Sunday, January 27, 2008


In French the word for friend is copain, which comes from the Latin cum pane (with bread) and is the person with whom you share your bread. One could be forgiven for thinking that the French invented bread but it was probably the Egyptians: however, while few people have heard of eesh baladi, nearly everyone knows what a French stick is.

Along with strings of onions and smelly cigarettes, the baguette - that thin loaf of crusty bread that makes a sandwich as long as your arm - is an enduring, albeit hackneyed, symbol of France. The elongated form of the baguette was created in the early twentieth century and was invented for townspeople who lived near to a bakery and could buy their bread fresh, twice a day. The bread was made to be eaten on the same day as purchase and this is still the case. I have tried wrapping leftover baguette in a tea towel; I have put it in a plastic bag overnight; I have popped dry bread in the microwave, I've sprinkled it with water and baked it in a hot oven - but the result is always the same: day-old French bread tastes like carpet slippers.

Bread has been the staple diet of the French for centuries, even if they are now eating a mere five ounces a day as opposed to the two pounds they were eating in 1900. The Ancient Gauls ate their food off a thick slice of bread called a tranchoir and when told to "finish your plate", that's exactly what they did. This custom lasted well into the fourteenth century, although the wealthier classes would give the sauce-sodden tranchoir to the poor to finish off. The quality of bread eaten was an indicator of wealth and the whiter and finer the flour, the more expensive the bread. At this time, the humble peasant had to make do with coarse, black rye bread that he made himself - but not before he'd paid tax to his overlord to grind his flour in the communal mill and more tax to be allowed to use the communal oven. As if that wasn't humiliating enough, he often had to add straw or even clay to the grain when times were hard, producing a loaf that, I suspect, closely resembled the 100% natural high-fibre rustic bread you can buy for a small fortune in any organic bakery today.

The rising price of bread was one of the reasons for the French Revolution. The harvest in 1788 had been extremely poor and the population was starving. At the beginning of 1789, riots broke out throughout the country, and not for the first time. People were demanding work and bread and it was then that Marie-Antoinette - who was a little half-baked herself – was supposed to have suggested that if there was no bread, they could eat cake instead (actually, she didn’t say that, but I wanted to get that joke in about her being half-baked…) Later, in 1791, the Constituent Assembly fixed the price of bread and decreed that bakers could only bake one sort of loaf, the "Equality Loaf", made from three parts wheat flour to one part rye.

In the 19th century, the mechanical kneading machine was invented and bakers no longer had to knead their dough by hand - or with their feet, which had been the case for some types of bread. Consumers were hostile to the idea but professional bakers welcomed the chance to lighten their workload. Further changes followed, including the replacement of brewer's yeast with baker's yeast and the use of steam ovens over wood-fired ones until finally, in the 1950s, bread was being made in what is known as industrial bakeries, thus becoming plentiful and cheap. In the face of this competition, 6,786 traditional bakeries were forced to close down between 1968 and 1975. Today, shops known as "baking terminals" sell bread that they have bought frozen and partially baked and which they have finished cooking in their own ovens, to con you into thinking it is homemade. American and British-type sliced bread has also become popular - I have even seen it sold without crusts: pale and limp and wrapped in cellophane. It’s enough to put you off your croque monsieur

Thankfully, there are many for whom bread is still the staff of life and 36,000 traditional boulangeries continue to flourish in France (that's one for every 1,500 inhabitants). Each region produces its speciality in a myriad of shapes and sizes, some flavoured with walnuts, raisins, bacon, olives, basil or garlic and others with names that read like poetry: fougasses, flûtes and fibassiers, polka, choine and gâche. The feast day of the patron saint of bread, Saint Honoré, is celebrated on the 16th May and events that include processions, free breakfasts and bread tasting are held throughout the country. And once a year, the Grand Prix of the Parisian Baguette (yes, really), is organised by the City of Paris, the victor walking away with a prize of 4000 euros (almost £27,000) and the honour of providing the President with his daily bread for a year. Now, that's what I'd call a real breadwinner…
*My camera has given up the ghost and I have had to find pictures on the Internet. I do not know who took them so please - if these are your photos - let me know and I will post your details (or remove them, whatever you prefer!).*


Almost American said...

When I was studying French at university, I spent a summer working in a children's summer camp in the Pyrénées. We had bread delivered every day. The owner of the camp gave us strict instructions to store it so that we knew which was the freshest bread. The children were always to be served the day-old bread because the fresh bread was 'bad for their digestion'. What she meant was, they would eat twice as much of the fresh bread, which of course cost her more money. We did as we were told, only making sure that the staff always got the freshest bread!

Laume said...

I had the pleasure of living in the Sonoma Valley for over a decade, a place where your daily bread was really your DAILY bread. Sourdough just isn't the same the next day. However, day old sourdough makes scrumptious french toast. Even older bread makes good croutons or bread pudding. There's also a good cheesy casserole made from cubed sourdough. I would think any baguette type bread would work equally well for any of these.

Cheryl said...

I always enjoy reading your blog and always come away learning something- thanks!

Anonymous said...

Having spent a lot of time in rural France (Dordogne) I was spoilt by the delicious "country bread" we know as sour-dough bread. Most of the houses in the village had a form of outdoor baking oven where the days bread was made, and some extra for the villagers who didn't have the facility to make their own. I just cannot stomach the foul stuff they sell here (England) in the supermarkets. I now make my own bread with plain + rye flour in the same way I was shown in France.

If for any reason I can't make it myself, then I go without. I usually make several loaves and freeze some. It does keep very well. Same as almost american I only eat it when it's a day old and firmed up a bit, otherwise I get indigestion. It WILL keep for up to three days in an airtight plastic box in the fridge before it turns into a giant biscuit!.

blueVicar said...

Facing the near impossibility of securing good but reasonably priced bread in our new/old town, I would settle for one of your carpet slippers. I'll be happy to send you my address...

Meilleurs voeux!!

Anonymous said...

The new boulangerie that opened in our village a few months ago is doing well despite the competition from another baker, a superette that sells (awful, overpriced) baguettes and also a lady in a van who comes round every day except Monday. It's amazing how different in texture and crustiness baguettes can be, but it's such a shame they don't keep.

Gigi said...

almost american - so - was it bad for YOUR digestion? :-)

laume - the cheesy casserole sounds scrumptious!

cheryl - thanks very much. I shall pop over to yours in a minute

keith - I do admire you for making your own bread. Mine always turned out like slabs of concrete so I gave it up...

blue vicar - er - are you sure?? Is it really THAT bad? :-)

sablonneuse - there used to be two boulangeries in my quartier but they've shut now. Funnily enough, their bread wasn't nearly as good as the bread from...Monoprix. Monoprix just has a bread terminal but the bread really is delicious!

Almost American said...

Gigi - no, I never noticed any bad effects on my digestion from eating the fresh bread as opposed to the day-old. I'm sure the boss was just trying to save money by saying that.

Rob Windstrel Watson said...

I visited Grenoble for a few weeks about thirty years ago (aargh, how time flies) and still remember the great bread and couscous (is that spelt right?). I wonder if the student's cafes are still as busy as they were.

I hitch hiked up a mountain with my girlfriend in search of jobs and then down again.

We ended up moving on down to Provence ... which is a different story.

Just wondering, how can a housewife be failed when the kids have survived?

Gigi said...

Funny that, Rob. I came to Aix-en-Provence from England over 20 years ago and absolutely loved it. In fact, I still consider it as my home.

I was dragged here to Grenoble by my husband 6 years ago and I don't like it much at all...nor did my husband by all accounts because he upped and left.

It is my dream to get back to Provence!!

Rob Windstrel Watson said...

Sympathies about the husband - we men can be very self centered and uncaring.

I was just wondering what is it about Provence that you like compared with Grenoble?

When I was in Avignon, all those years ago, it had a demi pont which I think I heard has been rebuilt.

blueVicar said...

oh yeah...'fraid so...

Meilleurs voeux!!

Roads said...

copain = with bread ?

Fantastic. I learn something important about France here, every time.

Thank you, Gigi.

Tinsie said...

I love French bread - or any other bread that's made fresh every day and doesn't come sliced in a cellophane packet. You can get pretty nice sliced bread in England these days but however good it is, it's never as satisfying as proper bread, except when used to make toast or toasted sandwiches.

Jonas said...

A loaf of bread. A jug of wine.

Life can be so good. So sublime.

Roads said...

Here's a question for you from down the pub, Gigi.

Does panier also come from pain.

It seems logical that it might, what with our word 'breadbasket', as well.

Gigi said...

Rob - Provence is just about the only place I've been to that is as close as possible to the "idea" of itself. Sunshine, blue skies, the scent of thyme and rosemary, warm red crumbly soil, creaking faded shutters...for me, Provence lived up to its clichés! Anyway, the fact that I've had housing and work problems - not to mention marriage ones - since I arrived here in Grenoble has not helped. Oh - and I do like to be able to stare contemplatively into the distance rather than smack bang into a rugged mountain face.

tinsie - when I was youngER, I used to love Mother's Pride thick-cut white bread toasted and dripping with butter and Chivers marmelade...yum!

jonas - also some goat's cheese and olives, non?

roads - according to my trusty etymological dictionary, the word panier comes fom the Latin panarium which means...breadbasket! I bet you win all those pub quizzes, eh?

Rob Windstrel Watson said...

Hi Gigi,

I'm off to Sidmouth for the weekend (from West Somerset) and it's cloudy and grey, not at all the weather for my camper van to be out.

The clear blue skies with scents of rosemary and thyme of Provence sound great.

On the other hand, I'm hopefully going to see some of my musician friends when we play together at the pub which could make the day heaps better.

On the other hand, if a different crowd are there, it may not be so much fun. It depends on the people.

I have to confess that, for me, people come first and then the place.

Of course, if I could get both that would be truly fantastic.

I've got to go and do quite a lot of driving.

Pop around to sometime, if you like. It's all pretty light hearted stuff and friendly, as it is here. Otherwise, I'll see you back here.

Bye for now


Anonymous said...

Great post! As per usual! It's funny, I was watching Ratatouille (which was pretty funny in itself - I think I've been hanging around with my au pairing children for too long, their sense of humour is rubbing off on me!) but they were talking about picking good bread by the "symphony of crackle" - and it's so true! I wrote about French bread as an experience of the five senses not so long ago (you really feel rewarded when you see someone having a deep sniff of their bread and realise you've got all five senses covered!) I love the stuff!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post! Copain = cum pane=the person you share your bread with. How wonderful and interesting that this sentiment has been passed down through the ages right into modern daily language