The great French baguette – a symbol of France, has gone through many steps to become the long stick of bread we love and know today says baguette fan Katie Saint…
History of the baguette
Bread has something of a special status in France. Few quotes are as well-known as Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” when told that the peasants had no bread (actually she probably didn’t say it but as none of us were there we can’t say for sure). Victor Hugo in Les Misérables gives bread an important moral status when Jean Valjean is arrested and thrown in jail for stealing a loaf of bread. For many people in France the baguette is something of a staple food, and it is a veritable symbol of France.
For most people, a trip to France is not complete without tucking into a warm crusty baguette or a buttery croissant, and bakeries are as common in France as a corner shop in England. There are various local types of bread specific to different parts of France, and no two bakers are the same. The French bread you are used to, however, has not been eaten in France since time immemorial as you might think.
Up until about 1800 French peasants ate bread made from wheat, rye or buckwheat. Bakers often added all sorts of materials as fillers to make the flour go further: sawdust, hay, dirt and even dung were all used. The vast majority of a peasant’s diet came from bread, and an adult male could eat as much as two or three pounds of it a day.
Grain and bread riots were extremely common up until the French revolution, and sometimes spilled out across entire regions. In fact, the riots that resulted in the fall of the Bastille on 14th July 1789 and helped start the French Revolution began as a search for arms and grains. Parisian peasants – rightly – suspected that there had been grain hoarding in anticipation of higher prices, and took to the streets in protest. In the early stages of the Revolution rising bread prices were a major concern, with the new government quick to respond to complaints about prices or accusations of hoarding. They were right to be worried about what the people might do if they could not get access to bread. These bread riots helped to make the revolution increasingly radical.
Long wide loaves have been around since the time of Louis XIV, and long thin ones since the mid-18th century. Some of them were much longer than we see today: “…loaves of bread six feet long that look like crowbars!” (1862). It was the increasing availability and cheapness of wheat from the 19th century that meant white bread was no longer the exclusive preserve of the rich.
The development of steam ovens around the same time made it possible to bake loaves with a crisp crust and a white, airy centre, like today’s baguettes. In 1920 a law was passed preventing workers from starting work before 4am, which made it impossible to get the bread cooked in time for breakfast – this was solved by making the bread into long, thin baguettes that cooked faster!
Although there had been long, thin breads in France for around a century before this, they had not been referred to as baguettes until 1920. The word baguette comes from the Latin baculum which became baccheto (Italian) meaning staff or stick.
More than four hundred years of practice, a revolution and much more have gone into making the baguette the bread we all know and love today!