Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hands off our baguettes, you half-baked Anglo-Saxons

The truth is that baguettes are like wine: all differ depending on the baker, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
The dreaded Anglo-Saxons are French-bashing again – and this time, they’re after our very bread. Stirred from their mid-August torpor, Libération and Le Figaro are shocked, shocked that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and even, I’m ashamed to say, The Daily Telegraph have mistaken a perfectly reasonable campaign to encourage people to keep buying bread, of the kind that the Milk Marketing Board puts on for dairy products at regular intervals, for an admission of nothing less than the death of the proper French baguette. Cue a denunciation of the “deplorable trend in the Anglo-Saxon media to disparage France on just any old pretext”, which “seems to have intensified in recent months”.

The charges are these. French people buy far less bread than 50 years ago, because they’re richer and more diet-conscious. Even when they do, they have the gall to fork out for the wrong kind. These Anglo-Saxon “experts” tell us that une baguette pas trop cuite – as I regularly request from my excellent bakery on rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré – is in fact a travesty of what your proper crusty baguette should be like. It’s not been baked enough. It’s white, doughy, soggy, tasteless. It is, as Monty Python would say, an ex-baguette.

To which I answer: “Piffle!” The truth is that baguettes are like wine: all differ depending on the baker. You patronise the one whose product you like best. And the sheer gall of trying to compare any kind of French baguette – not least the heavenly petits pains served in Michelin-rosetted restaurants such as Ducasse or Arpège – to the terrifying, sickly hued, sugared-up, watered-down, plastic-wrapped, rubber-like objects that pass for bread in Britain or America makes my temper rise like Poilâne sourdough.

Even the figures implying an inexorable decline in the baguette consumption are as cherrypicked as a political party broadcast’s. Yes, the number of bakeries has gone down from 54,000 in 1950 to 32,000 today. But the number of bakers has risen slightly, to 160,000. This isn’t attrition: it’s consolidation.
I know this because of a recent report by the French senate on l’industrie boulangère. It exists because the state of our bread is a national matter, and has been for a very long time. We French apply to breadmaking the perfectionism the Japanese put into cars.
From the first price controls and regulations as to what constitutes lawful bread – passed under Charlemagne at the very beginning of the ninth century – to the bread shortages that sparked the French Revolution, “bread” in our wheat-growing country has really meant “food”. That’s why it was so devastating when Marie-Antoinette was falsely accused of quipping: “If they don’t have bread, let them eat cake.” When the king and his family were forced from Versailles to Paris in July 1789, the mob’s joyous cry was: “We have brought back the baker, his wife and the baker’s boy.”

For a millennium, the price of bread was decreed by law – one only lifted in 1978. The Confédération Nationale de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie Française is happy to tell you that a day’s work at the minimum wage will enable you to buy 65 baguettes today, as opposed to 10 in 1950. (In 1800, it got you 16: Napoleon wanted to keep the price low.)

To this day, Parisian bakeries, like pharmacies, are obliged to keep to a holiday rota, so that even in the midst of August, at least one stays open per quartier (one fourth of an arrondissement). Bread is still seen as a vital staple, necessary if not to survival, then at least to the French way of life. And its quality, if anything, has risen, with regular competitions such as Best Baguette in Paris, won this year by the Tunisian-born patron of a Montparnasse bakery. We’re not expecting to crown an American or Brit any time soon.
I wonder why that is?

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2013

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