During our recent visit to France, it was no surprise to see the Fête du Pain, the Annual French Bread Festival, happening right outside the great Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and I couldn't help but think that a more fitting place would have been hard to find. The lines for the Cathedral were long, but longer still to get into the Festival.
Yes, the French do love their bread! Perhaps in no other culture is bread such an important part of daily life as in France. There is a pride and a gusto for it that is hardly matched anywhere else.
It's true that bread consumption has dramatically fallen in France in the past few decades, but even so, it's rare for a French person to go a day without bread. A Frenchman will travel miles for a good loaf of bread and pay any price.
The boulangers, or breadbakers, are held in the highest esteem -- as all great artists are -- and this reverence is taught early. The day I visited the Festival, a large group of children were there on a field trip. They all wore paper hats and aprons that read “Boulanger, c'est un metier” -- it is a profession.
Probably because bakeries are so ubiquitous, the French rarely bake their own bread; they don't need to. On virtually every corner of every city, it seems there is a boulangerie, and the French still buy their bread fresh daily. The iconic figure of the bike rider with a baguette tucked under his arm? – it is really true.
In a country where traffic laws are mildly noticed, there are strict laws about bread baking -- a baker may not cut into the bread any sooner than 20 minutes after taking it from the oven! It is also against the law to put preservatives in most French breads, so the baguettes, bâtards and boules will only stay fresh for a day.
There are minimal ingredients in a true French baguette -- flour, water, and salt. Yeast is optional, sometimes substituted for a naturally fermented levain (made only of flour and water.) The magic is in the technique. Just take one bite into that thin, crisp crust and savor the creamy, wheaty interior, and you suddenly know what all the fuss is about!
As popular as it is, the baguette is not the only sought-after prize for bread lovers. In Paris, the most famous of all bakeries is arguably the Poilâne bakery in the Latin Quarter. Lionel Poilâne has used the same recipe for naturally levened sourdough bread since his grandfather came to the city from Normandy in 1932. Today his huge, crusty, dark brown bread (called a mîche) is the standard by which all other breads are measured. Lines begin to form early in the morning and don't let up for most of the day. The appearance of one on a Sunday dinner table elevates the meal to special importance.
We amateur bread bakers here in the States try obsessively to imitate the French product, but there is something very different about French wheat and the way it is grown that makes it virtually impossible for us to come up with anything more than a reasonable imitation. So if you ever go to France -- and I hope you do! -- enjoy the bread while there. It truly is a national treasure!