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All hail the givers of our daily bread

12 million people buy a baguette every day. Jane Hanks looks at this national institution and meets an award-winning Paris baker

The baguette, the universal food of France, is celebrated this month at the Fête du Pain, May 14-20. The festival is held every year, throughout the country, to coincide with Saint Honoré’s Day on May 16, the day the patron saint of bakers is celebrated.

The baguette is a symbol of France along with the Tour Eiffel, wine, cheese and the beret, and bakers are asking Unesco to award it the Intangible Cultural Heritage label, alongside foods such as pizzas from Naples.

Backing the move, President Macron said: “The baguette is envied around the world. We must preserve its excellence and our expertise, and it is for this reason it should be heritage-listed.”

The baguette is still first choice for customers at the boulangerie, bought by 12 million across the country every day. A study carried out for members of the baking profession found that for 60% of consumers, their favourite loaf is still the baguette.

Bread is still eaten at all the main meals of the day, but mainly at lunch and dinner and increasingly in sandwiches, often bought ready-made.

The baguette shape is unique and there are many different stories claiming to explain its origins. Some say that Napoleon ordered a bread that could be carried easily by his soldiers. Others claim that the first long breads were introduced by a Viennese baker, August Zang, who founded a bakery in Paris in 1839, called la Boulangerie Viennoise.

The bread, which used brewer’s yeast instead of sourdough and included milk in the recipe, became very fashionable, but was only accessible to the rich.

In the 1920s, this version went as rules were introduced for bakers, which meant they could not start work before 4am so they needed a bread that was quick to make – a long and thin bread, like the Viennese one, suited the regulations. They left the milk out to make it cheaper but as that meant it no longer kept as fresh for long, customers had to come back daily for more.

Another explanation is that at the end of the 19th century employers were getting fed up with violent brawls among their workers which ended in serious injury –because the knife everyone carried to cut their bread was used in fights. So the Mairie in Paris introduced the baguette which could be divided up by hand, without need for a metal blade.

There seems to be no definitive explanation but what perhaps makes it popular is that it is practical. It is easy to carry and easy to break into suitably sized pieces and adaptable for use in sandwiches, to be dipped into the bol au café at breakfast and served in baskets at meals in restaurants.

It is best suited to town dwellers, as you do need to make regular visits to a nearby bakery if you want to eat fresh bread – it is particularly popular in Paris.

Even if there are strict rules for bakery opening times – they are not allowed to open seven days a week – there are no regulations for the size and weight of a baguette. Traditionally it is 50cm long. In some areas of France it weighs 250g, but in others the baguette is 200g and the flute is 250g.

However, if a baguette is sold as traditionnel in a bakery, it must adhere to regulations set out in 1993 which only allow four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast to be used with no additives, other than a miniscule amount of soya flour or malt.

Despite just four ingredients bakers say that a baguette is never the same from one bakery to the other, and despite its simple appearance, it is surprisingly difficult to produce the perfect baguette.

A master baker’s top tips

Djibril Bodian has twice won the Concours National de la Meilleure Baguette de Tradition Française (National Competition for the Best Traditional Baguette) held during the Fête du Pain, but says he is still working on improving his product.

He produces a thousand a day during the week and 1,600 at the weekends for the bakery Le Grenier à Pain in the 18th arrondissement in Paris. His working day starts at 2am and finishes at 2pm, or later.

“People may have the idea that making baguettes every day could become boring, but not at all. Every little detail is important in getting it right and it is remarkably complex. So there is always something new to learn, a different way of doing things. There is a lot of observation: why is it like this today, and how can I make it like that tomorrow?

“You have to adapt to the weather so use different timings in summer than winter, for example. You have to have a lot of patience. You must not rush the processes. If you begin to think you’ve mastered the skill and relax just a little bit, you will soon find your baguettes are not as good as they were.”

He says his contribution is only one part of the process: “Every element is crucial. You need a good miller who will provide consistently good flour. Your oven needs to be working perfectly so that you can maintain the temperature you want. I can have the best technique in the world but if the basic ingredients are not good, the baguette won’t be either.”

A good baguette, he says, is one that has plenty of holes in the crumb, which means it is light and airy, and with a crust, which is not too thick. His baguettes weigh 300g, more than most and a deliberate decision to get, what is for him, a better balance between crust and crumb. 

Slow processes at every stage are necessary for a good result. It can take between eight and twenty-four hours to make a baguette, depending on the baker. This is the method Djibril Bodian uses every day: “At 8pm the bakers on the evening shift mix the flour and water together and leave it overnight. When I arrive at 2am, I add the salt and yeast and knead the mixture. I then leave it to rise for two hours and during the first hour I fold it in on itself every twenty minutes, so three times. The dough then goes into a cold storage chamber, between 5°C and 10°C, where it stays until it is needed. 

“We cook it in batches so that there is always fresh bread to buy during the day. When I bring the dough out I leave it to come up to room temperature for around 10 to 20 minutes, I then divide it, form it, and leave for another 10 minutes before putting it in the oven at 260°C for twenty minutes.”

Long proving and long cooking makes a bread which is much better for you than quick baked, white, soft industrial baguettes he says: “I explain to the public that for those people who do not have an actual allergy to glutens, many of the digestive problems other people associate with gluten are related to the way in which bread is made, rather than the flour itself.”

He says baguettes are by far the most popular bread he sells: “The baguette is also beginning to gain in popularity in other countries, like China and Japan. I think there are more and more people who want to become bakers and learn 

the trade and the baguette has a long future ahead of it.”

The Fête du Pain runs from May 14-20, while the Concours National de la Meilleure Baguette de Tradition Française takes place May 13, 14 and 15 at a stand in front of Notre-Dame cathedral, Paris. Find other events on fetedupain.com.

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