred, just as she preferred fillet steak to the rich, pungent peasant stews we all exclaimed over.
 In French markets, whether in the city or the country, people stop in front of the bread stalls and critically prod, poke and look carefully, while the baker extol his or her wares in a raucous voice, sometimes stopping to castigate a customer taking too many liberties. Some of the breads aren't cheap, either. Staff of life they might be; but some of those staffs of life must have been gilded to warrant their price! French food has always been as diverse and as rich as it has, because of the country's strong peasant heart combined with equally strong bourgeois traditions. In the past, it was not easy to find exotic food there--there were many cafes and restaurants serving excellent, reasonably-priced French food, but very few, and even fewer in the provinces, offering 'exotic' cuisines. As in China, the variety and diversity of food here did not incline people to experimentation with other kinds of cooking. That has now changed to some extent, perhaps as the peasants have become rather richer, more powerful and fewer in number, due to the EU. It is rather an irony--and a pity--to think that French people might be getting more of a window on the rest of the world's table, but less variety, less real taste in their own. French culture is closely bound up with its 'quality of life', the prime strand of which is food. Bread is the litmus test for that and we have to keep a close eye on it, for if that goes, then everything else will follow.


  1. What a charming post! My mouth watered, reading it. One of these days I must get back my spoken French and go. A friend of mine who went to Italy a couple of years back said very much the same thing, that you couldn't get much in the way of non-Italian food. Pretty much like Australia in the fifties and before, when there was a monoculture. A French restaurant here would have been truly exotic. I had my first pizza at sixteen, made for my sister's twenty-first by her friend's Italian mother. But yes, it would be a shame if the rich variety of French food died out.

  2. thanks, Sue! Glad you like it. Yes, France is very much into its own food--not a monoculture, though, cos of the very rich regional, even village to village, variety of French cuisines--it's much more than one thing--like in Italy, as you say. Would be a real shame if it died out! That richly self-confident food culture is one of the reasons why people flock to France..