Vive la baguette?

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

All it takes is a stroll on a quiet Sunday morning in Paris, to bump into them: people lining up on the sidewalk. Go down a few streets and new queues will appear. They want their baguettes fresh for breakfast - even if they have to wait outside for 15 minutes.

"It's just part of our culture," explains Léon Olland, who leads the federation of bakers in the eastern region of Bas-Rhin. "For us, bread is something you preferably buy every day and at your own baker's shop."

It's true that bread plays an important role in the daily life of the French - but that may be changing. Many consume bread - baguettes, croissants, and brioches - at least three times a day, accompanying breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

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But recent research shows that only half of young people (15 to 34 years old), consume bread in the morning.

"It's a result of the Anglo-Saxon influence," says Anne-Hélène Mangin of the market information group TNS Sofres in Paris. "In particular, young people prefer cereals for breakfast. This habit is very much on the rise, but very un-French as well.''

Bakers are encouraged, however, that 20 percent of French teenagers snack on bread or baked goods between meals. (Only 6 percent of older French people do.) "Life has less rituals than before," notes Ms. Mangin. "People eat less at fixed times.''

Bread consumption also is a matter of culture and tradition.

"The French who were born before or during World War II think of bread as an essential element in their diet," explains Jean-Pierre Crouzet, who chairs the Conféderation Nationale de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie Française, the national federation of bakeries. "They buy and eat food for its nutritional value. Young people eat what they like.''

For professional bakers, these changing attitudes - and lessened consumption of bread - are worrisome, since they have caused some boulangeries to close. In 1965 France had 48,000 bakers; today only 34,000 are left.

But the tide is turning, Mr. Crouzet thinks. "These sorts of developments exist, like it or not. Our job as bakers is to adapt.''

It is thanks to a combination of efforts - fewer heavy breads, more government support, for instance - that the majority of the French have remained faithful to their bread, says baker Léon Olland. Bread "has been such an important part of our lives for centuries. As long as our profession adapts to new wishes of consumers, I don't see any real problems.''

Even with less bread being consumed, France is still known for its baguettes. That's why Bryan Brandon, a baker's son from Fayetteville, Ark., spent a month at La Désirée bakery in the city of Argentan, in western France.

Baker Stéphane Marie showed him the ropes and let him in on some secrets. "I've learned so much,'' Mr. Brandon says. "I've seen techniques I'd never even heard of before. I couldn't find the traditional recipe back in the States, and I couldn't really get it right myself either. It's only in France that I learned to bake the real thing.''

Back in Arkansas, he would love to have his own shop with French bread and tarts. "It may be difficult because Americans are used to soft white bread: they don't really like crusts,'' he admits.

Mr. Marie will probably make a trip to Arkansas later this year, to help his pupil. But he does want something in exchange, Mr. Brandon says. "He asked me to let him in on the secrets of American cheesecake and brownies."

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