I wanted to learn more about the historic artisan bread baking culture in France, so I thought you guys might want to share my findings of the history of bread in France.
French bread has plenty of history alongside pretty much all of the food that is traditionally made in France. The highest quality product is respected, not rejected for being too expensive.
If you are learning to bake bread, it’s likely you have made an attempt at a French bread. Breads such as a baguette, brioche and Pain au levain (sourdough) are all common breads in France.
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Across the world, the history of bread in France and today’s food culture is enviable by many artisan bakers. Personally I would love to know that if I were to open a bakery in my home town that my artisan bread efforts would be respected and the locals wouldn’t moan that Tesco’s is cheaper!
Artisan bread is common in France, but how did it get like this and how has bread culture been preserved?
How French people make bread quality important
Bread is a staple food eaten across the world every day by people of all ages and social class. That said, France is considered the cultural home of quality bread.
Bread is a speciality in France much like pizza is king in Italy. The simple reason why is, French people love bread!
In fact, On January 13, 2018, it was reported that President Emmanuel Macron of France supported calls for the baguette to be recognised by the United Nations as a “cultural treasure.”
President Macron said that Baguette “is the envy of the world” and called for UNESCO status:
“We must preserve its excellence and our expertise, and it is for this reason that it should be heritage-listed.”
But how did this come to be?
Whilst most of us enjoy a fresh, tasty baguette, how many of us know the history of the bread itself in France?
Also how it has been developed across the years?
That is what this article will attempt to cover…
So let’s find out!
The Origins of Bread Around the World and in France
Bread is one of the oldest foods in the world, and it did not originate in France. Many historical variations can be found on the beginnings of bread.
According to some sources, bread was first baked by humans at least 30,000 years ago. Starch traces have been found on prehistoric mortar and pestle shaped rocks which prove this.
Prehistoric man made a ‘flatbread’ by cooking a paste consisting of water and flour on stones. It sounds like a far cry from French bread that we find today. My guess is that it probably made a change to their existing diet of mainly meat.
The first examples of ‘modern bread’ can be found in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Modern bread began to develop around 4,600 years ago when a baker from Ancient Egypt forgot to dry the flat bread dough.
It led to the mixture being fermented.
They found that after it was cooked, the fermented mixture produced a nicer taste and tender texture. After that, the Egyptians mixed yeast into bread dough and left it until to expand before baking in a stove.
Examples of commercial yeast production date back to 300 B.C. in Ancient Egypt.
A later period in bread history involved France
After entering Europe, bread making became an important part of European society. In Rome bread and wheat were considered a more important commodity than meat.
There is no historical evidence on exactly when bread making first began in France. However, regarding the most famous example of French bread, Baguette, historian Jim Chevallier believes it’s most likely to have first appeared during the eighteenth century in its most primitive form.
Some sources say that the origins of the Baguette in France stem from the time of Napoleon. Napoleon himself is rumoured to be involved in its creation before invading Russia.
It is claimed that Baguettes were deliberately made long like sticks so that Napoleon’s soldiers could easily carry them in specially designed pockets on their uniforms. His soldiers started to demand that bakers learn to bake bread to fit this shape.
How the colour of bread became important
As bread developed within the lives of European people, bread became the primary source of food. At one time,the colour of bread also signified peoples, social class.
Bread with a darker colour indicated that you were from a lower class, while lighter colour bread indicated higher class. During this time, quality flour produced bread with a brighter colour.
This continued until Paris experienced a bread crisis during the monarchy.
People were tired of seeing nobles always getting fine white bread while they experienced shortages.
The poor residents of Paris where only allowed the bread that they classed as hardly worth eating.
Yes it’s true, bread caused a national revolution!!
This gave Paris residents an important cause for a national revolution and the bringing down of the monarchy.
Bread was now not just a food, it was a driving force in French political history.So, after the French Revolution in 1793, a regulation was made to eliminate social inequality in enjoying bread which reads as follows:
“Richness and poverty must both disappear from the government of equality. It will no longer make 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.”
After this regulation came, bread making at home was tradition. Families who did not have an oven would go to a nearby bakery with their dough. They would pay a small fee for it to be baked in the oven.
As more bakeries in towns and villages sprang up, home bakers began to decrease significantly.
Even so, France remained famous for artisan bread. This created an everlasting association with excellent levels of training for new bakers. This training created some of the best bakers in world and turned France into the capital of Bread.
The regulations of French bread
In France, the Government is very strict in regulating ingredients that can be mixed into bread dough. French bread keeps its famous characteristics from year to year because it has been protected by law. French bread must be made only of flour, water, yeast and salt in various quantities.
This led to bakers coming up with various innovations in making bread. These gave birth to the well-known forms of French bread such as Baguette, Boule, Brioche and Ficelle.
The Croissant is often thought of as French bread, but it is also considered a pastry.
Whether Croissant is technically bread or not, you will find it sat alongside other French bread in many bakeries.
French bread was originally baked in a dry oven, but this produces bread with an inconsistent texture. But after various experiments, bakers were allowed to bake bread using steam ovens.
Steam ovens allow bakers to adjust the temperature and time of the grill so the resulting bread became softer. Steam has this effect on the bread crumb whilst the outside crust became crisper.
Bread makers originally prepared bread ready to display in the morning. It was and still is tradition for French people to eat bread for breakfast.
But in the 1920s, a regulation was issued for bread makers. It stated that they were not allowed to start work before 4 am.
This posed a challenge for bread makers at that time. Making traditional bread ready for breakfast became an challenging task. It’s these changes that help us to understand what makes French bread taste French.
What the French did that created history
To overcome the new legislation, artisan bread makers came up with some innovative ideas. Instead of making bread loaves like they used to be famous for, bakers made thinner and smaller breads.
The new breads that were created had a diameter of no more than 2 inches.
This innovation made the baking process faster. Bakers could prepare bread in time for breakfast to the French people without violating the regulations.
Baguette, the symbol of modern history
If you are in France, on every street corner, you will see lots of bakeries. Each shop or boulangerie will have a bread with a similar form, long and thin like a stick. This bread is the Baguette. It is a large part of modern history of bread in France, and the present.
Every hour of every day, it is very common in France to see people carrying Baguette, tucked under their arm. This bread accompanies all their meals, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Here is my authentic french baguette recipe with poolish if you’d like to make them yourself.
Why is a baguette called baguette?
Because that’s its shape. Baguette itself in English means wand or stick. Aside from Napoleon’s history, the unique shape of the baguette is of unknown origin.
Baguette size is also very diverse, from the smallest to the largest which can reach 8 feet or 2.5 meters.
Artisan bread makers are happy to innovate with baguette sizes. Baguettes are one of the attractions that tourists come to see and taste in France. Giant-sized bread sticks are extremely popular!
Characteristics of Baguettes
Apart from its unique shape, baguettes are very hard on the outside but soft on the inside. The baguette always has a golden crisp crust on the outside.
If you want to know if a baguette is a good quality, give it a press. If the Baguette returns to its original shape, this indicates the bread is of good quality, if it doesn’t it is poor.
It’s regarded as the hardest bread to make by many artisan bakers. It involves several techniques to create perfection. The baguette is near the end of my learn to bake bread course for this reason!
The baguette has been popular in France for many years. In 1993, Decret Pain inaugurated the stick of bread as a traditional French food.
An authentic baguette uses a Couche for proofing. This keeps the shape of the baguette and allows them to be transferred to the stone of the oven for baking. Click the link to view the couche I recommend.
Further reading: The history of the baguette explained.
Other Types of French Bread
Besides Baguette, France has many other types of well-known bread such as Boule, Ficelle, and Brioche. Here’s a bit more info:
One of the oldest bread from France is Boule. In French, boule means ball, and this is the shape the original bread makers would make dough. Round like a ball.
A Boule in France has a texture similar to a baguette. Crispy on the outside, but soft and chewy inside with a golden crust on top.
Boule also includes large bread which can weigh up to 500 gr to 1 kg.
Initially, bakers were more accustomed to making boules than baguettes. This is why bread makers in France are more commonly called “boulangers” and bakeries are called “boulangeries.”
But after the regulation came out in the 1920s, bread makers started to focus on baguettes as their bread and butter.
There is also Ficelle, similar to the baguette; this bread is long but thinner. There is no historical record of the exact origin of this bread.
However, look back at the history of 1920. When the artisan bread makers began to make smaller size baguettes to speed up the baking process, it could be argued that Ficelle was born.
Ficelle originally had a bland or mild taste. Now artisans making Ficelle add salt or poppy and sesame seeds. Ficelle is often served as a snack.
Lots of inspirational forms of bread were born in France. Even though French people did not first invent some of them.
According to some sources Brioche was brought over by Norman people when the settled in France.
In the 800’s they produced a secret recipe for making butter and decided to whack it in a bread dough.
This is when Brioche is believed to be first created.
But then again Brioche has never been found written till later
I’m not sure how accurate the Norman story is it wasn’t until 1404 that the first example of Brioche being found in print is dated.
You would think someone tasting that amazing bread back in the 800’s would have carried it down? But hey, I’m no expert in history.
The name Brioche consists of the terms “bris” which means squeezing and “hocher” which means stirring.
Unlike other French bread, Brioche is made with butter and eggs, and often sugar. Because of this, brioche is often eaten as a snack or dessert.
In the 16th century, this bread was often served by the church who introduced it as a blessed bread. Literally, this bread was blessed by the pastor and shared with the congregation.
But in the 18th century, France faced an economic crisis that made this bread very expensive.
Brioche became a symbol of one’s wealth as the contents of butter within their brioche would be proportional to their wealth.
In fighting hunger, a story says that Queen Marie-Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, advised in 1783, “S’ils n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”
In English, it means “if they do not have bread, then let them eat the cake.” People believe that the cake that Queen Marie-Antoinette is referring to is Brioche.
This event is also related to the decline of the monarchy in France. Brioche is categorised as viennoiserie which means ‘things of Vienna’.
The shocking history of the croissant
Another famous bread in France that is not actually from France is the croissant. According to many sources, the first example of this crescent-shaped pastry was in Austria.
Viennese people have what they call the Kipferl, which is believed to be the ancestor of the croissant. Kipferl which means “crescent” has been found since the 13th century.
During that time, Vienna was surrounded by the Ottoman army.
Long story short, Vienna won because the bakers who were preparing the ovens to bake their dough heard a strange sound from beneath their feet.
The bakers immediately reported the sounds which led to gunpowder being found in tunnels that had been prepared by the Ottoman army to blow up Vienna’s protective walls.
With this new information, the authorities were able to intercept the tunnels while the King of Poland charged at the Ottomans who fled the scene.
They won the war, and after that, a crescent-shaped bread was made based on the symbol of the Ottoman flag to celebrate the Austrian victory.
In the 18th century, this crescent-shaped bread became famous in France thanks to Queen Marie Antoinette.
The queen loved to have kipferl for breakfast, so this bread gained in popularity among the French people.
In 1915, a French bread maker named Sylvain Claudius Goy made the crescent pastry with the same technique, using different ingredients.
Since then a traditional French-made soft pastries emerged and were named, croissants.
In 1920, croissants were officially declared as a traditional French product.
Bread is still a part of French life
Bread is still very popular with French people as a staple for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The history of bread in France lives on through today’s culture.
The Government does not determine the price of bread in France. However, it is closely monitored and controlled by consumer associations.
You can find baguettes at fairly cheap prices, ranging from 0.45 euros to 0.90 euros.
This is because bread makers use ingredients and processes that keep the price of bread affordable while maintaining the quality.
Some bakers have their own speciality baguette recipes, while some follow traditional recipes.
You must decide which one is your favourite, do you prefer traditional baguettes or special baguettes from the bakers?
In France, there are still many bakeries. According to French Today, the current calculation of bakeries is 1 : 1600 of the population.
Bread is still very much alive in French communities and I suspect it will be a big part of their future too.