Bread has always been important to the French. For centuries, it was their main food source — their staff of life literally. The tale of Marie Antoinette, the queen of France, callously responding to the news that French peasants were starving from a lack of bread with the much quoted line, “Let them eat cake,” is questionable, but her subject’s hunger and anger were very real. It was their suffering and feelings of resentment that led to bread riots, the storming of the Bastille in 1789, and the eventual beheading of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette by guillotine. Today, bread is considered more an accompaniment to a meal instead of the main course, but it’s still a part of every meal. And the most popular bread in France is the baguette.
Take a stroll through any city, town, ville, or village in France and you'll catch a whiff of fresh baked bread. You'll also likely see people from all walks of life standing in line at the local boulangerie (bakery) to buy a freshly baked baguette, nibbling on one as they walk down the street, or hurrying home with a baguette tucked under their arm. The reason? The iconic French baguette is eaten at breakfast, lunch, and dinner — with an estimated 30 million baguettes sold and eaten each day. That adds up to 320 baguettes consumed every second (about half a baguette per person, per day) and 10 billion every year. Whether split in half and spread with beurre (butter) and confiture (jam), filled with pâté and cornichons, dunked in steaming hot coffee, or cut into small pieces and lightly toasted to top off French onion soup, this long and thin, crusty bread is a quintessential part of daily French life — as much a national French symbol as the beret and Eiffel Tower.
French bakeries have been making long loaves of bread since at least the mid-eighteenth century, even earlier if you include the very wide and long loaves made during the reign of Louis XIV. But the term “baguette,” which simply means wand or baton, wasn't used to refer to this staple of French cuisine until 1920 — when the baguette took on its classic shape. Due to the economic climate after the war, a law was passed that year banning French bakers from working between the hours of 10 pm to 4 am. This new law made it extremely difficult for bakeries to have the very large three to twelve pound round loaves that were popular at the time ready for early morning customers. Because of its novel, thin shape, and the introduction of steam ovens to French bakeries, the baguette could cook fairly quickly, allowing bakers to make up for lost time. Plenty of bread was ready when the doors opened each morning, and voila, the baguette became a part of everyday life for all!
The quality of bread in France is important as well. Ideally, all baguettes will be crusty on the outside, soft on the inside with the the interior of each slice filled with irregular air pockets, weigh about half a pound, and be approximately 25.6 inches long, 1.6-2.36 inches wide, and 1.18-1.97 inches high. Made of only four main ingredients — wheat flour, water, yeast, and salt, all baguettes are not created equal, however. Before 1993, nearly all bread of any kind consumed in France was pain ordinaire, or ordinary bread. Although good, it varied greatly from one bakery to another. The baguette ordinaire (ordinary or standard baguette) was no exception. Additives were allowed, and sometimes these standard baguettes were (and still are) made in industrial bakeries with "fabricated" dough that would be frozen and then delivered to retail bakeries to be baked on site. Bread made by the retail baker in his or her own bakery was becoming less common. Things changed with the passage of Le Décret Pain (the 1993 French Bread Law), which aimed to ensure the baguette maintained its integrity and history. The law outlined exactly what conditions the bread needed to meet in order to carry the title "tradition."
Baguettes de Tradition
Of the four main types of baguettes — baguette ordinaire, baguette moulée (moulded baguette), baguette farinée (floured baguette), and baguette de tradition (traditional baguette) — the baguette de tradition is the true artisanal loaf, calling on the skills of the baker as outlined in the Bread Law. As the name suggests, this delicious hand formed baguette is made the old-fashioned way (unlike the other types), and must be produced following a very specific recipe. It's less perfect and uniform in shape, has no artificial flavors, has not been frozen at any time during preparation, requires a long proofing time (from 15 to 20 hours), is always baked on site (meaning you will not find one sold in the mass-produced bread section of the grocery store or a depot de pain, a shop that sells bread baked elsewhere) is darker in color with a richer flavor, and is usually a bit thicker than other baguettes. It’s definitely Lolo’s and my favorite baguette! It's crunchier than other types, a sort of rustic version of the baguette, and pairs perfectly with all French cheeses — and wines, of course!
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When this self-described Francophile is not reading or writing about all things French, she's dreaming up charming new ways to showcase Lolo French Antiques et More or traveling to France with Lolo to buy delightful treasures for their store. Mimi, Lolo, and their new French Bulldog, Duke, live in Birmingham, AL.