Brief Sketch of the History of Bread and Baguettes


From pre-history to the Middle Ages


Prehistoric bread was only a raw mush made of crushed wild grains and water.

Later, people started to grill the mush on hot stones, producing flat cakes with rounded bottoms.

Around 3000 B.C.E., the Egyptians accidently invented leavened bread. Wheat grains crushed in mortars were kneaded in large clay bowls with water from the Nile, its silt rich in natural ferments similar to the yeast we have today. The dough rested for several hours, fermented naturally, and was cooked in preheated molds.

Among the Greeks, the everyday bread, maza, was a simple unfermented barley cake cooked on very hot stones. For feast days, they had artos, a wheat bread.

Later, the Greeks stopped baking bread under clay bells placed on stones and perfected baking techniques in front-opening ovens.

In the second century C.E., Athens could boast of 72 varieties of bread, including breads offered to the gods and cakes flavored with fish, olives, herbs such as clover, or fruits.

The Romans lagged behind in the baking business, because when their dough fermented accidentally, they saw it as a catastrophe!

In the second century B.C.E., the first bakers appeared in Rome, assisted by Greek slaves, who were organized in guilds.

The grain was crushed between two large millstones turned initially by slaves, later by horses. The flour was sifted by hand.

The Romans invented a horse-powered mechanical arm operating in a cylindrical basin to knead the dough. Then, for some 2000 years, this ancestor of the mechanical kneader was completely forgotten!

In masonry ovens similar to our contemporary wood-fired ovens, heated inside the baking chamber, the Romans cooked round loaves, but also loaves in many other shapes: lyres, birds, and so on.

In France, the Gauls’ taste for beer led them to use beer instead of water to make bread dough.

In the Middle Ages, a time of recurrent famine, new agricultural techniques came into use, increasing productivity: the yoke, the wheeled plough, the flail for threshing grain, and the water-driven mill wheel.

In the early 9th century, the windmill appeared in England (three centuries before it reached France).

Constrained by feudal monopolies (“banalities”) exercised by their lords, peasants wore themselves out making the obligatory treks first to the lord’s mill, then back home to do their kneading, then to the lord’s oven to bake their production, then home again.

The well-to-do used bread as a plate that could be eaten, a “trencher” to hold meat.

When there was a shortage of rye, barley, and oats, poor people made “famine bread” out of straw, clay, roots, or pulverized herbs.

From the fourteenth century to the nineteenth



Starting in the fourteenth century, a journeyman learning the trade frequently embarked on a Tour de France to work under the tutelage of master bakers according to their regional styles.

In France, these journeymen were known as compagnons, a word derived from the Latin indicating that they ate together, sharing their bread.

The French word for baker, boulanger, comes from the word boule (ball); it replaced talemelier, a word that probably derived from a verb meaning to sift or to mix.

In Paris, when the harvests were good, you could find more than thirty kinds of bread differing in form and composition, such as pain ballé, a round bran loaf, and pain bis, a grayish brown bread with alternating layers of rye and wheat. There was also something called pain raté, spoiled bread, because rats had nibbled on it; this bread was sold to the poor!

During the Renaissance, butter and milk were introduced into specialty breads (pains de fantaisie) that were famous throughout Europe.

In the eighteenth century, a time of intense reform and intellectual ferment, France continued to suffer from chronic, structural shortages. The mass of citizens derived the bulk of their calories from bread (in 1870 the level was still above 50%!) and in good times devoted at least half their income to it.

The French Revolution resulted from a complex of factors, but serious shortages in 1788 and 1789 prepared the ground. It seems in some way fitting that on the day that symbolizes this world-changing event, when thousands of Parisians stormed the Bastille—a fortress-prison—searching for grain and for arms, the price of bread reached its highest point in a hundred years.

The “bread question” remained one of the most unsettling social and political issues throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods (1789-1815) and well beyond. Once a “nourishing prince,” the king had become a “hoarder of grain.”

The belief in a “famine plot” organized by prominent individuals to attain personal gain and power went back to the era of Louis XIV, but it flourished again in the Revolution, with a new cast of villains, some of whom were summarily executed by angry crowds.

Before the Revolution, bread was a potent marker of social status: the wealthy and mighty ate wheat and white bread, while the poor (except in the larger cities) survived on dark, coarse, rather flat loaves made of lesser cereals. One of the utopian ideas of a Revolution rhetorically committed to equality and fraternity was to propose that everyone should have to eat the same bread.

The legislature never mandated this “bread of equality,” and it was widely resisted, especially by the laboring poor for whom national regeneration meant access to wheat and white loaves. On a local level, however, a number of officials briefly imposed a single type of bread, made of a mixture of wheat and rye.

In the eighteenth century, reflection on grain, flour and bread constituted a central theme in Enlightenment discussions. Proponents of laissez-faire economics wanted to deregulate the grain trade and the bakeries, which were often subjected to draconian controls. Innovative studies of bread chemistry took place. The first School of Baking opened its doors in Paris and sent lecturers around the kingdom.

A new technology called economic milling—the gradual reduction and re-passing of grain between the stones, with a mechanized sifting system and elevators incorporated in a veritable factory—increased productivity and enhanced flour quality. Baking with a combination of yeast derived from beer and a natural leaven (sour-dough, now often called a starter, to distinguish it from the frankly acidic style associated with San Francisco breadmaking) became more common because it accelerated fermentation and generated a bread of lighter texture.

Elongated loaves had existed for some time, but in French cities the eighteenth century witnessed the development of breads weighing one to three pounds in a form that resembles what became known much later as the baguette.

Toward the end of the century, a number of bakers-inventors forged prototypes of the mechanical kneading machine—you’ll quickly see the interest of this instrument if you venture to knead 250 pounds by hand all at once!

Breadmaking techniques did not change significantly during the nineteenth century. Though yeast production was perfected, leaven-based fermentation persisted in the cities (the two ferments were often mingled), and it thrived in the countryside; even so, there too professional bakers did more and more of the onerous breadmaking work that peasants had once had to do at home.

A major investigation conducted by the government in 1849 underlined the striking continuities between past and present. Workers still yearned to eat the same white bread as their bosses, a veritable social right in their eyes. Suspicions of a famine plot persisted. Shortages were less frequent, but the map of bread and grain riots in the nineteenth century remained impressively dispersed.

The government continued to set bread prices, though usually at the local level. It allowed bakers to reconstitute their guilds, but made them responsible for storing significant quantities of surplus flour as a hedge against shortfalls. Bakers enjoyed government protection against angry consumers in times of scarcity, but they continued to struggle for greater freedom.

In certain areas, bakers obtained a concession: the right to bake so-called “fantasy” breads weighing considerably less than the big loaves meant primarily for working class families; these specialty breads were exempt from price controls. Among them was an elongated loaf with rounded ends, decorated with slits carved by a razor, another “ancestral” form of the future baguette.

Workers—the famous compagnons—often bitterly resisted the introduction of mechanical kneading machines for fear of losing their jobs.

The public did not overcome its reluctance to eat what was called “mechanical” bread until late in the century, when public health specialists issued increasingly alarming warnings about the dangers of diseases, particularly tuberculosis, that could be transmitted via the sweat that flowed freely from the bodies of bakers who had to work vast amounts of dough for forty minutes or more.

Comparative tests conducted in the early twentieth century definitively showed that there were no sensorial differences between breads kneaded by hand and those kneaded by machine.

The most significant changes in the nineteenth century concerned the mills. There was a rapidly growing divide between the almost 100,000 small mills serving rural customers and the several hundred increasingly commercial mills that purchased and transformed grain in order to supply metropolitan centers.

Wind and especially water remained the dominant forms of energy, but the sturdier and more ambitious millers turned more and more often to steam. These would be the first millers to adopt the Hungarian mode, whose high-quality white flour made an enormous impression in the last several decades of the century. In the Hungarian system, practiced also by Swiss, German and Austrian millers, iron cylinders or rollers replaced the age-old stones, which proved to be much less efficient. Here, too, comparative public testing apparently demonstrated that the “cylindrical” flour enjoyed the same physico-chemical and “organoleptic” (sensorial) qualities as the stone-ground variety.


From the twentieth century to the present


Around 1900, the heating chamber of wood-fired stoves was separated from the baking chamber and placed underneath. This was one of multiple “sanitary” measures that would mark the modernization process in the bake rooms. The first coal, gas, and oil (mazout) ovens appeared: they offered continuous heating, either by warm air or steam tubes, which maintained a constant temperature better adapted to small loaves such as baguettes.

Many bakers turned to oil rather than electricity or gas as new ovens came on the market. One reason for this preference was the fear of strikes in gas and electric production that could halt bread production. But by mid-century growing anxiety that the oil debris could cause cancer led bakers to abandon this form of energy.

Gas and electric ovens today produce wonderful bread, when artisans strive for excellence. But a certain number are turning back to wood-fired ovens, which they associate emblematically with traditional artisanal values. Whatever their intrinsic merits, still debated by the experts, they offer evocative marketing opportunities.

By the end of the First World War, the vast majority of bakers had adopted mechanical kneaders, a decision accelerated by the labor shortages inflicted by the hostilities. In the 1920s, yeast eclipsed leaven in bread production in most urban areas. The experts argued that this profound change made technical sense, since leavens were much more difficult to tame and customers tended to dislike their sometimes strongly acidic notes; social reformers made the same case in the hope that the much less onerous yeast-based fabrication would allow for the reduction if not the suppression of night work, increasingly denounced as excessively harsh. (Bakers were called “white miners” and it was commonly said that “bakers did not die old.”)

The new method, called “direct” breadmaking (known to Anglo-Americans as straight-dough) certainly reduced the harshness of labor in the bake rooms. But it also induced many bakers to take shortcuts that compromised quality, especially by the drastic reduction of floor fermentation, the excessive use of yeast and salt, and the recourse to additives and improvers. The “direct” method did not stem the decrease in per capita bread consumption that would become the drama of the twentieth century artisanal bakery.

During the 1930s. bakers’ organizations worked hard to convince consumers that bread was still delicious: they organized “congresses for the promotion of good bread,” they pressed their members to apply rigor in the bake rooms, and they conducted operations that in those days were frankly called “propaganda” to convince the public. This was, after all, the golden age of the baguette—at least for a while.

The bakers who took the time to pay homage to the requirements of fermentation produced excellent breads. In addition, the 300-gram baguette was generally allowed to command whatever price the baker wished to put on it, another incentive to make a compelling product.

But the times of course were generally unfavorable: the Great Depression jolted everyone. Policies of protectionism and free trade alternated vertiginously. Extremely volatile world wheat prices led to frequent shifts between scarcity and abundance and incited governments everywhere to regulate markets.

In France, where the agricultural sector was proportionally larger than in any other advanced economy, the government guaranteed the hundreds of thousands of grain growers, ranging from small peasant cultivators to big producers, and constituting a powerful lobby, a fixed price for wheat. It also pressed the millers to reorganize in order to reduce their enormous over-capacity: in rational terms, there were simply far too many mills, probably over 15,000 in 1930. A complex system called “contingenting,” the core of which still exists today, assigned production rights—in fact, ceilings—to millers, enabling many marginal bakers to continue working while encouraging others to accept compensation in return for cessation of activity.

Just as it ravaged life in many areas, the Second World War complicated the story of milling and baking: shortages had to be managed, bread was rationed, production quotas were imposed on millers, none of whom could choose their suppliers, and bakers were assigned to millers regardless of their wishes. In this highly bureaucratized, interventionist environment, there was essentially no longer any free commerce between millers and bakers.

The Liberation did not restore liberty to these exchanges any more than it brought back white loaves for consumers, given the decade of scarcity that followed and that perpetuated a more or less authoritarian system of basic food supply. Bread briefly surged back to become the centerpiece of the daily diet for millions of people impoverished or dislocated by the war.

As in the eighteenth century, bread was once again at the center of a great policy debate on the relative merits of a market economy versus a dirigiste or state-regulated economy. Until the mid-1950s, the daily bread was a grayish loaf made with poor quality wheat and a range of ersatz ingredients including rye, barley, potatoes, corn, beans, and, if one is to believe the Nobel-Prize winning French writer J. M. G. Le Clézio, sawdust. (The latter, high in fiber, later turned up in certain American industrial sliced white loaves!)

The apparently accidental discovery of the “intensified kneading” process, aided by the oxidizing presence of fava bean flour and the stabilizing role of vitamin C, resulted in a lovely, shapely, ultra-white loaf that briefly reassured the French public—until people realized, upon reflection, that it lacked savor and aroma. This method required less work from the baker and seemed to meet customers’ expectations —until the authorities realized that bread consumption was not picking up, as they had hoped.

But the artisans did not wait to modernize. In the fervor of post-war reconstruction and thanks to the availability of cheap credit, they invested heavily in two-speed kneaders and a whole range of other machines. They were heavily invested psychologically as well as financially in these new approaches; they found it almost impossible to admit that they had quality problems with their bread.

Meanwhile, the artisans faced a new sort of competition: the emergence of industrial bakers, par-bakers who “pre-cooked” and froze thousands of baguettes every hour. These baguettes, in the eyes of some consumers not very different from the bread they found in the shops of many local artisans, were “reheated” all over the country in “terminals” that represented a major threat to the artisanal sector. At the same time, the big-box stores, using “terminal” bread or baking artisanally on their own premises, used loss-leader prices to lure consumers to their giant emporiums.

In the late 1980s, following the efforts of a handful of millers including Philippe Viron, who had sounded the alarm, bakers began to react. In their national meeting (called the “Estates General”) of 1983 they “officially” owned up to the fact that they had problems with bread quality, that they had strayed too far from their artisanal moorings, and that they had to rethink the way they made their baguettes and other breads. They had to do this in order to win back skeptical consumers, to seduce them, and to survive the challenge of the industrial bakers and the supermarket chains which were able to offer unbeatable prices. The only terrain on which the artisans could triumph was the arena of quality: aroma, taste, pleasure, emotion.

Philippe Viron crusaded—the word is not too strong—for the return to good bread. To achieve this, he offered impeccable flour, technical assistance, round-the-clock accessibility, and immense élan. Bakers who wanted to reclaim their ancestral competence and prestige found themselves in harmony with Viron’s message and his flour. In a very real way, that message was an even more exigent version of the remedies proposed by the 1933 Bread Decree, which prescribes the norms for making peerless artisanal baguettes and other breads.

Now it’s time to train tomorrow’s apprentices and artisans!

Will the 21st century finally give us good bread for everyone?