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The wonders of bread in France

Bread on a shelf in a boulangerie in France

Growing up in mid-20th century America, we had something called Wonder Bread. The Food and Drug Administration couldn’t classify it, but I reckon “simulated, food-type product” came close.

Wonder Bread served primarily as a liverwurst delivery system for kids. Yet it was versatile.  If you got socked in the nose, you’d shove Wonder Bread up there to staunch the bleeding. Wonder Bread ingredients were top secret. My best guess: paste and eucalyptus bark. But everyone ate it. We didn’t know any better.

Until we bought a house in France. Now we know better.

Bread is good in France. It’s a way of life. Not life and death, but something far more important. You know how you feel about your first-born child? The French seem just as attached to their bread. Obsessed is probably a better word. Psychotic works, too.

Here’s how serious the French are: They submitted the baguette for UNESCO heritage status. That’s absolutely true. Apparently, the Nobel Prize committee only considers legumes.

An unimpeachable source – the Internet – says French people eat 30 million baguettes daily. That’s about right for our village of 400 east of Bergerac. But for an entire, besotted nation? No way. I’m betting the over.

In the U.S., there are three branches of government – executive, legislative, judicial. In France, I’m sure there’s a fourth: bread. There’s enough law about bread on the books to dwarf the vehicle code. For instance: Every village is legally required to sell bread. And, until 2014, there was a law preventing Paris bakers from taking summer vacation at the same time. And traditional baguettes must be sold where they’re made. In other words, on the premises.

There are many kinds of bread in France including brioche, campagne and baguette. By law, a French baguette has four ingredients – flour, salt, water and yeast. It must be 55 to 65 cm long – about two feet. A loaf that doesn’t meet specifications goes to the guillotine, AKA the slicer.

The French purchase fresh bread daily. A baguette in Paris can cost a euro. At a supermarket it goes for 29 cents. It’s just about the best deal anywhere.

We always have two or three baguettes in our breadbox. Like kids with Wonder Bread, it serves our purpose: in this case transporting French butter. The bread is good. Butter’s better.

In the U.S. people make their own bread. The French scoff. With a boulangerie every 50 feet, there’s no need for homemade bread.

As kids, we went to Catechism class. They taught the Lord’s Prayer. It goes “Give us this day our daily bread.” I used to wonder about the genesis of that line. Not anymore. In France, the prayer isn’t a fervent plea. It’s a threat: give us this bread, or else.

Mike Zampa is a communications consultant and retired newspaper editor and columnist splitting time, along with his wife, between Southwest France and the San Francisco Bay Area

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