Had Marie-Antoinette actually suggested Parisians 'eat cake', she might have actually been suggesting they 'eat bread'!
She could have been referring to the large, round cakes that would precede the baguette by centuries. Cake and bread, in the language of the era, could be confused.
But, as we know, she never made any such suggestion.
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.
It may be somewhat recent, but it has become as ubiquitous as bonjour in France.
Whatever the statistics, they all converge on one thing: the utter magnitude of the French baguette habit.
Sound like a lot?
It's a lot less than we used to.
Back in the 18th century, in Marie-Antoinette's time, 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).
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.
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).
And what do you put in a French baguette? Sometimes nothing!
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.
Is perhaps the Parisian baguette 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.
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 we can write that one off right away. But the baguettes in the other two are equally delicious.
So what sets them apart? The specialty 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.
However recent it may be, we simply cannot pinpoint the baguette's origins. As a result, plenty of stories have emerged claiming its birth 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 (the cakes, remember?). These were too cumbersome for soldiers to carry so Napoleon decreed a change in shape: henceforth, soldiers should be able to carry their bread more easily in their back pocket (must have been a large one).
A tempting story, but unlikely.
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 ancestor of the croissant. A few years later, an Austrian officer, Auguste Zang, opened a bakery in Paris and imported the first steam oven, making for crustier bread. He may have imported the idea of the baguette 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.
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 yet 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 quickly become popular among bakers.
The two more recent 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.
In the end, the baguette may have developed naturally. After all, the more crust the better, right?
Here are a few basic socially acceptable rules that apply to the baguette.
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 – was 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 emptied and people began to starve.
This is when Queen Marie-Antoinette was believed to have said: "Let them eat cake!" Popular anger was growing.
A few years later, in October 1789, flour was scarce in revolutionary Paris. Hungry crowds, hearing a rumour that the king would be hiding bread at Versailles to try to starve Parisians, marched on the palace screaming, "Bread! Bread!"
By 1856, the baguette habit was intensifying and Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of the first) decreed its exact measurements: 40cm in length and 300g in weight (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 codified (and slightly modified) its length, weight and price.
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.
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 more.
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 to 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.