Professor Steven Kaplan – a world authority on French bread with a PhD in the subject – has warned local bakers that they will lose out to supermarkets if they continue to bake rushed, low-quality bread.
Prof Kaplan, an American and Goldwin Smith Professor of European History at Cornell University, also teaches at Sciences Po in Paris.
He says many supermarkets’ in-store bakeries make artisanal bread at a quality matching traditional bakers’ - and at half the price.
“They have been intelligent.
“When they started they were making ‘par-baked’ bread; simply reheating frozen bread.
“But in some cases, there has been such progress in the technology of par-baking they are making what we call a ‘bread of current consumption’ – an ordinary baguette of at least the quality of the artisan bakers and they are selling it for at least half the price.
“More to the point, when their baguette de tradition sells for about 50 centimes they are also selling it to customers who can walk out after doing a e150 shop, so the instore bakery is paying its way.
“Bakers have reacted to the threat with special breads, value added and an array of different mixes of cereals, with different elements incorporated, fruits, nuts even meats.
“But many artisans should realise they are not better than the supermarkets.
“The bakers have got to distinguish themselves beyond the unearned extra money they get from the filiere court – the convenience of allowing people to shop locally.
“Especially now that supermarkets are themselves opening up their product line to artisanal breads, organic loaves, speciality breads virtually indistinguishable from artisan breads.
“There is too much mediocrity on the artisanal side and, globally, the big stores have made astonishing progress while bakers have not made the effort to improve their bread.
“Bread is a slow product to make; the dough is alive and it takes time – too often product improvement is at the expense of quality.
“The ingredients are simple: yeast, salt and a great deal of water as hydration is very important, but the baker who passively lets fermentation happen on its own and is not vigilant will not produce good bread.
“It is only through fermentation – the formation of organic acids – that we derive aroma and taste as well as the physical and chemical properties to let dough stand the ravages of baking.
“Fermentation is the whole story but even then most bakers underbake their bread.
“They have forgotten the sensorial quality, many of the breads are dead on arrival: tasteless, unappetising to look at and they have become like the batons of the CRS or a bobbie’s nightstick.
“Really good bakers are always asking questions to make sure the bread is as they want. But too many stop asking those questions – what is happening to my dough? How is it talking to me? Is it ‘singing’ as it comes out of the oven?
“Some don’t even taste their bread – they are in this circular reasoning that they say to themselves I did it so it is good. You can’t function by turning bread-making into a routine.
“They seem in a hurry and argue consumers do not want a bread that is adequately baked, with the result we are moving towards soft – what we call mou – flaccid, American-style bread. That crustless, repulsive bread you find on the shelves in cellophane wrappers in American stores.
“If consumers continue to buy mediocre bread from bakers who don’t care, there will be a continued decline in consumption and that will mean fewer bakers.
“After all it is extraordinary there are hundreds of thousands of French men and women who descend on their bakeries once or twice a day – a society focussed on the daily pleasure of consumption.”
“You go into school canteens and the bread is awful, the kids don’t eat it and form an aversion to it. As adults they have no interest in bread and they lose their cultural moorings.
“You go into an expensive restaurant the food is delicious, the wine list is extravagant and the bread is terrible.”
This is the man who takes his own bread with him to even the most expensive restaurants – and if the offered crusts do not come up to scratch then he will tuck into his own favourite bread and show that bread matters.
His love of baguettes goes back to his days as a student in Paris. He fell in love with France’s crusty baguettes and devoted his Yale doctoral thesis to them. Now he has just launched his latest book, La France et son Pain, Histoire d’une Passion, through Albin Michel publishers.
It follows earlier offerings – already seen as definitive books on French bread – Good Bread is Back and Cherchez le Pain, a guide to the best boulangeries in Paris (he tested 700 out of the capital’s 1,260), buying 60 baguettes a day. Like a wine taster: “I had to do a lot of spitting out.”
He has also finished a 10-year stint as judge on Paris’s annual bread contest, the Grand Prix du Baguette de Tradition Française de la Ville de Paris. Though he was not judging this year, he said he welcomed the choice of Le Grenier à Pain, 38 Rue des Abbesses in the 18th arrondissement.
It was especially welcome, he said, as winning baker Djibril Bodian was of Senegalese origin and a reminder possibly that a third of the bakers in Paris today are of African origin.
Apart from delving deeply into the innocent pleasures of the crusty loaf, Kaplan’s studies of bread history have also revealed some more dramatic sides.
He came across a 1789 case of a baker tried for betraying his country for throwing burned, but still edible, loaves in the bin – the incriminating loaves were found by a special “bread police,” responsible for ensuring an adequate supply.
He also wrote a book, Le Pain Maudit (Cursed Bread) about the famous case of the “poisoned bread,” in Pont-Saint-Esprit in the Gard, in 1951. The inhabitants of the town were suddenly stricken with hallucinations of being burnt or attacked by giant plants or terrifying beasts.
One man tried to drown himself because he believed his stomach was being eaten by snakes.
Several people died and dozens were interned in asylums, with hundreds affected. Contaminated flour – perhaps containing psychedelic fungus – in a batch of bread from the local bakery was eventually blamed.
More recently an investigative journalist claimed to have discovered documents showing the CIA were to blame, having decided to test the effects on the population of putting LSD in the bread.
However, Prof Kaplan says the CIA theory lacks evidence.
He is still passionate about his subject matter: “When I open a really good bread and put it to my nose it is a memorable moment and I never forget it. It is a moment of voluptuous exalting pleasure,” he said.
Underbaked bread does not give the “exchange of aromas of the crust and crumb that gives the baguette its particularity. We eat bread without utensils: we feel it with our fingers, we want the crust to crack.
“There is an essential reaction in the heat of the oven when the fermented dough is brought close to caramelisation and it produces a subtle sweet flavour that works on the senses.
“Without that near-caramelising reaction when proteins burn off – the Maillard reaction – the crumb is bereft of the odours of toastiness and grill and sweet you get from the crust and the crust is not going to benefit from the transfer of aromas from the crumb.”
As for the perfect baguette, he said: “It should not have a thick crust, it should have a thin crust, literally crusty, and the crumb should be fleshy.”