Suzi's Blog

French Bread: Challenges to Quality and Quantity

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You might expect an article on bread culture in France to appear in the Wednesday food and dining section of The New York Times. On Wednesday, July 31, the bread story appeared as the lead article in the International section of the paper. This was not a story about food. This was a story about a crisis.

If you think of food and France, then those first images are to include a bottle and a baguette. Visiting France, the smell of warm bread seems to drift down every street. A small crowd? It’s either a café or a bakery.

But, there are problems. French bread consumption is down by 50% since 1970. Ten billion baguettes are sold each year, but from a declining number of bakeries — from 54,000 in 1950 to “just” 32,000 now.

That’s still a lot of bakeries for its population, far more per capita than here in the United States. Still there is this quantity problem. And worse, there is a quality problem.

This quality decline has, in fact, a long history. In the 1920s French bakeries began to shift from using a sourdough base to a much quicker process using yeast. In the 1960s, mechanization let bakers move away from centuries of hand-crafted bread. They could make more bread and quicker. This new bread lacked only two things: taste and aroma.

That new style of bread surely has contributed to the slide in consumption. A real, lovingly hand-crafted bread is an experience to be treasured. Whether it’s with butter and jam, or with butter and ham, French bread, real French bread, is unsurpassed.

Today, there is an active campaign to save/restore bread. Similar to the American “Got Milk” campaign, there is a “Hi there, have you picked up the bread” effort underway with street signs to encourage people to stop on the way home for a fresh baguette.

And today, in Paris and the other cities, there is bread renaissance. Artisan bakers, beginning with Lionel Poilâne, began finding ways to keep high production — a financial necessity in many cases — while restoring the quality that had taken centuries to develop.

The French government is playing a role. Now “bread of French tradition” has to be made with only flour, salt, water and leavening. No additives of any kind. That baguette is to be baked and consumed all on the same day. But then, a traditional bread is so grand, that should not be a problem.

Bread gone? There’s a baker close by, up by 2 or 3 in morning and getting ready for breakfast.

Full disclosure: that bread picture is not from Paris. It’s Suzi’s. I will tell you her bread is Paris-class. She’s put 20 years into learning, testing, and mastering how to craft a great loaf. There are not a lot of ingredients in good bread. There is a massive amount of intelligence and talent.

Source: The New York Times

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