Andrea here. The end-of-year holidays are upon us. And wherever and however family and friends gather, that usually means food. Lots of it! Sumptuous sweets abound (did someone say chocolate?) along with all manner of savory dishes and appetizers to tickle the tastebuds. But whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, one constant that always seems to be on the table, complementing both simple repasts and fancy feasts, is bread, the classic staff of life.
Now, as I happened to see an article this week saying that the classic French baguette had just been given UNESCO World Heritage status, and given that history and bread is a truly scrumptuous combination, I thought it might be fun to take a quick peek at the history of the baguette.
The bread has a simple but sublime elegance. It’s made of four ingredients—flour, water salt and yeast. Stick-shaped loaves were around in the early 18th century, but the baguette as we know it began to take shape around the time of the French Revolution. Bread, or rather the lack of a decent loaf, helped spark the uprising, and after the Republicans seized power, one of the new government’s decrees said, “There will no longer be a bread of wheat for the rich and a bread of bran for the poor. All bakers will be held, under the penalty of imprisonment, to make only one type of bread: The Bread of Equality.”
Several stories surrounding the baguette’s origins are likely apocryphal but fun. One states that Napoleon, ever efficient, gave orders that the stick-shaped loaf of bread be designed to fit into the regulation pocket of a French Army greatcoat, so that a soldier could easily carry his daily rations. (Baguettes were far easier to pack than a large round loaf.)
Another legend claims that during the 1870, when work began on constructing the Paris metro system, the workers came from all parts of France and were constantly getting into violent fights with each other. So the government asked bakers to create a bread that could be easily torn rather than cut so that knives could be banned in the workplace.
Getting back to the ingredients, what makes a real French baguette so distinctive? The crust should be crispy with a light, springy interior that has an uneven crumb. A breakthrough technology affecting the development of the baguette was the steam oven, unveiled in Paris by August Zang in 1839. The steam delayed the hardening of the crust, allowing a higher rise, and thus a lighter bread.
Another milestone occurred right after WWI. With the French struggling to recover from the war, the government passed a law prohibiting bakers from starting work before 4am. The baguette, being a smaller loaf than the tradition heavy rounds, was quicker to bake, and thus was fresh from the oven by breakfast time. (Baguettes are not made to last. Traditional French bakeries turn out at least two batches a day so there will be fresh bread morning and night.)
In 1920 came a further refinement—a decree was issued (the French take their food seriously!) standardizing the baguette. It was required to have a minimum weight of 80g and a maximum length of 40cm. Today, over ten billion baguettes are sold each year in France!
Compared to the mushy, flabby sticks of dough that pass in most American grocery stores as “French bread”, the real deal is a revelation. I first discovered the bliss of an authentic French baguette as a teenager on a summer school program in Paris. Who knew bread could taste so good! The crisp crust, the chewy interior full of yeasty flavor—oh, fluttery sigh. One can use the baguette as a foundation for lots of great treats. Fill it with soft brie, toast it with ham and cheese for a croque monsieur. But I love it best at breakfast, with butter and strawberry jam.
I have a local bakery that makes a great traditional baguette (but I try not to indulge too often.) What about you? Are you an aficionado of French baguettes? Do you live somewhere where you can get an authentic baguette? What’s your favorite way to eat one?