Award-winning professor issues plea to save the real French baguette in the face of mass-produced pale imitation

American historian and world-renowned bread expert Steven L Kaplan has made an impassioned plea to save the French baguette from extinction.

In his new book, Pour le Pain, Kaplan explores the demise of the baguette from a delicious, nutritious staple of every family household to a pale, tasteless shadow of its former self. Once revered, its price as important as that of petrol today, the baguette has become little more than a neglected afterthought, he warns.

Currently, the French consume just a 10th of the amount of bread they ate in the mid-19th century. Kaplan, who is considered the world’s no. 1 expert on French bread, says the biggest decline in standards took place through the 20th century: as good quality meat and vegetables became accessible to all, bread began to take a back seat. Mass production led to cheaper bread, and bakers tried to keep up, sacrificing traditional methods in favour of shortcuts in a bid to remain commercially competitive. Yeast and baking powder took over from old-fashioned fermentation methods and as a result, flavour fell by the wayside.

Baguettes

In the introduction to his book, Kaplan writes: “Everyone is for bread, said Diderot, one of the Enlightenment’s masterbuilders, because it exudes a ‘feeling of humanity’. We are attached to it, like air and water, because it is necessary for us and we are entitled to it… Not only is bread no longer necessary in the vital sense, but for many people it arouses neither curiosity nor appetite; both as a food and as a symbol, it seems obsolete. In the age of the internet, the smartphone and the popular junk food, bread seems, in a word, to have become cheesy. This erasure of bread, this deterioration of the culture of bread, saddens and worries me.”

While Kaplan acknowledges that there is a growing movement among boulangers to return to almost-forgotten ancient grains such as spelt, and a new-found love of artisanal, organic, slow baking methods, it is not enough, he says, offering only a privileged well-to-do few in fashionable areas the chance to enjoy ‘proper’ bread.

In an article in Le Figaro this week, the newspaper wrote: “… if bread is no longer an essential part of our diet, it must once again become one of the pillars of our gastronomic culture. This is what Steven L Kaplan wants from France, and we can only subscribe to this delightful plan.”

How to spot a good baguette…

The crust should be of a rich colour and robust in texture with deep slits on top.

The bread should be almost grey rather than bright white and should be fleshy in the mouth.

It should have an intense, complex aroma and a lengthy finish.


Pour le Pain by Steven L Kaplan is published by Fayard at $22/£18.68.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I fully support your plea. I live in Toronto (Ontario, Canada) and am frustrated every time I go out to try to find a baguette. The poor imitations on offer at grocery stores are appalling. Imagine when I stopped in at a local “artisnal” bakery, paid $5!!! and got home to discover it was whole wheat?!! Quelle horreur! I have begun to make my own with great success the second try.

  2. Natural fermentation means that it is an what Americans will call a sour dough bread. Natural fermentation is a starter culture and it’s heart is a yeast that has floated in from the air and landed on this flour/water mix and then it ferments and becomes your starter culture. A baguette uses a specific strain of commercial yeast to rise. There are many different types of yeasts produced today. Some specifically for beer and others for yeast for baking. These yeasts give a consistent result and flavor profile. I like BOTH types of bread. I stay in Paris for a month a every year and I do not see a turn down in the number of people eating bread. All types of bread from whole grain to your classic baguette. People are not eating less bread, people are eating healthier food in general. People can afford to pay more for food these days so they eat better. Bread has always been inexpensive. This move to better fod is also evident in how much butter and cream they use. They still use a lot, Thank God, but not like they used to. Being a baker is a hard life. Up at 2:30 AM to start work. And they are not making a huge amount of money, sometimes just enough to barely get by. It can be much harder to find bread in the countruyside, but people still do, all over France.

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