When I was least expecting it a work colleague popped a question last week which startled me. “You’ll know Gareth, what makes French bread taste French?” I must admit, I froze for a moment.
And I didn’t know the answer.
It's a question I’ve never asked before, nor one that I’ve asked either. Not one to dish out poor advice, I thought it best I admit,
“I don’t know, but I am curious to find out.”
Ideas flew from my mouth as I thought about it and I realised, it's not just one thing.
There’s many reasons French bread tastes... well, French.
There are many circumstances to consider that combine to create characteristic French bread. Some stretch from bread laws imposed to retain the quality of the international recognised product.
Some point to the quality of flour that’s grown in the countries climate.
An arrogance to ignore flours from other countries (and quite rightly so).
Or is it the dough handling techniques which are passed through generations of bakers in many boulangeries.
There is much competition for selling a baguette, croissant or a Pain de Mie, in French cities.
Independent boulangeries must set themselves above the competition by serving the best quality bread. There is little following for the cheap rubbish that’s available in many developed countries.
The French want to enjoy food.
What is french bread?
Breads like the baguette, pain d’ Campagne, croissant or brioche are world renowned French breads.
True, but real French bread follows recipes with only natural, necessary ingredients.
The Pouline bakery, renowned as the best bakery on the world by many elite bakers has its main bakery in France.
There are also hundreds of boulangeries in Paris, where competition is rife. Such is the culture of eating quality bread in the country, it’s necessary to eat a lot of it!
What makes french bread so special?
How it’s made, the ingredients it uses and how it’s eaten are the key reasons that French bread is so special.
Every time I’ve had the pleasure of eating a traditional French bread it’s been an experience I wish to remember.
Even my 9 year old son who only likes simple light tasting food loves the flavour punch of this nation's bread.
How is bread eaten in France
On my last visit to France I discovered a new bread eating experience. And it was awesome!
Thick slices of a saucisson sec laid flat, covering the plate from top to bottom, some pickled gherkins, about 5 salad leaves and a drizzle of this banging, thick salad dressing.
And it came served with a simple baguette, cut in slices.
It was simple, but inspiring and amazing.
In terms up texture it wasn’t something I would pair together, most of the ingredients were hard and crunchy.
But the hardness made the flavours sing out and different acidic combinations provided contrast. A pure delight and proof that adding a bread to a meal can enhance it.
French bread can be a big part of any meal a monsieure or man moiselle desire.
A bit of history about French bread
The history of the baguette started as the Second World War war ended. The government passed a law that stopped night work so bakers had to develop recipes to allow them to start at 4am, with bread ready for opening.
You can eat french bread at any time of the day.
For breakfast, think croissant, brioche, pain de Campagne with pate.
Lunch time, can involve sandwiches made from baguettes, burgers or pain rustique.
Dinner, can contain any bread as a starter or accompaniment to a meal.
Sweet breads can be eaten as dessert or snacks throughout the day with coffee.
French bread history is taken seriously in France, possibly more than any nation.
You'll find many boulangeries along high streets, you’ll also find Paul’s, the leading bakery brand in France. There are many places where you’ll find a baker, even petrol stations! T
here’s 4 I think in the shopping centre that I visit in Lille! Including three different Paul’s, plus other brands too.
I wonder how many gluten free sufferers there are in France?
How government protected the quality of it's bread
The government passed through bread law in 1993. Similar to how wine is regulated per regional recipe, bread now has criteria it must achieve to be awarded the correct title.
It’s doing this that means the breads quality is retained. Bakeries can use frozen dough with enzymes, however they are not allowed to be classed as a true boulangerie.
By buying French bread, you are buying into the beliefs of French people, to not meddle with natural glory.
It’s not just a food, it’s a representation that French people can make beautiful products and eat them whatever time of day they fancy.
There’s an arrogance about it, much like with French people.
The flour used to make French bread
French bread is always made with French flour. To be fair, it’s great and packed full of aroma.
The French flour grading system determines the qualities of the flour from the ash content.
There is typically more bran included in French white flour, creating deep flavour and intense aromas.
Whenever I try a flour for the first time (or just for the fun of it), I taste it raw. I just lick my fingers here, no spoon involved and dip them in.
French flour has a flavour of pure bliss.
It reminds me of French wine.
You can taste the aroma of the french countryside. Grapes in a vineyard absorb the flavour of it’s Terrior (environment) and the wheat does the same.
It’s truly fantastic.
When baking with French flour I always want to enhance the flavour from the flour.
French bread recipes
The baguette traditionally will always follow the ratio, 60% water, 2% salt and 2% yeast of the flour.
These days, many boulanger's craft there own recipe outside of these conditions.
For sweetened or laminated breads as bakers tend to label them, they can use butter and natural sweeteners like sugar or honey in the process.
For the rest of the baking process, to be an artisan boulanger the ingredients have to be natural and necessary.
Bakers cannot spray their tins with oil or dust their banneton (proofing basket) with semolina. They can only use flour for that, semolina and oil are not permitted.
Having these rules forces French bakers to maintain the quality of the nations favourite product.
French bakers don’t tend to get excited about doughs with ridiculously high water content like those in the Uk and US. I have a few theories to why this is, but I could be wrong!
It could be the lack of oil in French baking. Oil helps the dough stretch and hold it’s shape.
The French are not allowed any semolina or rice flour to dust the bannetons to proof a wet dough. This can make a wet dough hard to get out the basket if it sticks.
French flour tends to create dough which is extensible and less elastic than other flour types. This makes it less suitable for wet doughs as the dough needs to retain structure in high hydration mixes.
The attitude of a french baker is to “make it the right way”. They tend to aim for perfectly hydrated doughs, no fancy tricks.
Here is my authentic french baguette recipe with poolish if you want to give it a go.
The French culture that surrounds its bread
You’ll be aware that food in general is massive in France. I’ve been many times, and from what I understand of French culture, they like to eat great quality food.
The experience of trying new flavours with friends is a massive part of French culture.
There is frog legs and fai gra and it’s likely you’ve turned your noses up at the thought of eating them. But French people love a flavour explosion.
French cuisine tends to be very rich and the meals, packed with flavour.
On my first visit I was expecting to see a French man with white hair and moustache carrying a large string of garlic over his shoulders, just like in children's story books I’d read before.
It didn't happen however, garlic is everywhere!
It’s so true, even salad dressings have a whack of depth in! It can be very overpowering if you’re not used to it. The beer they often drink is often from Belgium and very hoppy and flavoursome.
Bread fits with the flavour trend of the country and is eaten at any time of the day. Breakfast, lunch or dinner plus any time in between for a snack.
The climate of France is cooler than it’s southern neighbour, Italy.
The climate creates a completely different flavour in the wheat used to bake bread.
Wheat takes longer to grow in cooler regions, which allows it to develop more flavour.
The temperature also contributes to the wheat type to contain a low protein quantity compared to other regions of bread flour producers.
Because of the ingredients they have around them bakers tend to make breads that have a flavour that’s suitable to go with the food they eat.
Breads like Pain de Campagne or levain de rustic go perfectly with a soupe aux légumes or with cheese.
Whereas Italian breads tend to be lighter in flavour. Breads like pizza or focaccia go well with a topping. Pane cassericio and stifilato are great with Italian meats or with pasta.
As a general rule, Italian breads tend to enhance the food it accompanied, acting like a carrier of the flavour of the dish.
French breads alter the flavour of the meal, playing an integral part to meal.
So what makes French bread taste french?
There's so many reasons that give French bread it's characteristic flavour.
To sum up, the French bread flavour comes from the ingredients, the food it’s paired with, the attitude of the baker and the laws of the country. These combine with equalling levels of importance to create bread that is popular across the world.
If you've found us for the first time, take a look at my bread recipes.