The story of baguette
There is nothing more French or Parisian looking than an image of a chic girl riding a bicycle along the river Seine, with a basket full of groceries, flowers, and a baguette – that long, slender loaf of bread that everyone recognizes and few can resist.
Indeed, the baguette is an everyday sight in France, where in any village or city you can see people strolling along with one tucked under their arm at any time of the day. It’s a staple food, bread with crisp crust, about 65 cm long, designed to be torn into chunks and eaten with butter and jam or with the first cup of coffee or hot chocolate in the morning, or with some delicious lunch or dinner. Or just nibbled while walking and enjoying Paris.
Images taken from Wikimedia Commons
Although the baguette may seem like a well-researched, chronicled, centuries-old part of the French cuisine and culture, it is actually more mysterious (there isn’t a proper, scientific essay on the origin and history of this bread) and a lot younger than many would assume.
The word “baguette” means stick or baton and refers to the shape of the bread – the thin, round sticks of bread. The word “baguette” first appeared in print in 1920, in a set of laws, to define a particular type of bread: “The baguette, having a minimum weight of 80 g and a maximum length of 40 cm, may not be sold for a price higher than 0.65 francs apiece.”
No one knows exactly when or why baguette took on this particular shape, but there are several stories (and some facts) that can be true.
Here are the facts:
Bread has a special status in France and in the past was the main part of the French diet. The long, wide loaves of bread have been made since the 17th century and the time of King Louis XIV. The long, thin ones were produced in the 18th century and could pass as a form of a baguette, although they were longer than the present-day baguette.
That long, stick-like loaves of bread in France gained popularity in the 18th century when French bakers began using refined Hungarian high-milled four used to bake Vienna bread. Then, in the 19th-century, Austrian entrepreneur August Zang (who also introduced the croissant to the French) introduced Viennese steam oven baking to Paris, followed by Adolf Ignaz Mautner von Markhof’s compact yeast.
Zang’s so-called deck seam ovens helped baguette get its shape and crispiness, as they allowed the crust to expand before setting, creating a lighter, airier loaf and melted the dextrose (sugar) on the surface, giving it a slightly glazed effect.
In 1920, the law prevented bakers to work from 10 pm until 4 am, making it impossible for them to bake the traditional round loves in time for breakfast. However, the slender shape of the baguette was perfect as it could be baked much more quickly.
Historian Jim Chevallier summed it up like this: The primitive form of baguette appeared in the 18th century and then changed throughout the 19th century until it was officially named in 1920.
Here are the stories that cannot be confirmed but could, maybe, be true:
One rather patriotic tale links the baguette with the French Revolution. The bread played a part in overthrowing the monarchy as the lack of bread was one of the main complaints from the Parisians who grew tired of watching nobility ear fine white loaves while all they had was barely edible bread made out of wheat, rye and mixed with sawdust, hay, dirt and sometimes even dung.
So, after the Revolution, bread was high on the priority list. The government introduced a law prohibiting bakers from making “a bread of wheat for the rich and bread of bran for the poor” and instead on only one type of bread – The Bread of Equality. As both rich and poor love baguette, it is possible that baguette is the bread of equality.
Another story is that Napoleon ordered the bread for his soldiers to be made in long, slender loaves of exact measurement to fit into a special pocket of the uniforms. As those measurements were close to the size of a modern baguette, some believe this bread was the “forefather” of baguette.
Also, there is a story of the Paris metro and its builders. As the workmen came from different regions and did not get along, and were all carrying knives to cut their bread, the supervisor, worried that violence could occur in dark, underground tunnels, went to the bakery and requested loaves that did not need to be cut. Since the loaf of bread was regulated by weight, in order to make the bread thing enough to be easily torn, the loaves became long and slender, just like a baguette.
However, not all long, slender loaves of bread are baguettes. The French love their bread and have numerous types and sorts. In France, baguette weighs around 250 grams and is usually made from basic lean dough. The loaf is formed with a series of folding and rolling motions, raised in cloth-lined baskets or in rows on a flour-sprinkled towel and baked either directly in the oven or in special pans designed to hold the shape of the baguette but allow the heat through the perforations.
The French often use it for sandwiches (submarine sandwich type), or slice them and serve with pate or cheese. For breakfast, they are spread with butter and jam and can be dunked in coffee or hot chocolate. The possibilities are enormous and they all taste good!
As the visit to Paris cannot be considered a proper visit without a baguette, just stop by one of the numerous bakeries, grab a warm, crispy baguette, tuck it under your arm and nibble through it as you explore the city.