B is for baguette: what you need to know about the French baguette

french baguette in melbourne bastille day french festival melbourne

As the mercury starts to drop we are swapping out a salade niçoise for soupe à l’oignon; hearty winter food is de jour in Melbourne. A staple for all French winter meals is the baguette, no dish would be complete without it.

Baguette means “wand” as in magical wand, baguette magique… You all know la baguette: a long and thin bread stick, crusty croustillant, on the outside, deliciously white and airy inside, moelleux, and so delicious when just bought fresh from the bakery. It gets stale very fast, so it needs to be eaten within the day. It is a very French scene to see people coming back home from work for their lunch break at midday, stopping at the local bakery to buy their freshly baked baguette to have their dejeuner. Usually, one cannot resist and eat the tip of the stick while walking… le quignon. It is a fight in all the families with many children who will have the quignon; it is certainly in ours!

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A croustillant baguette

Like many French institutions, the baguette goes back to the French Revolution…

Remember the famous scene when the starving Paris mob came to Versailles complaining that they did not have bread to eat?

And Marie Antoinette, very in tune with their needs, nonchalantly said that they could eat brioche instead? Of course, this an apocryphal quote and she never actually said that, it is said that Jean-Jacques Rousseau invented it…

Well, in those days, nor the brioche nor the baguette existed for the masses. Bread was black, round and heavy. It would last a week. It was the main food staple for the people who ate an average of 1 and a half kilo of bread per day… and probably not much else. The wealthy bourgeois and the aristocrats had whiter bread. To make a bread white you need to use a refined flour that has been sifted and kneaded much longer to eliminate the bran from it; the finished product is lighter and whiter but gets stale much faster than the black bread. So, it was indeed the bread for wealthy…

bastille revolution baguette bastille day french festival melbourne
Bread shortages precipitated the French Revolution

In 1789, the year of the start of the French Revolution, the Intellectuals did not care much about the quality of the bread, they had been fed with the ideas of the Philosophes of the Enlightenment such as Rousseau or Voltaire and had never felt hunger pains. The years following the fall of the Bastille prison to the hands of the starving Parisian mob were very tumultuous and the newly appointed bourgeois government of revolutionaries had difficulties finding its feet.  Initially, the Monarchy was still alive even if King Louis XVI was deprived of much of his freedom and power. The foreign policies were of paramount importance as French monarchists had fled abroad and done alliances with foreign powers such as Austria, Prussia, England and Russia. France was soon at war with all its neighbours.

In 1792, the Revolutionaries declared the First Republic and sentenced Louis the XVI to death. The motto Liberté Egalité Fraternité was born but the factions within the government went feral and a couple of terrible years called the Terror followed; anybody could be decapitated, upon a mere suspicion, without a trial. It was during these terrible years that a law was passed: le même pain pour tous! The same bread for everyone!

On 15 November 1793, a ruling from the governing Convention stated that all the French people must eat the same bread as a mandatory equality sign. There will not be the white bread for the rich and the black bread for the poor. The Pain Egalité, the origin of the baguette, was born, and the bakers had to comply otherwise they might end up in jail!

This was a very Parisian viewpoint as the peasants in the countryside would have preferred their black bread that was less croustillant but more fulfilling for their physical needs and kept fresh for longer. 

After the First World War, in March 1919, a Labor Law stated that the bakers could not work between ten in the evening and four in the morning. The unintended effect of that protective law was to standardize the baguette everywhere in France. Indeed, as it was impossible to prepare and bake the round-shaped bread (pain de campagne) in time for customers’ breakfast, the slender baguette solved this problem because it could be prepared and baked much more rapidly. So, the baguette became omnipresent in France and acquired an alternative name, the “flute”. 

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Two perfectly standardised baguettes

The “baguette de tradition française” is made from wheat flour, water, yeast, and common salt. There is even an annual competition of the Best Baguette in France!  To participate, your baguette must not contain additives, be made with wheat flour but it may contain up to 2% broad bean flour, up to 0.5% soya flour, and up to 0.3% wheat malt flour. The salt content must be 18g per kilo of flour. The finished product must measure between 55 and 65 cm, and weigh between 250 and 300g. 😊

In Melbourne, there are many places where you can buy baguettes de tradition française. Here are three of my favourites:

And don’t forget that there will be boulangerie and pâtisserie stalls at the Bastille Day French Festival!

Bon appétit! Myriam