Let them eat bread

Feature, February 1997
The French government took drastic steps in January to protect the beleaguered baguette from cut-price rivals that sometimes sell for as little as 1.50F at supermarkets compared with about 4F at traditional bakeries. A new law aimed at safeguarding baker-artisans now restricts the name "bakery" to the establishments of bakers who bake their bread on the premises. The new law will require an estimated 5,000 shops selling bread made from factory frozen dough to take down their "bakery" signs.

Le Monde hailed the measure as a "small revolution" for bakers. President Jacques Chirac recently proclaimed to the National Bakers' Federation that "bread is one of the great charms of our civilization."

Bakers took to the streets last May demanding protection from encroaching supermarkets and a government media campaign supporting the baguette linked its decline to that of French civilization.   

Some observers worry that the fate of the bread industry points the way for France's future. Around 13,000 bakeries have disappeared over the last 30 years. Indeed, bread consumption in France has been slumping ever since Queen Marie-Antoinette"s was misquoted as saying before the Revolution, "Let them eat cake." But in the last few years the number of bakeries has stabilized. Now, according to the National Confederation of French Bakeries and Pastry Shops, France has about 35,000 bakers, representing 72% of bread consumption.  In 1900, the average French person ate two pounds of bread a day. Today, people eat closer to five ounces daily.

Although the French are eating less bread, a segment of the population is now demanding better quality bread. A silver lining in the bread story is that in recent years bakers have started scrambling to create new mixtures and flavors that cater to a new trend toward health consciousness. Several new brand-name breads, such as "banette," combine flours that are more substantial than the traditional baguette.

The French are demanding whole-grain alternatives to the baguette. An estimated 80 bread styles are now available in French bakeries. Most popular are the "pain de campagne" (country loaf), "baguette tradition" (old-fashioned bread), "pain biologique" (organic bread), "au son" (with bran) and multigrain loaves, usually with wheat-rye combinations or other grains, whole kernels, and a darker look giving an earthier appearance.

One of the first bakers to bring French bread making back to a more artisanal level was Lionel Poilâne. His distinctive sourdough loaves are sold all over Paris, as well as in New York and Tokyo. Many Parisian restaurants proudly display signs announcing their use of Poilâne bread for sandwiches.

To Poilâne, a second-generation baker who apprenticed at age 14, "bread is at the heart of French food." He maintained family tradition and joined it with the new wave in health consciousness. Poilâne's famous "miches de pain" (giant, hearty round loaves) stay fresh for a week, unlike the baguette, which wilts after a few hours. "I make bread the way it was made in the 15th century," he says. That means by hand in wood ovens, it in the labyrinthine cellar beneath his bakery in the sixth arrondissement.

The 51-year-old Poilâne notes, "There's been a creation frenzy in recent years. They're adding asparagus, cumin, anise or anything else. It's amusing, but not for every day." He doesn't feel the new baker-protection laws will solve much. "It's the customer who decides." In an effort to raise bread consciousness worldwide, Poilâne plans to put his 1,500-book collection on bread on the Internet.

Despite innovators like Poilâne and the emerging interest in country-style breads, the classic baguette is still holding on. It and other white breads account for 80% of all bread consumed in France. For the moment, at least, it looks like one of the charms of French civilization will be around for awhile.

 

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