A Brief History of French Bread

Bread was so enormously important to the French people, that at the time of the French Revolution in the late 1700’s, the average Frenchman was reported to have eaten three pounds a day of bread. If bread supplies ran short, or the quality was bad, riots resulted. There were even changes in the very language that reflected bread’s importance, the English phrase of: “to be the breadwinner” was made common to flaunt their victories over French territories.

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Bread making in France, as in most other areas of the world, remained primarily a home-based function well into the Middle Ages. About that time, some families, particularly those without ovens of their own, began to take their dough to small local bakeries to have the dough shaped and baked. As towns and villages sprang up throughout the countryside, bakeries flourished and home baking decreased significantly. These local bakeries had large brick ovens heated by wood or coal. The dough was moved in and out of the ovens with a long-handled wooden shovel called a "peel." Many small, independent bakeries still employ wood fired peel ovens.

The French are renowned for their artisan breads. By using the four basic ingredients of water, flour, yeast, and salt, the French have mastered the art of creating complex breads that widely vary, despite the fact that each loaf contains the mixture of the same ingredients. French law dictates that for “French” style breads to be titled as such, only the four above-mentioned ingredients may be used, along with ascorbic acid and rye flour. By manipulating rising times, kneading techniques, and with the use of specialty brick ovens, the French breads are as varied and unique as the regions in France.

The French Boule is a hearty, ball shaped loaf. It has a crisp, golden crust on the outside and prepared by gently hand-kneading to preserve the delicate, chewy inside. In 1920 a law was passed preventing bakers from working before 4am. This made it impossible to make the traditional loaf in time for customers' breakfasts. The longer, thinner baguette originally developed in Vienna in the middle of the 19th century solved the problem because it could be prepared and baked much more rapidly. It has become a classic French favorite, the baguette is hand rolled into the traditional "wand" shape. The crust is a beautiful, crispy, golden brown. The interior is light and chewy.

Bakeries across France are restoring the art of making traditional style French Breads. Many are once again using old recipes that carry with them the flavors and aromas of centuries of tradition.

We at Rêver Artisan Bakery are proud to carry on that tradition.

Terry Ramsey