The History of Bread in France

I wanted to learn more about the historic artisan bread baking culture in France, so I thought I'd share my findings into the history of bread in France with you.

French bread has plenty of history, alongside pretty much all of the food that is traditionally made in France it is of the highest quality. 

If you are learning to bake bread, it's likely you'll at least attempt a French bread such as a baguette, brioche or perhaps a Pain au levain (sourdough).

Across the world, the history of French bread and possibly even more so in today's culture. French bread is enviable by any artisan baker. 

Many wish for more demand or appreciation in the bread they slave their lives away for. 

Artisan bread is common in France, but how did it get like this and what has been done to preserve it?

How French people make bread quality important

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While bread is a staple food eaten across the world every day by people of all ages, France is considered its home.

Bread is a speciality in France much like pizza is king in Italy. 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 as starch traces have been found on prehistoric mortar and pestle shaped rocks. 

Prehistoric man made a ‘flatbread’ by cooking a paste consisting of water and flour on stones, a far cry from a French loaf you would find today.

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 by mould.

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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 it expands 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. Even in Rome, bread and wheat were considered more important 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 and that it could be an innovation from Napoleon himself 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.

The soldiers demanded that the bakers learn to bake bread in this shape.

Bread colour in France indicated social status

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. 

This is because at the time, the higher the quality of the flour used, the brighter the colour of the bread would be.

Busby's bakery

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 was hardly worth eating.

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 ready to bake 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, causing an everlasting association with excellent levels of training for new bakers.

The regulation 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 stated by law that 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 and 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 always find it sitting alongside other French bread in the 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.

This allowed the bakers to adjust the temperature and time of the grill so that the resulting bread became softer, even though the outside remained crisp.

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 that stated that they were not allowed to start work before 4 am. 

This posed a challenge for bread makers at that time, as making traditional bread ready for breakfast became an impossible task.

What the French did that created history

To overcome this, artisan bread makers came up with some innovative ideas. Instead of making bread flat like they used to be famous for, the bakers made thinner and smaller Baguettes with a diameter of no more than 2 inches.

This innovation made the baking process faster, so bakers could present their bread in time for breakfast to French people without violating the regulations.

Baguette, the symbol of France

If you are in France, on every street corner, you will see lots of bakeries.

If you notice, each shop will have one bread with a similar form, which is long and thin like a stick. That's the Baguette. 

Every hour of every day, it is very common in France to see people carrying Baguette in their groceries because this bread accompanies all their meals, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Why is it 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. 

In fact, artisan bread makers are happy to innovate with Baguette sizes as this is one of the attractions that tourists come to see and taste in France, the giant-sized bread sticks.

The hallmarks of this Baguette, apart from its unique shape, is that the Baguette is very hard from the outside but soft inside.

The Baguette always has a golden crisp crust on the outside.

 If you want to know if a baguette is a good quality, then give it a press.

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If the Baguette returns to its original shape, this indicates the bread is of good quality.

It's regarded as the hardest bread to make by many artisan bakers as it involves several techniques to create the perfection. 

The baguette is near the end of my learn to bake bread course for this reason!

Due to the Baguette having been in France for hundreds of years, in 1993, Decret Pain inaugurated this stick of bread as traditional French food.

Fascinated about baguettes? 

There's a full article with the history of the French 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:

Boule

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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 their dough into, round like a ball.

Boule in France has a texture similar to a baguette, which is 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, which 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 more often focussed on baguettes as their bread and butter.

Ficelle

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, if you 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 said that this was when the Ficelle was born. 

Artisan bread baker gareth busby

Ficelle originally had a bland or mild taste, but now the artisans when making Ficelle add salt or poppy seeds and sesame seeds. Ficelle is often served as a snack.

Brioche

artisan bread

Lots of inspirational forms of bread were born in France, even though French people did not first invent some breads.

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 the bread 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’.

Busbys

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 but used different  ingredients.

Since then a traditional French-made soft pastry has emerged called croissants.

In 1920, croissants were officially declared as a traditional French product.

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Bread is Still a Big Part of Life in France Today

Bread is still very popular with French people as a staple for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

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.

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If you go to a bakery in France, it is advisable to ask for their own version of baguette version.

Some bakers now have their own speciality baguette recipes, while some follow traditional baguette recipes. 

So, 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.

Written by Gareth

"I'm looking to share my passion in artisan baking with others"

picture of gareth busby

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