Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bread, the staff of life


A few years ago, when Jacques Chirac was President of France, he gave an internationally-reported speech to the country's master bakers, lamenting the fact that so much of the bread that was now sold in France was in his opinion no longer fit to be called real bread.
It might seem odd to a non-French person that a President should see fit to make a speech about bread, but then the French have always been very serious about their bread. Remember the fate of poor Marie Antoinette, who, upon being told the people had no bread, blithely advised them to eat cake.Of course she never said such a thing; it's a slander designed after her death to destroy even further the 'Austrian woman's' reputation; but it is an illustration of the fact that to say such a thing is heresy in France. Cake is all very well; but bread, ah, bread! It's not only the staff of life, it is a real passion.
It was always the first thing I and my siblings would dive on when we came back to France for holidays; real bread, yes, and real butter, long before we even thought of nice little gateaux!
In France,people drive kilometres out of the way to queue up in more or less patient lines outside bakeries reputed for their bread.(A visiting East European friend of ours, seeing this once, couldn't believe their eyes."I thought you had no shortages here!" he exclaimed despairingly.) These days, as Chirac claimed, the battle rages over whether the fluff contained in cardboard which too many supermarkets and hypermarkets hawk under the name of bread, should be declared illegal to save France's reputation .Poilane breads and their imitators--wholemeal, multigrain, rye--have also made inroads into the traditional wood-oven-fired, crusty white baguettes and ficelles that are still very much the stereotypical image of French bread.People argue whether 'real' French bread is the city type(baguettes, ficelles and their ilk)or country breads such as pain de campagne, a whitish bread made using not baker's yeast but sourdough, which keeps much better than the city breads.
In the villages, the baker still calls in his van every couple of days. It is an occasion for gossip and the surreptitious summing-up for more gossip opportunities. I remember when we used to go on holidays to the little Southern village where my parents had a house, being pumped by all the village women as to what my parents, 'the Americans', as they were called(despite the fact they were actually French and lived in Australia!)were up to now. Old people no longer capable of hobbling out into the street to commune with the baker, like the 94 year old woman across the road from us one summer in yet another little Southern village,hoist baskets down to him into the street on ropes. The baker knows everyone's preferences; for her, a peasant through and through, who had scarcely left the village, (and had some fine stories to tell about it)it was the fine city bread, just as she preferred fillet steak to the rich, pungent peasant stews we all exclaimed over. But the bread was a matter of intense debate; and in the markets, it was even more so.People stopped in front of the bread stalls and prodded, poked and looked carefully, while the baker extolled his or her wares in a raucous voice. Some of the breads were not cheap, either.Staff of life they might be; but some of those staffs of life must have been gilded to warrant their price.
French food has always been as diverse and as rich as it has, because of the country's strong peasant heart combined with bourgeois traditions. In the past, it was not easy to find exotic food there--there were many cafes and restaurants serving excellent, reasonably-priced French food, but very few, and even fewer in the provinces, offering 'exotic' cuisines. As in China, the variety and diversity of food here did not incline people to experimentation with other kinds of cooking. That has now changed, perhaps as the peasants have become rather richer, more powerful and fewer in number, due to the EU. It is rather an irony--and a pity--to think that French people might be getting more of a window on the rest of the world's table, but less variety, less real taste in their own. French culture is closely bound up with its 'quality of life', the prime strand of which is food. Bread is the litmus test for that and we have to keep a close eye on it, for if that goes, then everything else will follow.

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