Bread, France – the Baguette

short summary of history, types, recipe

Today the baguette is roughly 100 years old, give or take.  A true Parisian bread, it has become an international symbol of French bread. I have never really understood why. The French have always depended on their immediate countryside for the supply of food and bread, much like the rest of Europe and bread supply, on the whole, was mostly sufficient.
The Beauce plains that stretch from the southwestern part of Paris towards the Forêt d’Orléans, is a rather monotonous plain that served as a bread-basket for the French in those days. To this day the inhabitants of the smaller villages surrounding it are primarily occupied with the cultivation of wheat, barley, maize and lucerne. Bread was so plentiful that the Notre Dame cathedral, begun in 1163, was built with bread money. The beautiful stained glass windows were paid for by the local business people, with the bakers guild firmly in the lead, having donated four windows.

In the 15th century, the bakers rolled the bread up into balls (boules) – from which the name boulanger (baker) is derived. These breads were large, round, thick crusted and had slightly dense, unsalted textures because salt was very expensive in those days. The poor ate dark, multi grained, wholewheat breads. The really poor ate something they called biscuit, which was old bread from the previous day that was baked again to freshen it up and keep it dry. I think that bread was a good deal older than a day because it was wholewheat bread and that  certainly doesn’t become inedible in only one day.

In the time of Louis the XIV, the rich ate very fine white bread since they had just learnt how to remove bran and how to add yeast to the sourdough. It became status symbol and then a necessity for the rich since their delicate stomachs could not tolerate anything other than the pure, white flour.

Everything wasn’t always wonderful, bad harvests took their toll and in 1787 Louis decreed that the price of bread be raised. The following winter was hard and long and eventually, as we all know, the revolution began and Louis and Marie-Antoinette met their untimely ends.

In the 18th century the long slim loaves arrived and the French wisely decided to increase crust by changing the crust crumb ratio. The added yeast meant the bread developed the golden crust and the baguette, as we know it, arrived! Thank goodness for kneading mechanization since this ensured that the baguette in Paris thrived.  The country folk continued to make bread in the time honoured way and when the horrible baking terminals arrived in France during the 1960’s the French had decent bread to fall back on since the baguettes just were not the same any more.

Luckily for the French and visitors alike there are today new and dedicated bakers in France that make bread the old way – to the extent of choosing the millstones through which their flours are milled in order to guarantee superlative taste.

For anyone going to France, rest assured that you will find enough excellent French bread – there are about 36,000 bakeries that produce about  3,5 – 4 million tons of bread annually of which 10 – 12 million loaves are baguettes (every third bread).

Just for fun I will add thirteen Parisian breads that simply have to be tried, so lengthen you trip by a week or so.  (Thirteen because it is my daughter Lisa’s lucky number)

  • Pain de campagne noisette et raisins (Rrustic loaf with hazelnuts and raisins)
  • Napoléon (crusty breakfast loaf)
  • Pavé de campagne (square country loaf)
  • Pain de campagne figues et noix (rustic loaf with figs and nuts)
  • Fougasse aux olives (round flat loaf with olives)
  • Jockey pavot & sesame (round wheat loaf with poppy and sesame seeds)
  • Pain campagne aux olives (country loaf with black olives)
  • Pistolet (light, longish, wider and crusty – actually from Belgium)
  • Seigle-Apricot pain (rye rolls with dried apricot)
  • La Baguette (ee all know that one)
  • La Ficelle (thinner than a baguette and about half it’s weight)
  • La Flûte (halfway between the baguette an the ficelle)
  • Le Bâtard (oval, crunchy loaf)

For anyone that feels like trying, herewith a very easy bread dough in the French style:
For anyone interested in baking a bread, French style – herewith the simplest of simple rustic breads:


150 g strong, plain flour
15 g fresh yeast or teaspoons dried yeast
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon salt

If you are using fresh yeast, mix the yeast with 12 ml warm water, leave for 10minutes in a warm place until the yeast becomes frothy. (If it doesn’t froth, throw it away and start again).

Sift the flour into a large bowl, make a well in the centre and add salt, olive oil and yeast mixture. Mix together until you can form a ball with it.

Turn out onto a lightly floured wooden board
Knead the dough well and adjust consistency by adding flour or water, a little at a time until you get a mixture that feels dry when you touch it.
That should take about 10 minutes.

Rub the inside of a large bowl with oil, roll the dough around the bowl so that the whole surface is covered with oil, cover with cling wrap and allow to rise for about 1 – 1 ½ hours.
(You can also leave it in the fridge to rise slowly for about 8 hours)

Knock it back, knead it again robustly for about 10minutes and leave it in a warm place until it has doubled in size.

Put in a baking tray or tin and bake at 230 C for 10 minutes.

As I always say, keep an eye on baked goods the first time since all ovens differ slightly.

You can add chopped walnuts, cheese, olives and whatever you feel like to this bread – it will only improve it.

Bon appetit


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