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Breads of France

Ask anyone to conjure up an image of France and they will immediately mention Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc du Triumph, the endless vineyards, and almost certainly, the next thing they mention will be French bread.

Choice of Breads in France

Spoilt for Choice - French Breads

How is it that this single food stuff has become synonymous with just one country? The English bake bread, the Germans bake bread, the Chinese, Japanese and Russians all bake bread. There is barely a country in the world which does not include bread as one of the main staples of its diet... and yet it is the French with whom the world population most associate the humble loaf.

Why is that? What is it about French bread which makes it so special?

During the French revolution, it is reported that the average Frenchman ate three pounds of bread a day. Bread was so important to the French diet that, if supplies ran short, riots resulted. In fact, it was fear of famine that was thought to be one of the contributing factors to the French revolution - that and the fact that the peasants held the unfounded belief that the nobility where with-holding grain supplies and deliberately causing starvation. It is likely that the nobility, seeking out the finest breads made from white flour, gave little thought to what the peasants were eating and, as they took the best flour for themselves, the peasants revolted because of the substandard bread they were expected to consume.

After the revolution, the Constituent Assembly decreed that bakeries may only produce one type of bread, the 'bread of equality' which was produced from ¾ wheat flour and ¼ rye flour. White breads were banned and order was restored. Eventually, with the abolition of feudal privileges, this ban was lifted and white bread became popular once again.

Up until the Middle Ages, bread-making in France, like most other areas of the world, was primarily done at home. However, eventually, as towns and villages began to grow, families would take their bread to be baked in a communal oven in the centre of the community. Eventually these communal ovens became the responsibility of one family and the bakery was born.

Early bakeries consisted of large brick-built ovens which were powered by a wood or coal fire. The dough was placed in the ovens to cook using a long-handled shovel called a 'peel'. Today, you can still find this method of baking in many smaller bakeries across France.

French bread has gained such an international reputation that the ingredients are governed by French law. Legally, for a bread to be known as French, it may contain only wheat flour, rye flour, yeast, salt, ascorbic acid and water. Yet French bread varies considerably in texture and taste. To achieve this, the French manipulate the quantities of each ingredient and the length of time the bread is left to rise. They also vary the type of oven in which the bread is cooked. Some ovens include steam in the process to produce a firm crust and others do not. By doing this, the baker achieves the wide variety of bread you can purchase when you enter a boulangerie.

The Baguette

Baguettes

One of France's Best loved breads - The Baguette

Arguably the best known of all French breads, the first baguettes can be traced back to 1920, when the bakeries finally developed a technique which guaranteed that the yeast would ferment slowly and irregularly aerate the dough. The dough, but not the shape, is defined by French law. The shape is most likely to have come about when a change in French law stated that bakers could not start work before 4 am and the baguette became popular because it could be produced faster that a larger loaf.

Baguette literally translates as 'wand' or 'stick', giving rise to the name by which the bread is commonly known in the UK as a French Stick.To conform to French standards, a baguette should weigh 250g. They come in three forms - the ordinary baguette, with its crisp golden-brown crust, the 'baguette moulee', which is usually manufactured in an industrial bread oven and is identifiable by the lattice markings on its underside, and the 'baguette farinee', which is slightly paler than the other two, having been dusted with flour before baking.

The Flute

Similar in composition to the baguette, the flute is twice the length of its familiar counterpart and is popular among large families.

The Batard

Another version of the baguette, only half the size of the standard baguette

The Ficelle

The Ficelle is a very long thin loaf, which resembles a very thick bread stick. It has a short shelf life and is best consumed almost immediately as, although delicious, the inside tends to dry out very quickly once baked.

The Pain de Campagne

Pain de Campagne

Pain de Campagne - a country bread

This country bread is often made with the addition of whole wheat or rye flour which enables it to stay fresh for longer. The bread also often has a thick crust, which again aids freshness.

Other breads you may find in a boulangerie include:

  • The Couronne - A ring-shaped loaf
  • Pain Complet or Pain aux Cereales - Wholemeal Bread
  • Pain de Seigle - Rye bread
  • Pain de Seigle Noir - Dark Rye Bread
  • Pain d’avoine - Oat bread
  • Pain au Levain - Sourdough bread
  • Pain Cuit au Feu de Bois - Bread baked in a wood-fired oven
  • Pain de Froment - Wheat Bread
  • Pain de Gruau - Fine Wheaten Bread

The traditional English loaf, usually only available in supermarkets but rarely on the fresh bread counter, is known as the Pain de Mie

Speciality Breads

Many boulangeries now offer their own speciality breads, such as the pain aux noix which contains nuts and the pain aux lardons which contains bacon.

Viennoiserie

Viennoiserie tends to be the generic term given to the sweet baked goods produced by a boulangerie. These include:

The Croissant

A symbol of France - The Croisssant

Croissant

One of the most familiar items associated with France and the staple of the continental breakfast. The croissant, with its distinct appearance and buttery taste, is one of the most popular items sold in a French bakery.

Pain au Chocolat

A variation on the croissant, only oblong in shape and filled with chocolate

Brioche

A small sweet roll, popular at breakfast time, often flavoured with nuts, currants or other candied fruits.

Buying Bread

When visiting France it is worth bearing in mind that boulangeries, like many French shops, close for two hours over the lunch period, so shop early to avoid disappointment. Whichever bread you choose, take the time to savour it and enjoy with a glass of wine and a selection of local cheese.

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