Wine is France’s most iconic food export, but bread and cheese are the other two staples of French diet. One day I will write about the cheeses of France, and the wines of course. But today I want to celebrate bread.
It is the main source of carbohydrates in a typical French diet. Un gagne-pain, literally “earn-bread” is somebody’s livelihood.
At breakfast, although some people eat cereals with milk, and others toast (“pain grillé”), bread is the basis of the meal. People make tartines: tartiner is “to spread”. Une tartine may feature butter, jam (sometimes both), honey, chocolate spreads, cheese, butter and chocolate… And may be dipped in coffee, tea or hot chocolate for added gooiness. Oh yes.
At lunchtime, “un casse-croûte”, literally a “break-crust” is a meal on the go. Boulangeries, especially those near main roads, have become the French answer to the American fast-food restaurants. They sell lunch deals – a sandwich, a bag of crisps (chips, pronounced “ships”; it is a false friend), and a drink. Sometimes the sandwiches are made to order, but bigger boulangeries have a filling supplier; the baker only supplies the fresh baguettes and assembles the sandwich.
At dinner, or any sit-down meal, bread is there to accompany almost every dish. Each person’s slice stays on the table, to the right of the plate – not on a small plate of its own. People eat a mouthful now and then, with or without butter, or use it in order to “saucer”: wipe the plates clean off the sauce.
There are usually several types of bread in the house to suit every occasion: “pain blanc” (white bread), “pain complet” (brown bead), baguette, “pain de mie” (what the British call “bread”)… In recent years, bakers have developed new recipes, including seeds, nuts, olives, figs, or alternative cereals: corn, oat, spelt, etc.
Ideally, people buy their bread daily, and having a good boulangerie nearby is important. The smell of fresh bread as I walk along the street, or into a boulangerie, always makes me hungry. In villages, when the baker goes on holiday, another shop will temporarily become “un dépôt de pain”, that is a bread store. In towns and cities, bakers have adapted to consumers’ demand for convenience: some have installed a “distributeur de baguettes”, a baguette vending machine, to ensure 24/7 supply.
Talking of baguettes, you may be surprised, next time you walk into a French boulangerie, not to find any on sale. This iconic product, listed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, has been the victim of its success. It has become so strictly regulated that few artisanal bakers still sell it under this name: a baguette must weigh exactly 250 grammes, and 251 won’t do, you see. Sadly, what was done to protect the baguette has now confined it to industrial manufacturing and supermarkets.
But never fear, you will find white bread sticks in boulangeries, and much tastier than in supermarkets. There are usually two types, the “normale”, the cheaper one, and the “traditionnelle”, of better quality. Names vary constantly, as marketing experts deploy their imaginations and register trademarks. On the subject, you may find the image below amusing – it is an extract from the comic “les Vieux Fourneaux”, by Lupano Cauuet:
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