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  3. The French Baguette

"Let them eat baguette", said marie-antoinette, never.

Had Marie-Antoinette actually suggested Parisians 'eat cake' if they couldn't afford bread, she would have been referring to the large, round cakes that would precede the baguette by centuries. (But, as we know, she never said that.)

In fact, the baguette as we know it is probably not much more than 200 years old, even though a few pale imitations did exist a bit earlier.

While the baguette is somewhat recent, it has become as ubiquitous as bonjour in France.

baguettes in France in a bakeryHungry yet?

Consider this.

basic facts about the baguette (yes, we love it!)

Whatever the statistics, they all reflect one thing: the utter magnitude of the French baguette habit.

  • Each French person eats around 160 grams of baguette a day (I can vouch for that)
  • Every second, 320 baguettes are consumed in France
  • We French eat 32 million baguettes a day (population 70 million)
  • We eat six billion baguettes a year, or nearly 100 per person per year

Sound like a lot?

It's a lot less than we used to.

Back in the 18th century, bread was the main food of 90% of the population and we ate, on average, about 1 kilo of bread a day (to demonstrate my impeccable mathematical skills, that's about six times what we eat today).

round bread, the traditional French bread used before the baguette existedThis was the typical round bread that was the basis of the French diet. Here, we see a mound of round bread, the standard military ration, in Amiens, during World War I

so what is the difference between french bread and a baguette?

French bread is the generic term for breads made in France, so a baguette is a type of French bread.

But a baguette isn't just any old oblong piece of bread. Like most things French, it has specific characteristics, regulated by law, and can be defined.

THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF BAGUETTE

The basic baguette usually weighs about 250g and is 55-80cm long. There are variations, however. You can buy a flute at 200g, or an even smaller ficelle (ficelle means string) at 120g. You can also get larger ones: by the time it weighs 300g, it is called a pain traditionnel, or traditional bread. (500 grams is just over 1lb and 50cm = 1.5 ft)

Deviate, and you no longer have a baguette.

(What is a baguette in English? A wand.

And baguette pronunciation? Bag-ETT.)

You can buy it well baked and crusty (bien cuite) or less so (pas trop cuite). 

So what do you put in a French baguette? Sometimes nothing! 

  • at breakfast, it is used as a 'tartine': you split it open lengthwise and add butter and/or jam; you can then either eat it as is or dunk it into a bowl of café au lait
  • at lunch, you'll see plenty of French munching on a jambon beurre (a baguette with butter and ham and possibly a tiny pickle or two), a ham and cheese baguette, or one of the many new fillings ranging from chicken curry to brie and honey
  • at dinner, your baguette will be used throughout the meal as an accompaniment, and with the cheese course, of course (there's nothing snooty about a cheese course, by the way – even the most proletarian of eateries will give you a choice between cheese and dessert)

“The French don't snack. They will tear off the end of a fresh baguette (which, if it's warm, it's practically impossible to resist) and eat it as they leave the boulangerie. 

—Peter Mayle

The baguette in France has become such a cultural icon that there is even a Grand Prix of the 'baguette tradition', launched in 1994, in which Parisian bakers bake their best bread for a panel of judges. There is a hefty money prize (€4000, which at the time of writing is about USD 4700) but even more prestigious is the contract to supply the President's daily bread for a year. Perhaps the Parisian baguette is better than all others?

Of course not, and a newer contest now judges baguettes throughout the country. An initial triage takes place by region, and each regional winner then competes nationally. 

Behind the baguette lurks a desire to be protected under Unesco's intangible heritage list. After all, if it's possible for Neapolitan pizza, traditional Mexican cuisine or Turkish coffee, why not the French baguette?

Bakers are in favour and have filed an application. It's not designed to applaud the baguette itself, but to herald the tradition that has gone into making it, a way of recognizing the artisans... and of upholding the tradition in the face of heated industrial competition.

One more thing you should know...

Many bakeries have their own baguette specialities, which may explain why some small towns have far more bakeries than you might expect for their size.

My nearest town (of about 2000 people) has three bakeries (the fourth one, which had the best baguettes, closed down after a fire). One of the bakeries is industrial and its bread tastes predictably stale, so I'll write that one off right away. But the baguettes in the other two are equally delicious.

So what sets them apart? The speciality baguettes: one has a baguette with sesame and poppy seeds, and the other has two separate types - sesame baguette and poppy baguette. So you see, sometimes the differences are infinitesimal.

the birth of the baguette 

However recent it may be, we simply cannot pinpoint its origins. As a result, plenty of stories have emerged claiming the birth of the baguette. And since we can't confirm any of them, go ahead, choose the one you like best.

The earliest story attributes the baguette to Napoleon (and we all like a good Napoleon story). French bread used to come in roundish loaves but wanting his soldiers to be able to carry their food more easily in their back pocket (must have been a large one), he decreed a change in shape.

A tempting story, but unlikely.

Napoleon in battle paintingNapoleon in battle, and not a baguette in sight among the soldiers (Antoine-Jean Gros, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The next story places the baguette's origin in... Vienna, not Paris (we don't like this one much). Viennese bread was introduced to Paris in 1830 and became widely popular. It included the kipferl,  a crescent-shaped pastry believed to be the croissan'ts ancestor. A few years later, an Austrian officer, Auguste Zang, opened a bakery in Paris and imported the first steam oven, allowing for crustier bread. He may have brought the idea of the baguette with him from Vienna, or he might have invented it right then and there, making our venerable symbol a bit... less French. Or he might have had nothing to do with it at all.

Viennese bakery in Paris where baguette may have been inventedThe original bakery where Auguste Zang may perhaps have invented the baguette, at 92 rue de Richelieu in Paris

Yet another tale places the birth of baguette bread in the early 20th century, during the construction of the Paris métro, or subway. Knife fights often broke out among workers, the same knives they carried to cut their roundish loaves of bread. In this version, the so-called 'father of the métro', engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe, asked a baker to develop a type of bread that could be broken without a knife, and presto, the baguette was born. (You may have heard that a baguette should never be cut with a knife: this is partly etiquette, and possibly in part based on this metro legend.)

And another story: A new law in 1919 forbade work before 4am. Since the baguette needed less time to rise than other breads, it would have become popular quickly among bakers.

Both these stories seem highly unlikely. While a type of long loaf may have been spotted as far back as the 17th century, at the court of Louis XIV, the baguette as we more or less know it today already existed under Napoleon III, who ruled from 1852-1870, well before the metro was built or sensible labour laws passed.

Long loaves of French bread around World War IMadeleine Danniau, a baker in Exoudun, in western France, baking bread during World War I - while much bread was round, plenty of longer loaves like these were also baked

In the end, the baguette may have developed naturally. After all, the more crust the better, right?

how to eat baguette (or, the secrets of baguette etiquette) 

Here are a few basic socially acceptable rules that apply to the baguetts.

  • You don't cut it with your knife but use your fingers to tear off pieces as you need them, one at a time (not all at once!)
  • That first bit of baguette is usually eaten once the first course arrives at your table, not before.
  • You don't dip your piece of baguette (or any bread) into your sauce with your fingers. You can spear it with your fork if you really want to absorb that sauce, but fingers? No-no.
  • You don't slather butter on your baguette. If you must have butter, you can put a pat on a small piece of bread but not on a slice. No sandwiches!

beyond the baguette: the history of bread in france

The baguette may have had relatively recent origins but bread itself has long been an actor in France's history.

The Egyptians invented bread, the Greeks developed it and the Romans refined it.

In the Middle Ages, bread became central to French food habits and Charlemagne, King of the Franks, decreed that there should always be enough bakers and that bakeries should be kept clean and ordered.

In 1305, the quality and price of bread was set for the first time and the sale of poor-quality bread – rat infested or rotten – would be forbidden. The rich ate white bread and the poor ate it black. 

As wheat prices rose and France's monarchy deteriorated, people regularly took to the streets in protest. In the spring of 1775, after a couple of poor harvests, France underwent the War of the Flours. Speculators pushed up prices by holding onto large stocks, bakeries were empty and people were starving.

This is when Queen Marie-Antoinette was believed to have said: "Let them eat cake!" Popular anger was growing and her husband, King Louis XVI, ordered hoarders to sell off their stocks at an affordable price.

A few years later, in October 1789, with flour scarce in revolutionary Paris, hungry crowds heard a rumour that the king would be hiding bread at Versailles to try to starve Parisians so they marched on Versailles screaming, "Bread! Bread!" 

Clamoring for bread during the RevolutionThe 'memorable day of Versailles' was a Monday, 5 October 1789. On this day, a mob of armed Parisians left their city and headed towards Versailles, crying: "We need bread, not laws." (gallica.bnf.fr)

In 1856, Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of the first) decreed the baguette should measure 40cm and weigh 300g (that's a bit heavier than today's 250g).

As for the name 'baguette', it seems to have made its first appearance in 1920, in a Paris regulation that dictated its length, weight and price. And that is still how it is made today.

Initially more common in the wealthier quarters of urban areas, the baguette's popularity skyrocketed after World War II, with the end of rationing. And today,  apart from the 'baguette traditionnelle', you'll find versions that diverge widely from the original, using different flours or filled with fruit. 

In 1993, a decree governing the "baguette de tradition française" fixed its acceptable ingredients: wheat flour, yeast and salt, perhaps making the baguette the most regulated hunk of bread in the world.

Baker prepares his French baguettes for the ovenA baker gets his baguettes ready for baking (RudolfSimon CC BY-SA 3.0)

other traditional french breads

A fresh baguette may be France's most popular bread, but it is not the country's only bread.

There are plenty of round or oblong breads, which often keep better than the French baguette.

Usually, these are named after the flour they use: pain de seigle (rye bread), maïs (corn), millet, avoine (oat) and others.

You'll also find plenty of specialized breads nowadays, bread with lard or with cheese or with raisins. These may be familiar to Anglo-Saxon bread-lovers but they are relatively new in France's hinterland. In my small village, our baker only began offering a whole grain baguette a few years ago and now, we are sophisticated, with dark breads, sesame baguettes and the occasional bread with lard on market days.

Regional breads also exist, which you'll find locally in some parts of France but not in others. A good example is the fougasse in Provence.

So there is some truth in stereotypes. When you imagine every French person with a baguette under their arm, you will not be far from the truth. But please, leave Marie-Antoinette out of it: she had enough troubles without wishing hunger upon the population.

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