INDEPENDENT bakers are fighting for survival against in-store supermarket bakeries – and trying to match stores’ price-cutting by increasing the quality of their bread.
However, while bakers know good flour is the key to quality the number of independent flour mills is falling, with small ones becoming a rarity.
The baguette ordinaire and the baguette de tradition française, along with the 1900, Grand Siècle, Banette, Campaillette, Festival, bio and even stone-ground meal are in the front line.
Born in the 19th Century, the baguette was created after Viennese steam-jet ovens arrived in Paris.
Before that, France, like the rest of Europe, baked large loaves that lasted the week.
With its high crust-to-crumb ratio, the baguette, has always been best straight from the oven – by the next day it has usually become rock-hard.
It radically changed not only eating but shopping habits.
Rushing out daily to buy a fresh baguette became a way of life.
In the 1970s English cookery writer Elizabeth David could write that French bread, unlike the Anglo-Saxon variety, could be full of holes, and was tasty enough not to need anything spread on it. But that decade was a turning point.
Bakers and millers faced growing complaints about quality and competition from cheaper, industrialised bread
– so they cut corners again.
Pierre Garros, of the Banette millers group, said: “New technologies, too many additives, plus shorter proving times [where fermentation gases make the dough rise] meant bakers could get more sleep but led to the traditional baguette losing its flavour.”
The millers responded by developing consistently high-quality flour, grouping together and encouraging bakers to sign contracts to use it. Now it is rare to find a traditional wooden counter and a flour-dusted baker as identikit shop fronts and glass counters have taken over – with signs outside indicating a millers’ group.
Natacha Deifts, of the National Bakers’ Confederation, said: “Each baker is an independent artisan, but those with a miller group will be obliged to buy a certain amount of flour.
“Some may choose restrictive contracts and make bread to given recipes. Others may order flour from different millers for different loaves.”
The paper bags the bread is wrapped in can tell you the origin of the flour, but it is the baker’s technique that ensures no two baguettes de tradition française from different shops will be alike. Not even two Banette loaves from different bakers will look the same or have the same taste.
The Banette franchise was created in 1981 by millers who wanted consistent quality flour and set up a test laboratory in Briare in the Sologne (between Orleans and Paris).
Pricey training facilities, access to helplines, plus cash aid to set up their shops, attracted and still attract people to the franchise to make a new start in life – but they represent only 3,100 of the 33,000 independent bakers.
The vast majority of bakers are trained through state-approved apprenticeships and many are independent and prefer to remain that way.
However, that does not stop them using well-known branded flours, like the top flour of the Grand Moulins de Paris, Campaillette Grand Siècle (which uses Camp Rémy wheat) to draw in customers, with a less expensive flour for other recipes.
The baguette de tradition française is the mainstay of most bakeries. Costing slightly more than the baguette ordinaire, it is regulated by a 1993 law. It must be made solely from French flour. It must have no additives. Bakers in some major wheat-growing areas go further and agree to use only regional flour.
But how can you be sure you are buying real fresh bread and not bread made from frozen dough? There are two ways: if the shop is a “boulangerie” or if it has the blue and yellow of the National Confederation of Bakers.
In 1998 artisan bakers won a new law so where you see the sign boulangerie, you know the dough is kneaded, proven, shaped and baked on the premises and has never been frozen.
Pains means a shop is a terminal de cuisson, where baking is completed, part of an industrial chain, in which frozen dough is used.
Frozen oven-ready dough allowed supermarkets to supply warm fresh bread to pull in customers. Bakeries retaliated by proving shaped loaves very slowly (24 to 48 hours ahead of baking) on large racks in pleated linen cloths, at around 5C. This lets them produce tray after tray of hot crusty loaves all day.
The wide range of loaves now on offer, with seasonal and local recipes and their fanciful names, shows how the baker has responded to supermarket undercutting.
They say the basic baguette can not win the bread battle.
Customers are being pointed to upmarket loaves, either cuit au levain (cooked with levain, a traditional raising agent) or sourdough and brewer’s yeast.
However, Benoît Guignard, of the national bakers’ union in Charente-Maritime said he had “shunned all the fancy names”.
I bought a baguette de tradition française from him – a dusting of flour on its delicately stretched and crunchy golden crust:
It was so tasty, it did not even last to the end of lunch.
Cutting rise time reduces the taste
WE ASKED Xavier Lafaye, a traditional artisan baker, if there was really a difference between a loaf bought from boulangerie or from the supermarket atelier or point chaud?
He said: “It is not the freezing that is a problem. It is the speed of the whole process and the choice of flour. If I did not leave my dough rising slowly overnight, I could bake it, but it would be tasteless.
“Dough needs time for the real flavours to develop. Overnight is a minimum.
“Supermarkets do not have storage space so they are thawing and baking straight away. That is far too soon. Some, like the Paul chain [of bakeries], on the other hand, are run by bakers who know what they are doing. Their bread is damn good. So it is up to us to produce even better.”
Tastes have changed, and it is hard to reproach bakers for adapting to customer demand.
Loaf hides diamond ring
NOTED Paris boulanger Eric Kayser has made the most expensive bread in the world - hidden inside is a Guele d’Amour ring in white gold with diamonds and a seven-carat Rose de France gem cut in a cushion.
The ring is the prize in a competition organised by Stiletto fashion magazine, which commissioned the original bread from Kayser. The 800g loaf, made from fine wheatflour, wheatgrain, natural raising agent and Guérande salt, will be sold in the Kayser boulangerie in Rue Danielle Casanova in Paris during the autumn-winter fashion week July 5-10.
For €5, buyers will get the chance to enter a draw to win the loaf with the ring.
Learning to bake your own – but without the 5am start
THERE are a number of bread and patisserie making courses around France.
For a traditional loaf, baked in a wood-fired oven, rather than a steam-cooked baguette, the Ecomusée Maison Michaud in Chapelle des Bois in the Haut-Jura runs courses for adults and children every Friday throughout the year
The museum demonstrates wood-fired ovens which were once found in the centre of rural villages which traditionally prepared heavier loaves that would last for a week or more. These were the norm until the baguette arrived. You can buy fresh bread at the museum with a 1kg loaf costing e5.
The site www.1001stages.com is a useful starting point for finding other courses near you.
Type in pain and your department name in the rechercher un stage box.
You can learn bread-making and French simultaneously at the Ecole de Trois Ponts in Roanne, Rhône-Alps and the group Tematis has a bread-making course in Nantes as part of its gift ideas on its website www.tematis.com
Spare a thought for your local baker however who usually starts work at 5.00, making 10 or more different kinds of bread, each using different types of dough and methods.
A small bakery will make a minimum of 400 loaves daily.
The dough is made the day before to give it the whole night to rise. The alternative is bakers getting up at 2.00 or 3.00 to make it, leaving the bread less tasty.
Here are some of the varieties on offer:
pain de tradition française – the traditional baguette with no added ingredients, baked on the premises and without using pre-frozen ingredients
pain au céréales – wholemeal bread
pain chapeau – double-decker loaf that is a speciality of Finistère
pain au levain – bread often started with dough from a previous batch
pain à la levure – made with fresh yeast
pain au pavot – poppy seed bread
pain au son – wholemeal bread with added bran
pain de seigle – rye bread
Every area has its own speciality bread – some say that Paris has the baguette – and others have their own way of using it. Nice for example has the pan bagnat, a smallish round loaf cut in two and filled with a salade Nicoise, using lots of olive oil which is then left to soak.
From flour to crispy baguette
FLOUR, raising agent, water and salt are the basic ingredients of the baguette with some additions like the use of poolish or fermentation starter instead of yeast.
Once mixed into a dough it is folded and kneaded to introduce air and lightness – it is hard work using the heel of the hand to stretch out the dough and then to fold it back on itself.
Once rolled into the rough baguette shape it is scored with evenly-spaced diagonals. The boulangerie steam-jet oven prompts the bubbles in the dough to grow and the slits let the bread expand.
Baguettes in France are regulated by a 1993 law which describes what they should be made from – but, contrary to lore, not what they should weigh. The 250g loaf is common in Paris but elsewhere 200g is preferred.
One of the joys of a trip to the baker is breaking off and munching a bout of baguette – but just as some people do not eat crusts or ends of sliced bread, others prefer the quignons or pointy ends.
Other bread nibbles
Most baguettes are too salty
TWO thirds of baguettes on sale in France are too salty says consumer magazine 60 Millions de Consommateurs.
They say bread is one of the main ways salt gets into the body. As people eat 160g of bread a day the fact so many baguettes have more than 1.5% of salt is a worry.
Bakers are not supposed to use more than 18g of salt per kilogram – which would work out at between 1.3% and 1.5%: however some breads had 2% of salt.
The recommended maximum level is 6g per day as excessive salt consumption has been linked with high blood pressure and stomach cancer and can exacerbate osteoporosis and asthma.
Salt is used to give added taste and has been used more and more as the taste and quality of bread has fallen.
Flour price drops but not bread
ALTHOUGH the price of flour has dropped 15% since last year’s rich harvest bread prices have not followed suit.
Bakers’ organisations have been quick to point out flour is only a small portion of the total costs that go into a loaf – with labour costs being the major overhead.
Flour prices have halved since the record price of e300 a tonne in 2007.
Tradition rules for Parisians’ choices
PARISIANS buy more baguettes than any other bread – and 60% prefer the baguette de tradition against the baguette ordinaire.
Those figures are in contrast to the rest of the country where only 20% prefer the baguette de tradition.
There are more than 37,000 bakers and patisseries in France – that is one for every 18,000 inhabitants.
Burden of proof hard to swallow
BREAD was used as a proof in legal battles in the Middle Ages where people could opt to “let God decide” if they were telling the truth and decide to complete a difficult challenge that could only be succeeded with divine help.
One of these epreuves was called du pain et du fromage where the magistrate would order the accused to eat a large amount of bread with goats cheese.
If they could not finish it meant their lies had stuck in their throat.