The Baguette as Marker of the French Empire

After a year of sparse postings, I am now eager to get started again.  And so I’ll begin by picking up on a hanging topic.

A couple of months ago, I posted on Worcester Sauce as one marker of former extent of the British Empire.

I asked what the French equivalents might be, speculating that possibly the foil-wrapped cheese, La vache que rit, might be one of them.  None of my commentators was enthusiastic about that.

Instead they focussed on the baguette.

 For the French, how about baguette? This industrial fast baked bread of Parisian origin is ubiquitous in Western Africa and other former French colonies. Anisette (pastis, Ricard…) might also fit the picture, … and that’s bottled!  

Nick Trachet, brusselnieuws.be  

French bread as marker of empire

Baguette. Wikipedia

In western Africa (and northern Africa too) you find plenty of evidence of [baguettes]. Even here in NYC where I am now living, people from Senegal (there are lots), Togo, Benin, Mali, etc. all love their baguettes. At the Senegalese restaurants you get practically a whole one with meals eaten on premises or as take out.

And I’ve read plenty about boulangeries as a staple of communities in cities and towns in French-speaking western Africa and especially Senegal it seems. Not so sure about Haiti, Martinique, and Guadeloupe but I would imagine the latter two for sure.

Rachel Finn, Roots Cuisine

 

Baguettes in Haiti, too. Crepes in Morocco, plus baguettes. Baguettes in Burkina Faso.

Cynthia Bertelson, Gherkins and Tomatoes

And of course, there’s the banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich now ubiquitous in the United States and, I believe, in many other parts of the Western world.

So one question and one comment.

The question.  If former French colonies have no problem turning out baguettes, even if as in the case of the Vietnamese, they substitute rice flour for part of wheat flour, how come good baguettes are scarcer than hen’s teeth in the United States?  (Yes, yes, I know they are now out of favor as an industrial bread among the cognoscenti who prefer the traditional long-fermented breads.  But lots of people, me included, still enjoy the crust and the interior of baguettes).  Is it lack of tradition or lack of technology or lack of the right kind of flour?

And the comment.  We’re all talking here about the French political empire.  The French cultural empire was much more widespread and traces of French high cuisine (inaccessible of course to most of the French in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) were and are found in elite dining worldwide.

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6 thoughts on “The Baguette as Marker of the French Empire

  1. Erica Peters

    Perhaps good French bread is labor intensive. When labor is expensive, as in America, you can’t make money making good French bread. That’s only possible when labor is cheap. I’m not committed to this theory, but I’ve been wondering about it (as someone who would very much like to be able to buy the kind of crunchy, sweet, thick bread that I ate every summer in France in the 1970s. Also I want to be able to buy Poulain chocolate, of the kind in the yellow wrapper which they have since stopped producing, and which we ate for afternoon snack (gouter) by breaking off rows and stuffing them inside a chunk of French bread.)

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Erica, I have no idea how labor intensive the baguette is compared to other forms of industrially baked bread. But that might explain it. The “French” breads I can buy in Austin (and I admit I have not tried everywhere) are very heavy. Not as lumpen as the scones but well on the way there.

      Ah yes, I have have memories of that snack too though not with Poulain chocolate but with one or two squares of “chocolat suisse,” brought back from Geneva by father who was working there during the week.

      Reply
  2. Erica Peters

    I went to an IACP talk about sourdough/levain bread, where one of the speakers, I think Steve Sullivan of Acme Bread, reminisced about Berkeley in the 1970s, and how small bakeries would start up every six months, making great French bread, until they made enough money to invest in heavy machinery, at which point their bread began to taste like everyone else’s — not as good.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for this Erica. He should certainly know. On the other hand, the artisan bread people are not exactly disinterested observers.

      Reply
  3. Nick Trachet

    This french film shows how “baguette de tradition” is made. The end title claims “the manufacturing is the same as in the 1930’s”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=yiA__sEi3O0
    The trick: “little kneading, kong fermentation, and pure wheat meal, without additvies”

    The long fermentation, at relative low temperature makes for a the typical “glazy” , translucent crumb. The quality of the wheat is very imortant. No fats or “bread improvers” are used. Time makes the biggest difference. New baking technologies try to speed up the process, but this has repercussions on quality. But then the shape of the baguette, with its five cuts (not 4, nor 6) was designed exactly to speed up the baking process. Baguette and its even thinner sister, the “ficelle” are industrial, “urban” breads. In the French countryside, where baking was not done on a daily base (in some communities only once a year) bread was shaped as “miches” of “soupes”, the latter sometimes 3Kg. Big breads keep better. A half day old baguette is almost inedible.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks, as always, Nick and especially this time for the link. Did you look at the other videos? Excellent for food history, especially bread history.

      Reply

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