When you live in France or visit, it’s really clear from the amount of boulangeries (bakeries) there are and the amount of French people you see walking around with a baguette under their arm, just how important bread is to the French.
Everyone knows the story of how just prior to the French Revolution Queen Marie-Antoinette was told that the people were starving, they had no bread and she is supposed to have said “Let them eat cake” – actually it’s a complete misquote but it does illustrate the importance of bread in French history. I read somewhere that people in the middle ages used to take the dough they made at home to a local baker if there was one in the village, to bake it in his oven and it was this that started the huge trend for bakers in pretty much every village and town in France. The bakers had large brick ovens heated by wood or coal and the bread cooked and tasted better this way – hence its popularity.
I have to say, nothing much has changed really in some places. There’s a little village near me called Fruges – there are a few shops, a couple of restaurants, population is about 2,500 – it is to all intents and purposes fairly ordinary but it has the most amazing boulangerie!
I went in one day to pick up my daily loaf of French bread and there was a window open inside the shop on the internal wall to the house next door which is odd in itself. However when I looked through the window (I am nosey!) I couldn’t believe my eyes – there was the most unusual wood fired bread oven I’ve ever seen in the baker’s front room basically!
The baker makes all of his bread every day on the premises in the traditional style in his amazing bread oven which reaches from floor to ceiling and looks like something out of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. It seems that ‘real’ French bread contains only flour, water, a pinch of salt and a pinch of yeast. It doesn’t contain any fat or preservatives and it will keep til the next day if you wrap it well but definitely not any longer than that. The most popular loaves are the “pain de campagne” (country loaf), “baguette tradition” (old-fashioned bread) and “pain biologique” (organic bread).
Every day three times a day, the baker moves the dough in and out of the ovens with a long-handled wooden shovel called a “peel.” This way the bread bins are stocked regularly and customers get fresh bread throughout the day – they have no idea how spoiled they are!