In the baking room at Poilâne in Paris’s smart sixth arrondissement sit rows of round sourdough loaves, fresh out of the oven. Apollonia Poilâne is the third generation in her family to run the company: she uses the same starter as her grandfather did when he set up shop nearly a century ago, and the same wood-fired, brick oven. I move close to hear the crackling sounds that the brown loaves make as they cool. Their scent is intoxicating, warm, slightly nutty.
The young baker who made them is training to work in the Poilâne “manufactory” outside Paris, where this Parisian set-up is replicated a dozen times. “I’m very happy with the sound, I’m less happy with the shaping of the loaves,” Poilâne says. Becoming a master breadmaker takes a lot of effort, but it is worth it: the company ships its miches, or round loaves, all over the world.
Bread is one of the icons of France. The baguette, the country’s most famous loaf – though not its first – has an amber-coloured crust dusted with white flour; its interior is off-white, springy and moist at the centre. The elongated loaf crackles as you tear it apart, releasing the malty scent of warm bread, familiar and tempting. Its tubular shape ensures that there’s a nutty crunch and doughy sweetness to every bite. Its length juts out of your shopping bag, the nub inevitably torn off, because you simply couldn’t resist tasting it.
Baguettes – and bread in general – are inseparable from France itself. Between 8bn and 10bn baguettes are sold there annually. Across the country there’s a boulangerie – a bakery that makes and sells its own bread on the premises – for roughly every 2,000 inhabitants. In central Paris, there’s often one every few blocks. When a small town loses its boulangerie, it’s a municipal crisis.
You can’t escape bread. School lunches include a tranche of baguette. A child’s first independent act is usually to go out alone to buy bread. Toasters come with a metal “baguette” extension. Popular expressions reflect its centrality: “It isn’t a meal unless there’s bread on the table,” people say; something that feels interminable is “as long as a day without bread”.
There is etiquette bound up in it. On the table bread goes next to the plate, not on it. Unlike practically every other French food – including wine and cheese – diners rarely comment on the bread they eat. It’s just there. Whereas restaurants in some other European countries charge extra for it, in France it’s free, a basic furnishing of the meal, like salt or cutlery.
And bread isn’t just food in France, it’s connective tissue. A friend is a copain – literally someone with whom you share bread. Abdu Gnaba, an anthropologist, said that when he interviewed French people about bread for an industry-sponsored study, they often began by telling stories: “It reminds me of my grandmother, of summer camp, the toast spread with butter...”
And yet the role of bread has been waning, both symbolically and nutritionally. The French are eating far less of it than they used to. In the last decade alone, daily bread consumption has dropped by nearly a quarter. Increasingly, French meals don’t include bread at all. So many boulangeries have closed, some towns are now installing bread-vending machines.
France’s attachment to bread goes back centuries. In the 1700s it provided almost all the daily calories for most of the population. The average French person ate 750 grams of bread each day – the equivalent of three modern-day baguettes.
This dependence on a single foodstuff was a source of anxiety, since any decline in the wheat harvest could cause famine. A bread shortage in 1775 prompted riots known as the “Flour War”. In the early days of the French revolution in 1789 thousands of Parisian women marched to Versailles demanding that Louis XVI lower bread prices. Though his wife Marie Antoinette never actually said “let them eat cake”, the revolution was fuelled in part by anger that nobles were feasting while commoners starved.
In the 19th century, consumption of bread declined as fruit, vegetables and meat became a larger part of the French diet, and mechanisation meant that a person needed fewer daily calories. But until the mid-1800s French bakers still couldn’t leave the profession without permission from the state; bakers had their own religious patron, Saint-Honoré, and at home, the family patriarch would carve a cross into a loaf before serving it.
By the early 1900s, the French still averaged about 600 grams (two loaves)of bread per day. The baguette was officially christened in Paris in the 1920s and spread throughout France and elsewhere. (Baguette literally means stick or wand; the French Harry Potter wields a baguette magique.)
Then came the world wars. Bread was rationed and for many people the dark, unappetising loaves on offer exemplified the nation’s suffering during the German occupation of the 1940s. After the war, French bakers started to produce a new kind of baguette that was extra-white with a smooth, uniform texture. The dough required less time to ferment, and had additives that meant it could be industrially produced and frozen. Once baked, it stayed soft for longer. But without the flavours and aromas of a long fermentation, it didn’t have much taste.
Over the next decades these mild white loaves became the norm across France, but at the same time total bread consumption fell further. Breakfast cereals started eating into the space usually claimed by the morning tartine – a baguette smeared with butter and jam. Instead of the classic afternoon snack of a bar of chocolate inside a hunk of baguette, children increasingly ate packaged biscuits. Claude Fischler, a sociologist who is doing research for France’s Bread Observatory, a lobby group of bakers and millers, puts the decline down to the arrival of foreign foods such as tacos and wraps, people’s concerns about their weight and questions about how healthy bread is.
By 1986 the French were consuming on average only around 170 grams of bread per day – less than a quarter of their former daily bread – and the government lifted its price controls. Bread was no longer France’s officially protected staple food. “I see a real atrophy in the attachment of the French to their bread,” says Steven Kaplan, emeritus professor of European history at Cornell and a world expert on French bread. Bread has become an accompaniment to meals, rather than the meal itself, he says. In 2016 consumption was down to just 103 grams daily, with younger people eating even less.
The decline of the country’s national food has long troubled the French government. In 1993 it tried to stimulate a revival, issuing a “bread decree” designed to improve the quality of bread on offer. This established certain conditions for what would constitute a baguette tradition française. Unlike the softer baguette ordinaire, it had to be free of additives, naturally fermented and never frozen. The decree had an effect: bakeries across France started making them and even some supermarkets found ways to mass-produce them.
Around the same time, French bakers delved into the history books to revive ancestral methods, and young urbanites moved to the country to crush their own wheat and sell their bread in local markets. Industry groups formed to encourage consumption, with a national bread festival each May and numerous breadmaking competitions. France has created a school qualification in bread and pastry-making, and there’s a push to have the baguette recognised by UNESCO.
Many of the people keeping the traditions alive have immigrant roots. France’s “best baguette” prize in 2017 was won by a Japanese woman working at a bakery in eastern France. Kaplan estimates that a third of Parisian boulangeries are run by bakers whose families were originally from Africa. The last two winners of Paris’s “best baguette tradition” – the prize is €4,000 plus the right to supply the Élysée Palace for a year – were of Tunisian descent. (At last count, Algeria boasted the world’s highest per-head consumption of baguettes.)
The humble baguette has become a barometer for the state of France. Surveys show that people prefer the taste of the baguette tradition baked as the government intended it, but many poorer French people opt for the baguette ordinaire, which costs about 15 cents less.
But the specialist bakeries, like Poilâne, are doing well, too. There are now many similar outfits in France, though often on a smaller scale. The neighbourhood where I live in Paris has a celebrated gluten-free bakery called Chambelland. At Pain de Mie Carré, a Japanese baker serves an elegant, milky, sliced white bread that you toast at the table. On a recent Sunday night, a dozen young hipsters stood in a line for baguettes at Boulangerie Utopie, which posts its latest creations on Instagram. Nearby, the smoky, rustic loaves at Du Pain et Des Idées have practically a religious following.
The great equaliser is not the bread people eat, however, or even how much of it, but rather its hold on the national imagination. Bread is still an integral part of French identity. At election time journalists ask politicians to cite the price of a pain au chocolat to prove they’re in touch with ordinary people. Miss France contestants were recently reminded how to eat bread with a meal: “You don’t bite into it directly, you break it off and take bites.”
And although people visit the boulangerie less often, and there are fewer of them, those that remain continue to act as a social hub, partly because baguettes last only a day or so. On a recent Sunday, Fischler encountered an older woman who’d come to her bakery wearing a dressing gown and slippers, as if it were an extension of her home. “You would never see this in France for any other reason,” he said.
Bread simply isn’t a food that you can opt out of. A Parisian friend recently told me that she was on a no-bread diet. Then she added: “Of course I have some bread for breakfast.”