Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

September 20, 2021

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

Are the French Baguette’s Days Numbered?

Words by Emily Monaco
Illustration by Lena Muntyan

In March of this year, France officially submitted the baguette as a candidate for UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. To some, the decision may seem like a no-brainer; after all, there’s perhaps nothing more emblematic in a country where, for centuries, people ate up to 900 grams of bread every day—to sop up sauces at lunch, thicken soups at dinner, and spread with butter and jam for breakfast.

But the timing here is a bit of an oddity. For one, consumption of this essential food is falling fast—the French are eating a third as much bread today as they did in 1950, according to Ouest-France, and 10 times less than in 1900, according to Steven Kaplan, professor emeritus and former Goldwin Smith Professor of European History in the Department of History at Cornell University. And even if the motivation behind the move was to recognize its historical importance rather than its current place on the French table, the baguette was a peculiar loaf to pick given its status as a relative newcomer on the French bread scene.

In centuries past, explains French bread expert Kaplan, boulangeries predominantly peddled one-kilo-plus gros pains (large breads), with a distinction between the “coarse, dark bread” Kaplan notes was associated with “marginality” and “poverty,” and the white bread he calls a bread of “prestige” with an almost sacred connotation, a distinction heartily referenced, for example, in the pages of Victor Hugo’s 1862 masterpiece Les Misérables

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that white bread was baked in the diminutive baguette size and shape, a development motivated both by government-mandated shorter working hours and a desire to inflate prices. After all, until 1986, bread prices were fixed by the state. A gros pain sought 90 centimes for a kilo or more; a baguette, weighing just 300 grams, cost 55 or 60 centimes. “It was a much more profitable undertaking for the bakers,” explains Kaplan.

The baguette’s rise to prominence coincided with a post-World War II desire among the French to move past the Occupation-era pains de campagne (French country bread), made with “whatever grain the Germans deigned to leave” supplemented with “ersatz potato” and sawdust, according to Kaplan. When the country emerged from the war, polls showed the French had “two chief desires,” he says. “One was to get rid of the Germans quickly, and the other was to have a white bread.”

It was then that the French government funded a research project with a two-pronged goal of feeding the people and providing an economic boost to the rural population of grain-growing peasants. The undertaking, Kaplan notes, was essentially to “blanchir le pain,” a French pun playing on the double meaning of blanchir: to whiten and to launder. The new breads were poor substitutes for breads of yore, made by transforming chemically fertilized grains with metal rollers instead of stone, by leavening with yeast rather than the traditional levain sourdough. As France regained its economic power, people began consuming less and less—both because of its lowered quality and they could finally afford other things to eat.

It wasn’t until 1993 that the government finally took a stand. With the decree of September 13, the French government officially protected a version of the loaf they dubbed the baguette de tradition, a so-called traditional baguette that is indeed of better quality—eschewing additives and requiring on-premises baking—but whose name is a contradiction in terms. After all, until 1993, this loaf hadn’t actually existed at all.

This conflation of a purported authenticity and quality lends, according to Vincent Martigny in “Le Goût Des Nôtres: Gastronomie et Sentiment National en France” (“Our Tastes: Gastronomy and National Sentiment in France”), an implicit suggestion that tradition, Frenchness and excellence are somehow synonymous.

“A baguette à l’ancienne,” he writes, “is doubly French, to a certain extent, for one, due to its nature as a national product, and for another, in its reference to a reinvented tradition.”

“It spoke to what we call an imagined or lost past,” says Kaplan. “It appealed enormously to the nostalgia of people.”

Sudeep Rangi is a bioethicist and former UNESCO Associate Programme Specialist, now a communications consultant for Poilâne Bakery in Paris. He notes, “generally speaking, when you’re talking about intangible world heritage, you’re talking about a savoir-faire that’s in danger of being lost.”

Not only, he says, is there “no danger of losing the savoir-faire for how to make a baguette,” but it’s strange to attempt to protect the cultural heritage of a product that’s not even 30 years old. 

“You call it a tradition, which makes it sound like it’s something that’s been around for a long time,” says third-generation Poilâne baker Apollonia Poilâne. “It’s pretty brilliant marketing-wise, but it’s marketing. It’s not substance.”

In some cases, however, this renewed interest in the baguette is paving the way for better-quality loaves. Djibril Bodian of Montmartre’s Le Grenier à Pain is the capital’s only two-time winner of the coveted first place prize in the Meilleure Baguette de Paris (Best Baguette in Paris) contest, rewarding the very best traditions since 1993. A baker with two decades of experience, Bodian nevertheless notes that while in bakery school, “all they taught us was to mix ingredients.”

“But bit by bit,” he says, “our clients have become more demanding, and that has forced us to examine what we do more closely.”

In his shop, he sells only baguette de tradition—none of the industrial baguette moulée baked in a mold many other Parisian bakeries peddle alongside the more artisanal bread, usually at about 20 centimes cheaper. And while Bodian also sells about 10 other special breads—rye, whole wheat, seeded—the baguette remains the bestseller. “In every one of our sales, we almost always have a baguette,” he says. 

While baguettes have become a reference point in French baking over the course of the past century, their renaissance is but a shadow of the inversion of the connotations surrounding the far older, darker breads of yore.

“Even if we compare the rise—the extremely, uneven and indeed constantly perturbed ascension of the baguette with the broader restoration of bread in French history,” says Kaplan, “we’re talking about, what could be seen, without too much irony, as an epiphenomenon.” 

“The baguette,” he continues, “is really a post scriptum to a much denser, longer, more complex, and more diverse story of bread in France.”

To wit: pain de campagne (country bread), which Kaplan notes was dubbed pain caca (shit bread) during World War II, has now emerged as an on-trend favorite. To understand this inversion, we need to examine the case of Poilâne.

In 1932, between one war and the next, Pierre Poilâne was hoping to become an architect. (This, he shared with legendary 18th century pastry chef Marie-Antoine (Antonin) Carême, who embraced pâtisserie, in part, because he saw it as part and parcel of architecture and notably engineered many of the quintessentially French pastry pièces montées, a category that includes the pile of cream puffs held together by spun sugar known as a croquembouche or, to John Oliver, a “French freedom tower” of pastry.) Pierre divested himself of his architectural dreams to, instead, open a small bakery in Paris’ 6th arrondissement, pledging to stand out from his competitors by producing a more nutritious, less processed bread, in stark contrast to the white breads so popular at the time. 

“This is a sort of guerilla bread story,” says Kaplan. “It’s a story of an insurgency that was quiet, that was subtle, that was surreptitious, that was ingenious, that was brilliant.”

Other bakers, Kaplan notes, became inspired by Pierre’s prowess. But his imitators did not necessarily invest the same authenticity in their pains de campagne as Poilâne. As recently as 1962, when Kaplan arrived in Paris, “what bakers were doing much more widely was putting simply a layer of flour on the outside of a baguette or a bâtard.”

Pierre’s success came not just from his ingenuity but from his genuineness—and his audacity.

“Most people look at Poilâne as a great entrepreneurial success, and that’s true,” says Kaplan. “But before you can be entrepreneurial, you had to have the idea, and to have the idea against the whole current of hundreds of years of French baking. You had to have not only genius, but you had to have, pardon me, balls. And Pierre Poilâne had the balls, and he had the instinct, and the edginess—and he had a son.”

The son was Lionel, an aspiring pilot who, after crying his way through his apprenticeship, learned that perhaps the career for which he was destined did not mean he’d be relegated to a dark basement all his life. He embarked on what his daughter Apollonia now calls “breaducation,” the sharing of knowledge and resources around bread.

Lionel expanded the influence of his family name and product, collaborating on projects with none other than surrealist master Salvador Dalí, for whom he produced, among other things, an 18th century Spanish buffet and a chandelier entirely made out of bread. 

“My father understood that bread touches everything,” says Apollonia Poilâne, at the helm of the business for the past 18 years. “And that’s what he transmitted to me and to my sister.”

Today, Apollonia continues in the tradition of her father and grandfather. Her bakers, after embarking on a multi-months-long apprenticeship, craft each loaf from A to Z—no thermometers, no buttons. She can recognize the signature of each baker in the slashed P that bedecks every loaf. The bakery relies on bulk fermentation and wood-fired ovens, and to this day, they do not sell baguettes.

“White bread, after a few hours, you’re hungry,” says Apollonia. “Wholesome bread, bread that uses less white flour, has a richness to it at all levels. That was my grandfather’s starting point. And nearly 90 years later, it has become a legacy.”

Poilâne is still a reference in Paris for authentic pain de campagne, but today, it is far from the only place baking high-quality sourdough in the capital. 

Alice Quillet of Ten Belles is a Franco-British baker who grew up on white baguette moulée. “My dad is a massive bread-eater,” she says. “He has, like, bread anxiety if we don’t have bread for the meal.”

A chef, former restaurateur, and self-taught baker, Quillet’s journey in opening Ten Belles began, first, at Mirabelle in Copenhagen and Tartine in San Francisco, where she perfected the art not just of bread, but of sourdough. At the time, she says, Tartine began selling bread at 4 p.m.—ostensibly so founder Chad Robertson could surf in the mornings.

“I wondered: would it be possible in France?” Quillet recalls. “To have that model of… there’s no bread in the morning and you come in after work and you buy your bread at that point?”

Perhaps 20 years ago, such a thing would have been impossible. But the influx of international influences on the French way of life has led many millennials to abandon the morning bread their parents swore by. A quality-driven bakery—even one that didn’t sell breakfastcould work. If Quillet could get it off the ground.

To become a baker in France via such a wayward path, however, was complicated. Quillet asked advice from two well-known local bakers, noting they “weren’t particularly interested in helping us,” even telling her and her business partner, fellow chef Anna Trattles, to stick with what they knew. 

“In France, it’s such a sacrosanct, protected profession,” says Quillet. The fact of having learned the trade abroad made her an outsider—but she also didn’t have much choice. After all, the bakery diploma in France—the very one that Bodian recalls taught him little more than how to stir things together—does not teach bakers the art of sourdough.

Thomas Teffri-Chambelland of bakery Chambelland set out to offer an alternative in 2006 when he founded the École Internationale de Boulangerie. 

A former public school teacher, he changed careers in 2000, and unlike many of his contemporaries, he always worked with sourdough. “People were inspired by my work,” he says of his inspiration to open the school. “And they asked me to teach them.”

In 2012, Chambelland’s diplomas were recognized by the state—the first certifications for organic bakery and sourdough bakery in France. 

Quillet’s bakery opened in 2016, and today it is primarily staffed with foreign bakers who have experience in other countries. “Rarely do I have French bakers,” she says. “A lot of them are maybe intimidated by the international aspect of the team and the language barrier, and kind of reluctant to try something new.”

She has made a few concessions to the French mindset, for instance, in making a sourdough that’s perhaps less pronounced than some. “The sourness you get is kind of a lactic one, like yogurt or crème fraîche,” she says. “But not a vinegar kind of acidity.”

And while her original plan to open late in the day fell through, it is not a French demand for breakfast bread, but rather the demands of her wholesale business, that means the baker at Ten Belles starts at 4:30 a.m.

But perhaps the way in which Quillet’s bakery deviates most from the norm? They do not sell a baguette at all.

“We did when we opened,” she recalls, noting their baguette adventure lasted only a month. “I felt a little bit of pressure—like, maybe we should.”

Anthony Courteille does sell a baguette at his 10th arrondissement Sain Boulangerie, but he didn’t at first.

“To make a baguette, you need to knead by machine to create the gluten structure,” he explains. And at the time of opening, he explains, they just didn’t have the space in his tiny shop. Instead, the team kneaded their dark, long-fermenting Saint-Martin loaves by hand. And despite the lack of baguettes, locals came running to reap the benefits of Courteille’s commitment to top-quality grains, sourced directly from farmers producing heirloom wheat flours from seed to mill, unlike many other local bakers, who source from one of the major French moulins that supply not just flour, but recipes, uniforms, machines and branding.

In addition to his Saint-Martin sourdough loaf, Courteille also makes a panoply of seasonal breads filled with an assortment of ingredients ranging from Medjool dates and goat cheese to kimchi. Tapping into his four years of experience running a local restaurant, he dubs these his “cooked” breads, because they are “cooked as much as they are baked.” “I want to bring a little touch, to have personality,” he says.

When he finally did begin to offer a baguette, it was with these same qualities in mind: 100% sourdough, no yeast, and three heirloom wheat varieties—one for strength, one for elasticity, and one for tenderness. When it’s baked, he lightly smokes it with hay, “to have that return to the countryside.”

But whether it is this baguette or pain de la campagne, the evocation of the country remains troubling when it comes to Parisian bread. Country bread, after all, never had an “official classification,” notes Kaplan, dubbing the very idea of it a “vague, nebulous, metaphorical construct.”

And what’s more, Rangi explains, “there are things in Paris that people are calling pain de campagne that never existed in the campagne.” He evokes, for example, 24- to 36-hour cold refrigeration or very high hydration—popular at trendy bakeries, but unheard of in traditional French boulangeries. “It looks rustic,” Rangi says. “But you never realize that what’s happening inside of the bakery is something that never existed before. So it’s creating this false authenticity.” 

In much of the French countryside, on the contrary, people are far more likely to continue consuming the industrial baguette moulée Courteille recalls from his own rural upbringing, surrounded by “pesticide-ridden land.”

“Even though I was in the heart of the countryside,” he says, “we ate swollen, yeasted, white bread.”

These flavorless loaves are a staple of chains like Marie Blachère, omnipresent at gas stations and hypermarkets throughout the French countryside, where you can buy, Quillet says, “three baguettes for the price of one.”

Of course, there are exceptions. Chambelland asserts that sourdough and organic bread are present in “all of France’s little hamlets,” especially thanks to neo-rural migration following the 1968 social revolution.

“It’s true that there’s a very high consumption of white bread in the country,” he says. “But you’d be surprised to find, at markets in cities with a population of 10,000, one or two organic bakeries selling their bread.”

Roland Feuillas, owner of Les Maîtres de Mon Moulin in the 129-person town of Cucugnan, is one such baker, revolutionary in his approach and mindset. While he works in a restored 17th century windmill adjacent to his bakery, he maintains vehemently that he “has not returned to ancestral methods.” “Using a horse to work your fields is pretty,” he says. “But you must be very careful when relying on this sort of image.” To over-romanticize such nostalgia, he says, is unrealistic.

“What I’m interested in,” he says, “is the future.”

He is encouraging people to use modern techniques and innovations, all while eradicating only the ecologically demanding methods of industrial agriculture.

“Have you ever realized as you were driving that you made a wrong turn, and you had to go back to the intersection where you made a mistake to get back on your way?” he says. “I think that’s what we need to do.”

For Feuillas, bread is the obvious first step. “I don’t think there is any better way to make people aware of—and to participate in—regeneration than food,” he says. “And in food, bread is the foundation.”

Courteille echoes this philosophy: “At a certain point, we said to ourselves, ‘Maybe something’s not quite right, here.’” He feels his responsibility as a baker is not to “reeducate,” but rather to “reinform” people about how they can feed themselves in a way that, in a nod to the name of his bakery, is healthful (sain, in French).

Which brings us back to the original problem.

Despite the recent developments in the quality of bread in France, the fact remains: French people are consuming less and less of it every day. 

For Kaplan, this is the single most important fact to retain about bread consumption: its “constant decline.”

“I’ve really noticed it,” says Bodian. “Before, we’d have clients coming in in the morning to get their baguette, and in the afternoon, we’d get them coming back—the same clients!—to get their baguette. They’d buy baguettes three times a day. Now, when they get one, that’s already pretty good.”

But some bakers maintain that less bread consumption isn’t a bad thing; it’s just indicative that the French are seeking out quality rather than quantity. 

“We’re eating less and less bread,” says Chambelland. “But that’s also something that comes with eating better bread.”

And in a country where nearly 10% of bread is wasted, this attitude change couldn’t come any sooner.

When Quillet’s bakery opens at 8:30 a.m., most of the people lining up for morning bread are retirees. As boomers leave us, so may the daily baguette of the French fade. But the quality of the bread the French do consume is ever improving. And that is something we can all be glad for.

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