For most people, a trip to France is not complete without tucking into a warm crusty baguette or a buttery croissant, and bakeries are as common in France as a corner shop in England. There are various local types of bread specific to different parts of France, and no two bakers are the same. The French bread you are used to, however, has not been eaten in France since time immemorial as you might think. Up until about 1800 French peasants ate bread made from wheat, rye or buckwheat. Bakers often added all sorts of materials as fillers to make the flour go further: sawdust, hay, dirt and even dung were all used. The vast majority of a peasant’s diet came from bread, and an adult male could eat as much as two or three pounds of it a day.
They described loaves of bread 6 feet (2 meters) long being delivered by women carrying them stacked horizontally, like firewood, in a frame on their backs. Housemaids were on the streets at 6:00 in the morning carrying these long loaves home for their employer’s breakfast. In the afternoon, young boys could be seen using these lengthy baguettes as pretend swords and engaging in mock battles before the bread made its way to the family table. One visitor remarked that in a restaurant, the baker came in and stacked loaves 6-8 feet (2-2.5 meters) long in the corner like a bundle of sticks. Another describes the bread having to be laid on the dining table lengthwise because it was longer than the table was wide.
The modern, shorter version seems to have come into being in the 1920s, when a law was passed prohibiting bakers from working between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. The current baguette was probably developed because its thin form allowed it to cook faster. The baker could start at 4:00 in the morning and the baguettes would be finished in time for the first customer’s breakfast. It was during this time that the term “baguette” first became associated with the slender loaves that are seen everywhere in France today.
Bread has always been important to the French, and for centuries, it was their main food source. Today, even though bread is an accompaniment to a meal instead of the main course, it still plays an important part in French life, and the most popular bread in France is the baguette.