French bakers urge the French to eat more bread

But the Monitor's Europe bureau chief finds that baguettes, like all things, should be taken in moderation.

Sara Miller Llana
The daughter of the Monitor's Europe bureau chief enjoys a baguette.

The New York Times has a fascinating story this week on the French penchant for bread – or rather the country’s declining penchant. 

“The average Frenchman these days eats only half a baguette a day compared with almost a whole baguette in 1970 and more than three in 1900,” the paper reports.

What? I would never guess that from the line at the bakery right down the street, which is always long, and often out the door.

But the story does go a long way to clear up some mysteries that I’ve been encountering on an anecdotal basis here.

In my adult life, eating white bread has been naughty. It’s wheat or nothing, with slices of baguette something just reserved for a special dinner out. So it was with a degree of glee that I moved here and saw virtually everyone munching off the tips of baguettes while walking down the street. If they can do it, so can we!

And that we did. One of the first things that made us laugh when we moved to France was walking into the kitchen in our temporary apartment and finding that our two-year-old had grabbed a baguette from the table and proceeded to chow down.

Except, it’s now been four months and, unfortunately, a few extra kilos.

I always think of the book “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” which purports that, among other things, women can eat what they want here because they are slowing down and thoroughly enjoying it.

But I’ve come to learn that they also eat minuscule proportions. When you eat French food – croissants, buttery sauces, chocolate tarts, and yes, baguettes – like an American, you are in trouble.

It just so happens that we woke up to this revelation this very week and banned baguettes – as well as the sweets from the bakery – from our house. It’s going to be a two-week trial, with the goal of incorporating it back into our lives at much smaller volumes (i.e., we do not need to be eating two baguettes a day between three, one of whom is a toddler).

It’s decisions as such that are apparently worrying the Observatoire du Pain, the baker’s lobby, which the Times reports recently launched a campaign to draw the French back to bread, as a cheap and healthy option – and part of simply being French. 

“Coucou, tu as pris le pain?” (“Hi there, have you picked up the bread?”) is the campaign’s slogan. Modeled on the American advertising campaign “Got Milk?” the bread slogan was plastered on billboards and inscribed on bread bags in 130 cities around the country.  …

The campaign’s Web site, www.tuasprislepain.fr, explains that “France is a ‘civilization of bread’ and this food is part of the traditional meal ‘à la française.' ”

Bread is described as healthy and useful in avoiding weight gain. “It is rich in vegetal protein and fiber and low in fat; glucides are a source of energy,” the Web site says, using the French word for carbohydrate.

If people on diets want “to avoid giving in to something with fat and sugar, bread is there,” it says. “Its satiating effect allows you to wait for the next meal.”

The campaign reads a bit like desperation, but I don’t think the bread and pastry makers of France need to worry just yet. France, the Times reports, still enjoys the world’s highest density of independent bakeries. And even if the number, 32,000, is down from 54,000 in 1950, there are still too many bakeries for one bread-loving family to easily resist. 

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