It comes as no surprise that the French love bread. If it wasn’t for the baguette, they would have nothing to spread their fromage on every night after dinner and they wouldn’t have anything to dip into a hearty beef bourgonione. Ah, quelle horreur!
Everyone here has their favorite boulangerie, and lunch-time conversation often revolves around the friendly gastronomic debate over which reigns supreme. For the French, bread is more than a food item that appears on the breakfast, lunch, and dinner table. In fact, it is a part of their national identity.
“It is impossible to separate food from the French Revolution,” writes Linda Civitello in her book, Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People. “Bread was regarded as a public service necessary to keep the people from rioting. Bakers, therefore, were public servants, so the police controlled all aspects of bread production, including making sure that it continued.”
Tensions were high long before the French Revolution when customers assumed that all bakers were greedy and selfishly stuffing the bread with rotten grain or baking underweight loaves.
“The police knew who was responsible because a baker had to carve his initials into every loaf,” writes Civitello. “Making an anonymous loaf was also a crime, but, of course, harder to prosecute. The police practiced zero tolerance on short weight; loaves even an ounce or half an ounce light were seized.”
According to le petit francais, poor weather conditions caused grain crops to fail from 1788-1789. In turn, tensions increased between the peasant class subsisting on an inferior grain product and the rich, who enjoyed their classic baguettes. This is not to say that the nation was in uprise solely over their unsatisfied bread cravings; however, the mass starvation significantly contributed to surging anger toward the monarchy, ultimately provoking a revolution.
The culinary historical lesson to be learned? Don’t ever tamper with French bread. As Julia Child bluntly, yet eloquently, once said: “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?”
Nowadays, however, a fear of inferior bread is unfounded because, by law, the baguette must weigh 250 grams (about 1/2 pound) and, according to Ken Mondschein’s book: Food and Culinary Arts, contain only flour, salt, water, and yeast.
“In fact, if bread contains anything else, French law requires it to be called by another name,” writes Mondschein.
Due to the lack of preservatives, a baguette will go stale fairly quickly, so it is advised to wrap them in linen towels overnight to preserve freshness. Then again, if your bread does go stale, it just gives you another reason to head to the closest boulangerie, letting your nose guide you towards the perfect baguette. With a crisp golden brown crust cracking under little pressure to reveal the warmth of the doughy, cream-colored pores, you can’t go wrong.