Things about France that surprised me: the importance of bread

Even though I like to make my own bread, I don’t make it daily so I will often buy bread from the bakery. And, let’s be honest, there’s nothing quite like the smell of freshly baked bread, particulaly that French icon the baguette, still warm from the baker’s oven.

Now, if I happen to bump into one of my neighbours with this fragrant bounty, they’ll be sure to ask me where I bought it. They’ll nod knowingly, approvingly even, when I tell them from whence it came. This may well be followed by a lively discussion on the merits of our many wonderful local bread (boulangerie) and cake (patisserie) shops. The French love nothing more than chatting about food and its provenance.

Of course, in many people’s minds the baguette symbolises France. In his book “Anthropologie des mangeurs de pain” author Abdu Gnaba says of bread:

It is what defines and characterises the French.

So let’s take a closer look at this popular and humble food item. According to a September 1993 French decree, le Décret Pain, which basically re-visited laws from 1905, 1919, 1984 and 1989, ‘traditional French bread’ must be made only from good quality water, salt, a rising agent and wheat flour which contains no more than 2.8% (in total weight) of bean, soya or malted wheat flours. That means only four ingredients are allowed. There are no additives and only minimal wheat adulterants are permitted. In addition, the baguette must be entirely made on the bakery premises and not brought in from elsewhere. In order to be called “tradition” (traditional) it can’t be frozen nor contain preservatives and additives.

The quality of a French loaf is increased by some, though not all, reputable artisanal bakeries that employ extended fermentation times. When yeast ferments in order to make bread rise it produces alcohol, which provides flavours and aromas. More fermentation time generally improves the taste of bread.

Aside from fermentation, a great loaf depends on wheat, flour and the baker. The first two elements are controlled by the flour mill. I spoke to a couple of my local bakeries and they confirmed they use flour from 100% French wheat that is certified absent of insecticides and controlled for quality between the fields where it grows and the mill where it is ground. The mills abide by the French Ministry of Agriculture ‘red label’ standard that indicates superior quality – controlled for lacking additives and adulterants (such as the adding of soy or bean flours).

Just as local climate and soils form terroir that impacts the eventual taste of wine, characteristics of bread flour depends on local conditions from where wheat is produced. The range varies throughout France. Flours can be reduced to general types (high, medium, and low protein) but the individual taste often depends on non-quantifiable local conditions. To produce excellent bread, however, it helps to have high-quality fresh flour.

Bread is so much a part of French culture that even the word for “friend” copain comes from Latin cum pane (with bread) meaning the person with whom you break 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 an example of how seriously bread is considered is that there is a Grand Prix de la Baguette. Once a year bakers compete in Paris 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. 

So is there a secret to producing a great baguette? Chatting to a couple of my favourite local bakeries, I discovered they all used red label flour without additives, unprocessed salt, a natural rising agent (yeast), a long kneading time at a slow speed (“to maintain beautiful colours and all the flavours”), long fermentation/resting time (18 hours), “delicate shaping,” and baking in a hot oven (260C, 500F, Gas mark 10) to produce a baguette with a thin and crispy crust with good aromas of wheat and hazelnuts.

The French are very loyal to their favourite boulangerie which may not necessarily be the closest, going well out of their way to buy what they consider the best bread. I buy mine from a variety of bakeries based on the type of loaf I’m buying. I have a couple of favourites which only sell sourdough bread, another which sells a spelt loaf which I adore, plus one, is both a boulangerie and patisserie, selling a wide range of baked goods, home-made ice cream, chocolates and divine cakes, as well as a wide-range of different breads.

How the French treat their bread

1. Dip it in their tea or coffee

Typically, they’ll slather a hunk of baguette (tartine) with butter and jam and then dip it directly into their coffee.

2. Never put it on a side plate

The French never set bread on a side plate, just on the table next to their plate.

3. Clean their plates with it

The bread is used to mop up those delicious sauces and clean the cutlery between courses.

4. Carry it under their armpits

The bakery will typically wrap a baguette in a piece of paper. You need to buy many more to get a large paper bag. Consequently, everyone carries it under their arm. So much easier for 5 below.

4. Put lumps of chocolate in it

For most foreigners chocolate and bread  – have they never heard of chocolate bread and butter pudding? – just don’t go together unless Nutella is involved, but the French take it to a new level. They stick squares of quality chocolate into their baguette, creating a makeshift baguette au chocolate.

5. Nibble the end of it on the street

The French are typically scandalised by the idea of eating while walking, but for their beloved baguette, they make an exception. It’s apparently impossible for them to resist breaking off one of the tips and gnawing on the end of that warm, fresh baguette on the way home.  You’ll often see Mums nibbling on one end while their children nibble on the other.

6. Eat it with absolutely everything

Would you like some bread with your bread? In France, the answer is always oui. Even if you order a bread-based dish like a croque monsieur, you’ll get a little basket of sliced baguette to accompany it.

7. Sell them in vending machines

For those emergency situations when you’ve lost your mind completely and forgotten to stop by the bakery before it closes. The baguettes are slightly undercooked before being put in the machine, then the machine finishes them off and pops them out them crisp and warm. Genius or sacrilege?

8. Eat it with cheese

Isn’t it common knowledge that cheese is meant to be eaten with crackers? Well okay, maybe the French can have this one. There really is nothing better than some creamy camembert paired with a perfect crunchy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside baguette. Best keep your crackers to yourself if you don’t want to commit another almighty dough pas.

9. Make the world’s longest one

Leave it to the French to break the Guinness World Record for longest baguette, at a whopping 120 meters. Actually, they had some help from the Italians too. And, of course, the massive baguette was promptly slathered with Nutella.