Bread in France is more than just food; it's a cultural cornerstone. It’s about community, tradition, and the French way of life.
We'll discuss the role of bread in daily French life and how it reflects the values and rhythms of French society.
In these crusty chronicles we’ll explore the history of bread and especially the UNESCO-listed French baguette. The French are besotted with baguettes, UNESCO says that eating a baguette is “a sensory experience” (someone at UNESCO really likes baguettes!).
In France bread is art, bakers are artists – and every loaf is a masterpiece…
Thanks for listening!
Podcast 28 - The history of the French baguette
Janine: Bonjour and welcome to The Good Life France Podcast. I’m your host Janine Marsh, born in the UK but French at heart! I live in the far north of France, in the lovely unspoiled, not well-known department of Pas-de-Calais. It’s a very fertile area of France, very rural and it’s a bit like the potager, the vegetable garden, of the Hexagon, as French people call France because the country is a bit hexagon shaped! I live in a tiny village of 150 people and 1000 cows with dozens of animals – dogs, cats, chickens, geese and ducks! I’m a writer of books about France, and editor of The Good Life France Magazine – the world’s No. 1 magazine for English readers – which is free by the way. And when I’m not writing I love to share create this podcast for you with my podcast partner Olivier Jauffrit.
Olivier: Bonjour, hello, bienvenue. Yes, I am Oli, and you may tell from my accent I am indeed French! I’ve lived in the UK for a long time but I’m moving back to France, to sunny Lyon, soon. It’s an area that’s famous for its gastronomy and I am looking forward to getting stuck into some great French food!
But now, Janine – what is our topic for the podcast today?
Janine: Well as I said my area is like the vegetable garden of France, but also, it’s where a lot of cereal is grown, including super quality wheat for bread flour. And we do love our bread here in the north. But not just in the north – in the whole of France, French people go gaga for bread! So today we’re going to be talking about bread. French bread – from baguettes to bread legends and a few tasty bread phrases commonly used in France.
Olivier: I love French bread. It never tastes the same anywhere else in the world. Never as good as it does in France. There is something about a French baguette… So let’s get stuck into today’s crusty chronicles and find out about the rich history and culture of bread in France.
Janine: Bread in France is more than just food; it's a cultural cornerstone. It’s about community, tradition, and the French way of life. We'll discuss the role of bread in daily French life and how it reflects the values and rhythms of French society. There is a saying in France Un jour sans pain, c’est un jour sans soleil – A day without bread, is a day without sun…
But – let’s start with the origins of bread in general first. According to some historians, it was being made by the time of the stone age 14000 years ago. There’s evidence that our ancient ancestors used grains from wild wheat and barley, mixed it with plant roots and water and baked it. Around 8000 BC in Egypt bread started to become a bit more like we know it now. Grain was crushed and the Egyptian bakers produced something similar to Indian chapatis or Mexican tortillas. Bread caught on around the world, and by the time of the Romans, the rich enjoyed a fairly refined sort of bread. By the Middle Ages it was a staple of daily diet in Europe. In the days of the Knights of old they would cut a thick slice of bread instead of a plate – bonus – no washing up, you just eat your plate!
Olivier: But what about French bread. Did you know the Gauls, France's Celtic ancestors, baked bread using a variety of cereals? Few quotes are as well-known as Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” when she was told that the peasants had no bread (actually she probably didn’t say it but as none of us were there we can’t say for sure). Up until about 1800 French peasants ate bread made from wheat, rye or buckwheat. Bakers often added all sorts of materials as fillers to make the flour go further: sawdust, hay, dirt and even dung were all used. The vast majority of a peasant’s diet came from bread, and an adult male could eat as much as two or three pounds of it a day. And in the old days, communal ovens were set up in almost all French villages and towns to bake the town’s bread – they were the centre of community life.
Janine: I live in an old farmhouse and there’s a little sort of shed, a stone room, in the front garden looking onto the road and it has an ancient bread oven in it. Basically an open stone box with a chimney and it’s where the villagers would have bought their dough to be baked, a sustainable way of cooking as they didn’t have to use precious firewood just to bake a loaf. Have to say I wouldn’t bake bread in it – it is more like a spider hotel now.
Olivier: It’s fair to say that French people love bread. We have dozens of different loaves of bread, Un pain rond – a round loaf of French bread. Un pain complet – whole wheat French bread. Un pain de seigle – rye bread (typically served with oysters). Un pain aux graines – French bread loaf with whole pieces of seeds. Un pain aux lardons, aux olives – French bread loaf with bacon and olives. Un épis – French loaf of bread you can tear into pieces. That’s just a few. There are loads more French breads named according to the shape, ingredients, the type of flour used, the way it was prepared… We even have bread called “Une biscotte” which sounds like biscuit! It’s a dry sort of bread which almost every French home keeps in the cupboard, in case you run out of fresh French bread! “Les biscottes” are also a common French breakfast food.
Janine: I remember the very first time I came to France. I was 14 years old, and I stayed with a French family in Antony in the suburbs of Paris. Every morning we had les biscottes and jam with a bowl of hot chocolate. I still remember how wonderful it tasted – I was used to Weetabix at home! And I fell in love with France there and then. And over the years I’ve learned that bread really is a way of life in France.
Olivier: In France, bread is an art, and bakers are the artists. We adore boulangeries - French bakeries where each loaf is a masterpiece. All of the different breads tell a story of regional diversity and traditional methods.
We have sweet breads too!
Janine: Of course you do!
Olivier: We call sweet breads “les viennoiseries” – like a pain au raisin – round pastry with cream and raisins or a pain au chocolat – chocolate croissant.
Janine: You’d better not call it that when you move to Lyon – in the south they call them a chocolatine!
Olivier: And of course there’s Une brioche – sweet and fluffy sweet bread. There are
many more… un palmier, un beignet, un sacristain… and local specialities as well!
Janine: But you left out one bread that is really important – the baguette!
Olivier: Ah yes, the baguette is the King of the Bread in France. It is so important, so special, so unique – that it was given UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status in 2022.
Janine: And it deserves that award. UNESCO, who are quite stuffy really, actually say on their website that the quote “crisp crust and chewy texture result in a specific sensory experience” unquote. Somebody at UNESCO really likes baguettes! But they are right, there is nothing to beat a fresh cooked baguette, straight out of the oven, I like it best from a wood oven, crispy on the outside, the French call it La croute, soft on the inside, the white part which is called La Mie.
Olivier: and the end of the baguette is called Le croûton or the quignon– the favourite baguette part for French people: the very end, with all the crust! When you go to buy your baguette from a boulangerie and you walk down the street with it under your arm – or in a special long baguette bag, you have to eat the end of the baguette – it’s almost the law!
Janine: I even have a special long wooden box made for keeping baguettes in at home though they never last that long! And talking of long loaves – did you know that the Italians hold the record for the longest baguette ever baked? In 2019 bakers in Como baked a baguette that was 435ft 1 in long (that’s 135.62 metres). How on earth did they bake it I wonder?
Long wide loaves have been around since the time of Louis XIV in the 1600s, and long thin ones seem to have been made starting in the mid-18th century. But where did this long skinny loaf of bread come from? The truth is, no one is completely sure. The word “baguette” means wand, baton, or stick and refers to the shape of the bread. But the term only became attached to the thin sticks of bread we know today, in the early 20th Century. However, the baguette’s history may go back much further.
Olivier: For whatever reason, the first wand-shaped breads were everywhere by the mid 1800s in Paris. But these weren’t the French loaves that we see today. No, they were baguettes on steroids. Many foreign visitors marvelled at the extraordinary lengths of the Parisian bread they saw.
“…loaves of bread six feet long that look like crowbars!” someone wrote in 1862.
They described loaves of bread 6 feet (2 metres) long being delivered by women carrying them stacked horizontally, like firewood, in a frame on their backs. It was common to see housemaids on the streets at 6 o’clock in the morning carrying the long loaves home for their employer’s breakfast. In the afternoons, young boys could be seen using the long loaves as pretend swords and engaging in mock battles before the bread made its way to the family table.
Janine: One visitor to France said that he sat in a restaurant and watched as the baker came in and stacked loaves 6-8 feet (2-2.5 metres) long in the corner like a bundle of sticks. Another described the bread having to be laid on the dining table lengthwise because it was longer than the table was wide.
Those long breads that made such an impression on 19th Century tourists were the forerunner of today’s more manageably sized baguette.
In the late 1800s wheat got cheaper so by the end of the 19th century white bread was no longer just for the rich. The development of steam ovens also meant it was possible to bake loaves with a crisp crust and a white, airy centre, like today’s baguettes.
Olivier: In 1920 a law was passed preventing bakers from working between the hours of 10:00 o’clock at night and 4 o’clock in the morning. This made it impossible to get the bread cooked in time for breakfast. The problem was solved by focussing on loaves of bread that were longer and thinner because they cooked faster!
Janine: Although there had been long, thin breads in France for around a century before this, they hadn’t been called baguettes – that also happened in 1920, though it’s not known who came up with the name. The word baguette comes from the Latin baculum which became baccheto (Italian) meaning staff or stick.
And although one knows exactly when or why this French loaf took on its current shape, there are several stories, and even some laws that give us clues to the baguette’s heritage.
Olivier: One patriotic tale explains the possible origin of the baguette (but not its shape) by linking it to the French Revolution. Lack of bread was the principal complaint from the people of Paris and this played a large part in the overthrow of the monarchy. Bread was the mainstay of the French diet, and the poor people were tired of watching the nobility eat fine white loaves while they faced shortages and had to make do with bread that was barely edible.
After the Revolution, making sure everyone had quality daily bread was high on the priority list. In 1793, the Convention (the post-Revolution government) made a law stating:
“Richness and poverty must both disappear from the government of equality. It will no longer make a bread of wheat for the rich and a bread of bran for the poor. All bakers will be held, under the penalty of imprisonment, to make only one type of bread: The Bread of Equality.”
Janine: Another story claims that Napoleon passed a decree that bread for his soldiers should be made in long slender loaves of exact measurements to fit into a special pocket on their uniforms so that they could carry it with them when they marched. Since those measurements were close to the size of a modern baguette, some people think this might be when the bread first took on its current form.
Yet another anecdote says that when the metro system was being built in Paris, the workmen from different regions just couldn’t get along and the manager of the project was concerned about them all rucking in the dark, underground tunnels. At that time, everyone carried a knife to cut their bread, so the supervisor went to the bakery to request loaves that didn’t need to be cut. A loaf of bread was regulated by weight, so in order to make it thin enough to be easily torn, it ended up being long and slender.
Olivier: We will most likely never know the real reason though I like the Napoleon story! Today’s baguettes are typically about 50-60cm long – even up to a metre. Sometimes they are shorter. Sometimes baguettes are thin. Sometimes they are not. Because this is France - and we have lots of different types of baguettes.
Janine: Whatever size it is, a traditional baguette must have only four ingredients. Flour, water, salt and yeast. And that is the law. It’s traditional to buy a baguette fresh, daily. Apparently – according to an unimpeachable source – the Internet – French people eat 30 million baguettes daily. More than 10 billion baguettes are produced each year in France, that’s a staggering 320 baguettes per second. The French are besotted with baguettes.
Olivier: Yes, it’s true – we are besotted with baguettes and with bread. We pretty much have it with every meal, each course – except desert when bread is put away. And for breakfast, we like to dip it in our coffee or hot chocolate!
And we have bread etiquette too. Baguetiquette! Help yourself, then put the bread directly on the tablecloth, close to your plate – not on your plate, only at formal dinners bread plates might be used. You tear your bread into a small bite-size piece before eating it. If you are eating cheese or pâté, cut a piece with your knife, then put it on the bite size of bread you have torn, and then put the bread in your mouth. We don’t spread the cheese or paté on a big piece of bread.
Never place the bread face down on the table – it’s an old superstition. In the Middle Ages it indicated death, because the baker kept the one loaf of bread for the village executioner face down. Finally, my mum says you are not supposed to finish up the sauce with your bread, although… I do it all the time! Sauce on bread is so good, why should it be impolite?
Janine: I always use the bread to mop up the sauce! I think it’s impolite to leave the sauce!
Did you know that there’s even a “best baguette” contest each year in Paris? All the bakers taking part submit 2 baguettes. They must be between 55 and 79 centimetres long, weigh between 250 and 300 grammes, and contain 18 grammes of salt per kilo of flour. The loaves are judged by other bakers, journalists, previous winners and a few lucky members of the public (I want that job!). The winner gets a great reputation of course, everyone will want to go to their boulangerie – and they also supply baguettes to the Elysee Palace, the home of the French president, for a year!
Olivier: We French also debate about whether a baguette should be bien cuit – well cooked, or ‘blanc’ not so well cooked. Earlier this year a French journalist posted a simple photo of two baguettes on his Twitter account – one of the baguettes was much more cooked than the other and he wrote “The baguette on the left (the well-cooked one), is obviously much better than the baguette on the right and I challenge anyone to a duel who would dare to claim otherwise.” Well that set everyone off – hundreds of people wrote comments, 5.3 million people viewed the photo – yes 5.3 million. The majority, like the journalist, preferred the bien cuit baguette. It was a very very French debate with people claiming that cooking the baguette longer “brings out the special aromas”… only in France! What do you think Janine? Bien cuit or blanc.
Janine: Somewhere in the middle for me! I’m still a bit British! Lol! But whatever you do – when you go to buy your baguette or your French bread – go to a proper boulangerie. It’s a little more expensive than a supermarket, in a boulangerie you’ll pay around one euro to one euro 30 centimes and in a supermarket about half that, but real baguettes from a boulangerie have a whole different taste and they are so worth the extra centimes. It’s also a cultural experience to go to a boulangerie, queuing up with the locals, listening to them chat, exchanging kisses, choosing a cake, sometimes someone might ask for a demi-baguette, a half baguette and often – bien cuit!
Whatever its origins, the baguette has become a symbol of French culinary prowess. More than four hundred years of practice, a revolution and much more have gone into making the baguette the bread we all know and love today! The baguette is an edible icon of France. It's as French as the Eiffel Tower!
Olivier: Yes, we French love our bread so much 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, Bon comme le pain – As good as bread!
But now – it’s time for a listener’s question.
So Janine What is today’s question?
Janine. Before I get into that, I just wanted to read a lovely message I had from Kimberley Sanderson of Oregon, Pacific Northwest, USA. She sent me a message on Instagram saying: I just started listening to your podcast and fell in love with your direct down to earth style. You and Oli are just a delight. I just returned from a trip to France and Italy with my husband. After listening to your podcast I am returning to France on 12 December for a 10 day solo trip. I can’t wait to experience the Christmas markets in France.
Well Kimberley, we’re delighted to have inspired you – that’s what we’re here for. And maybe you all are dreaming of biting into a crispy baguette now? I know I am.
It's amazing how a simple loaf of bread can leave such a lasting impression!
Right - back to the question from a listener. So today’s question is from Tania Ashbourne of Tamworth, UK. She wants to know “Is it true that there is a town in France that has made it illegal to be rude? I went on holiday to Picardy which is a lovely place, and a lady in a boulangerie told me that it is the law in a town in there.” And there is another reason to visit a boulangerie – for a chat and to find out fun things!
So Oli – true or false, is there a law in a town in Picardy against people being rude?
Olivier: It’s actually… sort of true! Yes, in the little town of Lhéraule in the Oise department in Picardy, if you visit the town hall, there is a legal decree that you must be polite, or you will be told to leave! So, rules include that you must say bonjour when you arrive and merci when someone helps you! Though the rules don’t apply on election days! I wonder why…
Janine: I like that rule. Though it’s kind of an unspoken law pretty much everywhere in France to say bonjour when you start arrive somewhere! It’s not just about saying hello, it’s a sign of respect, of acknowledgement of another person, and if you visit say, a boulangerie, and you don’t say bonjour when you enter then people will think you are exceptionally rude!
Oli: It’s true. You can never say bonjour too much, it’s the most important word in the French language! Thanks so much for that question, Tania.
If anyone has a question for us – feel free to send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or via our podcast newsletter – we’ll do our best to help!
Thank you so much, a very big merci beaucoup, to everyone for listening to our podcast all around the world – it’s quite amazing to know that we have listeners in dozens of countries! And we want to offer an enormous thank you for sharing the podcast with your friends and family, we’re truly grateful when you do that. That makes such a big difference. Merci !
Oli: You’ve been listening to Janine Marsh and me Olivier Jauffrit. You can find me every day and night at parischanson.fr, playing fantastic French music of the 40s, 50s and 60s.
Janine: And you can find me, and heaps of information about France – where to visit, culture, history, recipes – including how to make a perfect baguette with recipes from top French bakers - at thegoodlifefrance.com where you can subscribe to the podcast, my weekly newsletter about France and our totally brilliant, totally free magazine at magazine.thegoodlifefrance.com
But for now, it’s au revoir from me.
Olivier: And goodbye from me.
Janine: Speak to you soon!