One of Victor Hugo’s famous citations is “le théâtre doit faire de la pensée, le pain de la foule” – theatre must be to the mind what bread is to the masses.
Judging by the number of people carrying bread in the streets three times a day, held tight in one hand, under their arm, or poking out of their bags, it is obvious that the French still eat a lot of bread. In France the phrase “daily bread” really comes into its own.
There seems to be a boulangerie in nearly every town. The population of the town near Toulon where I live is about 10,000 – a figure that can treble during holiday periods. There are four boulangeries, a bread stall at the weekly market and bread departments in the four supermarkets in town.
Boulangeries often combine with a pâtisserie (biscuit/pastry/cakes), a confiserie (confectionery, especially jellies nougats and caramels) or chocolaterie (chocolate shop).
Sometimes you’ll spot a sign for ‘point pain’ or a ‘dépôt pain’, places where freshly baked baguettes are available, such as in a restaurant, a bar, or a petrol station. Sometimes you’ll come across bread vending machines! And some small communities in rural France have bread deliveries by van.
Freshly baked bread can sometimes be bought from small shops such as épicerie/alimentation (grocer’s shop), charcuterie (delicatessen shop, pork butcher shop), boucherie (butcher shop), traiteur (caterer), and maison de la presse (newsagent).
Even though the price of a baguette in boulangeries can be more expensive than in supermarkets, recent figures show that more than 80% of sales are through boulangeries. Customers sometimes ask for bread ‘bien cuit’ (well cooked) or the opposite, ‘pas trop cuit’.
Bread is a way of life in France. People feel strongly about their usual, regular bread shop (sa boulangerie attitrée), which can mean a detour and further than the nearest one. I read a few years ago that, out of all independent food shops, “boulangeries artisanales” get the biggest number of customers a day, but I was surprised that this average number was three hundred and forty customers. That’s a lot of “bonjours, mercis, bonnes journées, à demain” (hello, thank you and have a nice day, see you tomorrow) for staff! Apparently three quarters of French households go in bread shops about four times a week.
Bakers work a sixty-hour week, a job that involves getting up in the middle of the night in order to have the goods ready for opening time. Sometimes they dream up fanciful names for their stores such as Au péché mignon/My one weakness! And they often have great signs. I’ve seen ‘Du pain pour croquer la vie‘ – Bread is one way to enjoy life fully, and ‘Si la vie est savoureuse, on y est pour quelque chose‘ – If life is tasty, it is partly thanks to us!
There’s even an annual bread festival – ‘La fête du pain.’ It’s a national event that takes place in Paris as well as across the country.
Yes, we French love our bread and it’s even reflected in common sayings such as
C’est pain béni – It is a Godsend
C’est triste comme un jour sans pain – It’s as sad as a day without bread
Un jour sans pain, c’est un jour sans soleil – A day without bread, is a day without sun
Bon comme le pain – As good/tasty as bread is
Monique Jackman is an author, writer, teacher and translator who lives in the Var, southern France.
French bread recipes
How to make a traditional Normandy loaf, by famous Paris bakery Le Notre