The history of bread in France inclusive of its food culture is looked upon with envy across the globe. If you bake bread yourself, you’ve probably made a French-inspired loaf at least once. French classics such as baguette, brioche and pain au levain (sourdough) are recognised everywhere. Even popular American bread like the Pullman loaf is heavily influenced (if not stolen) by the French original, pain de mie. High-quality artisan bread is common in France, you’ll find a boulangerie on every high street. But how did it get like this, and, how has bread culture been preserved?
Bread is a staple food eaten across the world every day by all ages and social classes. Like cooking and winemaking, France wrote the rule book for baking bread. France is considered the cultural home of quality bread, much like Italy is the home of pizza. French people relied on bread for centuries as their main food source. They continue to support the artists who perfect the skill of making beautiful bread. A high-quality bread is always respected for being great, not rejected as it is expensive.
On January 13, 2018, it was reported that French President, Emmanuel Macron supported calls for the baguette to be recognised by the United Nations as a “cultural treasure”. He claimed that it “is the envy of the world”. The baguette, alongside all French bread, is interlocked with many important events in national history.
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!
Bread does not come from France. Grinding stones dated 30,000 years old have been unearthed in Australia and Europe. Their likely use would be for grinding wheat to make bread, but there is no supportive evidence of this. Using modern dating technology we can estimate that bread was eaten between 14,600 and 11,600 years ago.
The earliest conclusive evidence of bread making is at the archaeological site of Shubayqa 1 in the Black Desert, Jordan. Charred flatbread crumbs made from wheat, barley and plant roots were discovered here. Alongside quern stones were found with starch traces. Quern stones are ancient grinding stones, similar to a pestle and mortar which have been found across the globe that date to Neolithic times.
A prehistoric man would have made a ‘flatbread’ by cooking a paste of water and flour on stones. It is a far cry from the French bread that we find today. But it would have made a welcome change to their existing diet which would have mainly consisted of meat.
The first examples of ‘modern bread’ were found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This is bread where a leaven was used. Leavened bread was first made around 4,600 years ago.
A baker from Ancient Egypt (probably) forgot to dry the flatbread dough and left it on a warm rock. The warm weather led to the mixture fermenting and rising. After it was cooked, the fermented mixture produced a nicer taste and tender texture. The first version of sourdough had arrived! Egyptians mixed their sourdough levain with ground wheat and left it to expand and the risen dough was baked on the fire.
Bread making became an important part of European society. Wheat could be grown with ease across the continent. It was one of the first farmed foods in existence. By growing and harvesting wheat en mass, people could be fed and goods could be traded. It’s argued by some that the economy of the world is built on wheat.
At the time of the Roman invasion of France, bread was milled by hand and baked in homes and villages across France and the rest of Europe. When the Romans invented water-milling in around 450 BC, the ability to supply flour increased! Wheat became a very important commodity.
It was the Middle Ages when bread developed in the lives of European people. Bread became the primary source of food for all kinds of life. In France, the standard “boule-shaped” loaf became challenged by more elaborate designs. It was around this time that France began shaping its reputation for extravagance. It later became a world leader in baking and other cooking techniques.
Several bread recipes were made for the first time here, often for special occasions. Cakes, bread and pastries were produced by expert bakers for the Monarchy. Though in the lower classes, bread making took place at home. Those without an oven would go to a nearby bakery with their dough. They would pay a small fee for it to be baked, putting a unique mark on the loaf as they handed it over to the baker so they knew which one was theirs.
Bread was fully embedded in French culture. Though diets had moved on with the importation of sugar and other exotic foods, bread was still at the forefront of French diets. Wheat accounted for 60-80 percent of the majority of French household budgets. Bread was not just a food, it was a driving force for life and it made its mark in French political history.
The colour of bread eaten started to signify a person’s social class. Darker coloured bread indicated the eater was lower class while whiter bread was for higher classes. This was at a time when the population of France had risen severely and a series of poor harvests lead to a shortage in wheat. Sadly, King Louis XVI continued to ignore the demand for wheat. The price rose dramatically and the poor began to starve.
The lower classes, tired of nobles with fine white bread and living in luxury became angry. Even when poorer residents could get bread, it was hardly worth eating as the grain was so poor.
The lack of quality bread and “The Age of Enlightenment” led to a national revolution. The National Assembly would win and the death of the monarchy (and King Louis) occurred in 1793. Afterwards, a set of regulations were made to eliminate social inequality. A translation of the legislation regarding bread is shown below.
“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.”
Another of the key reforms was to standardise the price of bread sold. After the bread of equality act was enacted, bakeries sprung up in towns and villages across France. The residents of France began buying more bread instead of making it themselves.
Specialist bakers became popular, and France started to become famous for its speciality bread. Skills and recipes would be shared with excellent levels of training for new bakers. France started to forge some of the world’s best bakers, turning France into the capital of Bread.
In 1834, the first steel roller mill was invented in Switzerland. It quickly revolutionised bread baking in many countries, including France. Instead of crushing the grain, a roller system breaks it open. This means the germ, bran and endosperm can be easily separated.
Bread was baked in a dry oven which produces bread with soft crusts and inconsistent textures. After various experiments, in the late 1800’s the steam oven was introduced in France.
Steam baking creates a humid environment where the setting of the crust is delayed. Bread made in a steam oven was soft in the crumb and crisp on the crust.
Most bread till the mid-late 19th century was levained with sourdough or pâte fermentée. The pâte fermentée method works by retaining 30-50% of a batch of dough. It is then added to the next batch the following day. The process is repeated daily. Eventually, the levain develops flavour and naturally occurring yeasts. It’s a great way of leavening bread and is still used in many top bakeries across the world. View my beginners sourdough bread recipe
As baker’s yeast was introduced to bakeries in France, it sped up production. But this was detrimental to the flavour and texture of the bread. To combat this, French bakers adopted a preferment technique from Polish bakers who had settled in France.
A portion of flour from a bread recipe is soaked with the same weight of water and a small amount of yeast. The mixture is lightly stirred, covered and left overnight. During this period the yeast ferments the flour making it a powerful levain. Once added to the dough, it improves the dough’s maturity so the bulk fermentation (first rise) period is reduced. They called this method a “Poolish” which is similar to the Biga method used in Italy. It’s these techniques that help us to understand what makes French bread taste French.
It was (and still is) popular for bread to be eaten for breakfast in France. Bread makers would work overnight for their bread to be ready to display in the morning.
After the 2nd world war, as a way to protect their workers from overworking, a regulation was issued by the government. It stated that bread makers were not allowed to start work before 4 am. This posed a challenge for breadmakers at that time. Getting the first batch of bread baked in time for breakfast became a challenging task.
To overcome the new legislation, artisan bread makers came up with an innovative idea. Instead of making the large loaves that were previously popular, bakers made thinner and smaller loaves.
This new bread was an adaptation of the Ficelle, but smaller. A diameter of no more than 2 inches made production much faster. Bakers could start work at 4am and prepare bread in time for breakfast. This bread was called the Baguette.
Today, every hour of every day, it is common to see French people carrying a baguette, tucked under their arms. It accompanies meals, makes sandwiches or is just eaten on its own as a snack. Here is my authentic french baguette recipe with poolish if you’d like to make them yourself.
Bread makers are happy to innovate with baguette sizes, but the industry standard is 50cm long. Baguettes are one of the attractions that tourists come to see and taste in France.
Apart from their 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 of good quality, press it in your hand. If it returns to its original shape, it is good. If it doesn’t, it’s regarded as poor.
Baguettes are regarded as one of the hardest bread to make by many artisan bakers. It involves several techniques to create perfection. In 1993, Decret Pain inaugurated the stick of bread as 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 for the couche that I recommend.
Further reading: The history of the baguette explained.
Besides Baguette, France has many other types of well-known bread such as Boule, Ficelle, and Brioche. There is little historical evidence for when each style was introduced. Here is the information that I can find:
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 called “boulangers” and bakeries are called “boulangeries.”
There is also Ficelle, the original baguette. This bread is longer and thinner than a traditional baguette. There is no historical record of the exact origin of this bread. However, historian Jim Chevallier believes the baguette first appeared during the eighteenth century.
Some sources say that the origins of the Baguette in France stem from Napoleon. He is rumoured to be involved in its creation before invading Russia. Demanding that bakers learn to bake bread that could fit in specially designed pockets on soldiers’ uniforms.
The baguette or the longer, “ficellee” as it was called back in the early 1800’s became less popular as the century went on. 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 many of them. According to some sources, Brioche was brought over by Norman people when they settled in France.
In the 800’s they produced a secret recipe for making butter and decided to include it in bread dough. This is when Brioche is believed to be first created. But it wasn’t until 1404 that the first example of Brioche has been found in print. You would think someone tasting that amazing bread back in the 800’s would have written the recipe down? But hey, I’m no expert!
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, eggs and sugar. Because of this, brioche can be eaten as a snack or a dessert. In the 16th century, it was often served at church where the pastor would bless it and share it with his 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, it is alleged 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. Although it’s disputed if this was actually said, the event relates to the beginning of the end of the French monarchy. Brioche is a type of bread labelled as viennoiserie, which means ‘things of Vienna’.
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. Vienna won the battle as bakers who were preparing the ovens to bake heard strange noises beneath their feet. The bakers immediately reported the sounds. Gunpowder was found in tunnels where the Ottoman army had planned to blow up Vienna’s walls. 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 based on the symbol of the Ottoman flag was created.
In the 18th century, it became famous in France thanks to Queen Marie Antoinette. The queen loved to have kipferl for breakfast and was fundamental in its popularity among French people. A French bread maker named Sylvain Claudius Goy made a crescent pastry in 1915 with the same technique. In 1920, croissants were officially declared as a traditional French product, even though they are not really French!
In 1978 the French government ended its control on the price of bread. It is now monitored closely by consumer associations that have kept the price of bread low since. A baguette cost around 0.45 Euros in supermarkets to 0.90 Euros in bakeries.
In 1993, the bread Decree, often referred to as the French Bread Law was instated. It governed the ingredients that can be used in bread dough. It states which additives can be used and how much of them are allowed. The regulations are in place so that French bread can retain its famous characteristics.
There are still a lot of bakeries in France. According to French Today, the current calculation of bakeries is 1:1600 of the population. 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.
If you are in France, on every street corner, you will likely find a bakery. Some bakers have their own speciality bread recipes, while some follow traditional recipes. If you visit, you must decide which one is your favourite! Do you prefer traditional baguettes or special baguettes from the bakers?! Bread is still very much alive in French communities and I suspect it will be a big part of their future too!