Growing up in England, I was lead to believe that the sole functions of bread at mealtimes were to mop up soup, to make toast for breakfast or to supply the structural element of the ubiquitous sandwich. In other words, bread only appeared on the table when it was directly employed as part of the meal. If bread was present in any other circumstance, it was some kind of admission that the meal itself was insufficient and gaps would need to be filled. So ingrained is this notion that, even after all these years in France, I struggle to put bread on the table unless it serves a direct purpose.
However, I have come to learn that bread is an important fixture on the French meal table. As well as the unavoidable morning tartine (a slice or piece of bread with something spread on it), at lunch and dinner there will usually be bread to hand. In fact un bout de pain is frequently treated as cutlery during the meal: a piece of bread in the left hand being used to bulldoze food on to a fork in the right. Tut, tut, what would my mother say to all of this?
You might have thought Macron was a sandwich short of a picnic when, earlier this week, he called for the baguette to be listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, a status already enjoyed by the French gastronomic meal. But from the French perspective this makes perfect sense, and the fact that the French president even expresses an opinion should give you some idea of the reverence the French have for a well-crafted stick of bread. Some ten billion baguettes are produced each year, accounting for 70% of all bread sold in France.
The French boulanger is un artisan: a craftsperson. The official baguette recipe is laid down in French law. Here's a video of how to make the French baguette according to the Tradition Française strict recipe. If you find it a little too fast, try slowing it down by clicking the video's settings icon in the bottom righthand corner:
Loyalty to one baker over another is often the topic of debate, on a par with a preference for a particular doctor. The average French person will visit the baker’s at least three times a week and artisans boulangers (as opposed to industrial bakeries) account for 70% of the market. There are more than 33,000 boulangeries in France.
Here in Gourdon, it is not unknown for two or more bakeries to close for holidays at the same time. Naturally this is seen as a catastrophe, with the streets lined with concerned citizens complaining bitterly to each other that “someone, somewhere should do something”. Unlike water, electricity or the SNCF, bakeries are not seen as a public utility, and so they are free to shut whenever they like, even if this leaves people with nowhere to buy bread. I once made the mistake of suggesting to my regular baker that he liaise with the other bakeries before going on holiday – it took us months to get back on friendly terms!
And woe betide the French man or woman who arrives at the bakery too late . . . A French couple staying in our gîte came to our door one evening, after the shops had closed, asking if we might have a spare bit of bread. After a rummage in the cupboard we concluded that we had not a crumb. We worried for this couple who apparently had been caught out and had nothing to eat. When asked if there was anything we might be able to offer them instead, they said, no, no, not to worry, they had a pasta dish all prepared, just no bread to have with it - they would just have to make do! How many of us Anglophones would have gone out searching for bread in these circumstances?
Historically, bread has been important to many cultures. In France, bread was the staple food of the peasants, without which they would starve. It has therefore long been a political symbol of security and prosperity.
A sharp rise in the price of bread, due to poor harvests, is one of the causes of the French Revolution. The phrase "Let them eat cake!" is widely attributed to Marie-Antoinette (1755-93), the Queen consort of Louis XVI. She is supposed to have said this when she was told that the French people had no bread to eat. The original French is "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche", that is, "Let them eat brioche" (brioche is a form of cake made of flour, butter and eggs). The usual interpretation of the phrase is that Marie-Antoinette understood little about the plight of the poor and cared even less.
The following video talks more about the history of bread in France:
One thing's for sure, bread will remain an integral part of French culture for a very long time to come, so here are some bread-inspired French sayings to work into your conversation:
- Ça ne mange pas de pain ! - It doesn't cost much
- Avoir du pain sur la planche - To be very busy
- Partir comme des petits pains - To be sold quickly or easily
- Pour une bouchée/un morceau/un bout de pain - For a modest sum
- Gagner son pain - To earn a living
- C’est mon gagne-pain - It's my trade/livelihood
- Ôter le goût du pain à quelqu’un -To “do someone in”
- Vendre son pain avant qu’il ne soit cuit - To be presumptious or unwise
- Faire de quelque chose son pain quotidien - To make a habit of something
- Il a mangé du pain du roi - He's been to prison
- Être bon comme du pain blanc - To be generous
- Ne pas manger de ce pain-là - To not get involved in a dubious activity
and last but not least:
- Bon comme du (bon) pain - Extremely good!