Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Customers line up outside a boulangerie for fresh bread in Paris. France launches the 19th edition of its annual Bread Festival across the country this week.

French bakers battle over what makes a better baguette

Despite a treasured place in French cuisine, the traditional baguette is in decline, connoisseurs warn, as both bakers and consumers seek to economize.

Few things in life appear as unconflicted as a French baguette. The slender loaves of bread, tucked under the arms of the French as they head home from work or set up for luxuriously lazy picnics, dominate the montage that depicts traditional life here.

Yet beneath this gauzy, familial image, the reality of the French baguette is anything but uncomplicated.

French cuisine is in the midst of an identity crisis, and the bread that is its staple is no exception. In 2010, the multicourse meal “a la française” that pairs regional wines with the richest foie gras, the most pungent cheeses, and the most flavorful sauces was granted UNESCO “intangible heritage” status. But the mass arrival of cheeseburgers, sandwich stalls, frozen food, fake truffles – and even prefabricated bread – is sullying the reputation of a culinary pacesetter.

France launches the 19th edition of its annual Bread Festival across the country this week, a celebration of bakers who still hold dear the tradition of their craft. This year’s theme is centered around the crème de la crème of baguettes, called, suitably, the “tradition." But it comes as the industry confronts – and is confronted by – bakers increasingly looking to their bottom line and consumers who care less about the textures and tastes of their baguettes.

On the streets of largely affluent Aix-en-Provence, for example, the bread and sandwich chain Paul advertises three baguettes for two euros, while La Fournée de Joseph offers a free “tradition” to anyone who buys three. The owner of a high-end, bread-only bakery dismisses the quality of French bread today as “awful.” And grocery stores sell young singles and families prepackaged white bread that looks right out of America’s Wonder Bread fad of the 1950s.

“It’s not that there is a lack of love for French bread, but the new generations lead a different way of life,” says Bernard Valluis, co-president of the Observatory of Bread, the lobby organization for bakers and millers.

'The taste of tradition'

If at the turn of the 20th century, the average French person ate three loaves of bread a day, today he or she consumes a sixth that amount. Now the French eat more rice, more pasta, even quinoa. The fast pace of globalization has little patience for the two-hour lunch, meaning that the baguette that once sopped up those UNESCO-recognized sauces now often serves its primary purpose as the two sides of a sandwich. In fact, a study last year revealed that fast food sales, including sandwich shops, have overtaken regular restaurant sales in France, much to national dismay. Add to that the challenges posed by no-carb, gluten-free fad diets, and the French baguette today seems under siege.

It’s a problem so dire that the Observatory of Bread has been running a campaign since last summer modeled after the “Got Milk” campaigns in California: “Coucou?” their slogan goes, ““have you picked up the bread?”

“Sharing bread is part of the pleasure of life,” says Mr. Valluis. "We can't change the way of life.” At this year’s bread festival, he adds, "at least we can provide something people love to taste. The taste of tradition.”

But today, “tradition” bread, which contains just flour, salt, water, and leavening, and has special status and protection by the government, accounts for just 25 percent of France’s bread market. The rest, using additives and fast-rise measures, has shortened workdays and expanded production, but created baguettes that make the best bakers blush.

“Maybe bread was good 15 years ago, but [now] bakers here don’t do bread, they sell the price,” says Benoit Fradette, the high-end baker in Aix-en-Provence who declares the overall quality “awful.”

Indeed, even in Provence, the birthplace of aioli, ratatouille, and bouillabaisse, and a region that sets the standard for leisurely "French living," the world of breadmaking is fraught with fissures. There are artisanal idealists like Mr. Fradette, who in his spare, dark-paneled Farinoman Fou bakery uses only organic wheat, no additives, and no refrigeration – meaning his day starts at 2 a.m. There are chains like Paul, the “Starbucks” of French bread, which has expanded into 27 countries and 449 outlets worldwide. And in-between are dozens of boulangeries hedging their bets by baking and selling baguettes of varying qualities, some with additives for less, others like the “tradition” for more.

As bread goes, so, it seems, goes French gastronomy. A debate last year by lawmakers to erase the word “restaurant” from establishments that serve prepackaged frozen food mirrors one that bakers waged and won in 1998.  Since then, a “boulangerie” cannot call itself such if it doesn’t make its bread from scratch on the premises or if it uses freezing at any point in the process. The latest labeling push, not yet successful, revealed the extent to which chefs are pushing microwave buttons in the back rooms of bistros.

A boon for bread?

Top players in the bread industry continue to tout the benefits of traditional bread, says Jean-Pierre Crouzet, president of the National Confederation of Bakers and Pastry-Makers in France, who headed a 150-minute panel on this subject to launch the bread festival.

Bread’s decline has spurred a class of purists, like Fradette, and given rise to new experiments that could once again change French breadmaking – for the better.

Back in Provence, in the town of Apt, two giant bags of wheat indigenous to the region recently sat in the foyer of the Parc Naturel Regional, awaiting a local baker's demonstration for school children. It’s part of an initiative to revive a regional wheat that is long off the market but hardier and less in need of pesticide and fertilizer. The wheat’s lower yields, however, make it more expensive.

About 20 farmers are planting 150 hectares of the wheat, which is turned into bread sold in Provence at about a dozen bakeries. Public education is key to the project’s success, but so too are willing buyers. “We need to have consumers who are willing to eat it,” says the confederation's Nathalie Charles, acknowledging that the future remains unclear.

Marie-Christine Aractingi will open her first bakery, Dame Farine, or Flour Lady, next month in the Provencal city of Marseille. She does so knowing the battle of the baguette won’t easily be won. Her own parents have been known to buy bread in the supermarket, she says. And, like Fradette, she has to compete with bakers who in some cases are taking shortcuts. 

“It’s really easy to make bread,” she says, “but it’s really hard to make good bread.”

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