A quick Google search assures me that the French use ‘être une bonne pâte’ (to be a good dough, more or less literally) as a vaguely colloquial equivalent of ‘a decent chap’ (or female equivalent, no doubt. But we know that I could spend hours of agonising over register and gender-neutrality, and actually I’m just trying to make a joke about bread and the French.). This is not surprising, as the boulangerie remains an essentially ubiquitous feature of French towns and villages. Sensationalist headlines over the summer threatened baguette shortages in Paris, as some funny legislation that meant bakers had to follow a kind of rota for their holidays (ensuring a constant supply of baked goods to the capital) was scrapped, and flour anarchy was unleashed. Or, most likely, not, because there are SO MANY BOULANGERIES in Paris that it would be quite impressive if they all managed to toddle off to the Côte d’Azur at the same time. But anyway, bread is a thing. And that was great when I was cycling.
I mean, imagine this. You pedal into a small town, around lunchtime. You’ve already stocked up on cheese, tomatoes, other miscellaneous sandwich items, but you’re missing the carbohydrate base. Where do you go? Oh look, there’s a big blue sign helpfully pointing you in the direction of the boulangerie. Oooh, it’s full of people buying an incomprehensible amount of baked products. (Do they all have huge families? Are they freezing these extra loaves? Are they making fishcakes and thus need breadcrumbs? All of the above?) You join the queue. You agonise over which of the many loaves you actually want. You realise that the baguette is a ridiculous loaf form, because there is no way of discreetly carrying it anywhere. (Take it from someone who once spent several hours walking round a town centre with a baguette wrapped in the tiniest piece of paper you have ever seen. It was basically skimpy underwear for bread. And I kept wondering why I was getting white powder everywhere. IT WAS FLOUR, OK?) And then you buy it, hack it open with a penknife and with any luck it will still be warm and your lunch will be a million times better than anything you will ever buy from Tesco. Ever.
Task 2: Try and envisage that in an English town. No, better still, I’ll tell you how it rolls. (Disclaimer 1: I grew up in a grim ex-mill town in the north. I am allowed to be disparaging about such places. I know what they’re like. Oh, and Disclaimer 1.5: that pun was accidental.) On the way into town, you spot the dreaded sign: Superstore. You will have to negotiate a badly designed roundabout, nearly getting killed by people suddenly swerving into the petrol station and in search of a meal deal. Once past that particular obstacle, you will arrive in the ‘town centre’, which will be full of empty shop premises, at least three mini supermarkets (one a tiny clone of the large out-of-town establishment you’ve just passed), and, if you’re lucky, a Greggs or cheap equivalent (yes, there are places where Greggs is upmarket), or a Pound Bakery, a slightly terrifying place full of plastic-wrapped multipacks of baked products. (Think donuts and meat pies.) This is probably part of a much bigger issue about the fact that town centres no longer really exist in a lot of places, including in huge swathes of my formerly-industrial northern homeland, because all of the shops have been outsourced to retail parks or online suppliers, housing estates are oddly self-contained and accessible only by car, so being a pedestrian is not just a disadvantage but actually difficult, whilst closing sources of employment means that people no longer have any reason to be in the town anyway. What it means in practice is that some towns that might at one point have been nice places to live, at least for the sense of community and shared experiences, have become pretty grim. But I wasn’t going to go all political here.
Let’s talk briefly about prices. A decent baguette (I’ll talk about the vagaries of bread choice in a minute) costs about 1€10. Less than a pound. My guilty treat is a breakfast croissant/pain au chocolat aux amandes. (Frangipane makes literally everything better. Unless you have a nut allergy, obviously.) We’re talking 1€20, maybe 1€40 if you go to a bit of a fancy place in a big city, and that’s probably the most expensive breakfast pastry item they do. If I traipse across Oxford in one direction or another, I can get French bread, but it’s going to cost me double what it would in France. Why? Because it is no longer a staple that crosses class boundaries but a luxury product, a lifestyle choice, and thus priced accordingly, I would imagine. But one thing that did surprise me was the massive expansion of Lidl in France. It’s been a little while since I was out and about in the French provinces, but I don’t remember it being anywhere near as widespread. And I’ve nothing against them, especially since a lot of the kilometres I cycled were powered by their cereal bars and uber-cheap salted peanuts. But I’m fascinated and bewildered in equal measure by the success of their bread section. Where my parents live, near the aforementioned northern mill town, the Lidl recently expanded and put in a bakery section. It’s not bad. But I somehow wasn’t expecting this German chain to actually be succeeding at selling bread to the French. (There are definitely ironic war connotations to the whole thing, but let’s not go there.) It felt somehow wrong to see people loading up the conveyor belt with bags of 39 centime baguettes. I think because I had the nation down as arbiters of good bread taste (their odd fondness for crustless sliced bread (it looks weirdly naked and white and inedible) I had blamed on Americanisation. Because I can blame the US for everything.), and all of a sudden they, or some of them at least, were showing me that they were willing to ditch the local boulanger for the cheap convenience of a supermarket.
Just to clarify, it’s not just Lidl: Intermarché, LeClerc, Carrefour have all got bakery sections which, rather like those in British supermarkets, offer ‘loose’ baked products in baskets, somehow endeavoring to simulate the experience of a bakery and make the consumer forget that this is all produced on a massive, industrial scale. And this brings me to one of the central paradoxes I see in France time and again: the clash of the tiny and the enormous. There is no middle ground. Either I go to the local bakery (quick digression: the general presentation is ‘Monsieur and Madame X’s boulangerie’, which may or may not have a bread pun-related name. It’s suggested that Monsieur bakes, Madame is behind the counter. Their son will assist with the baking, their daughter will work in the shop, presumably until he inherits and she marries another baker’s son and moves shop. I’m wildly generalising and simplifying here, obviously, but I basically envisage it as a real-life version of those children’s books about Mr & Mrs Coffin the Undertakers etc.), negotiating its quirky opening hours (because yes, in France it is not uncommon for food shops to close at lunchtime. Although they do last out longer than the British 4.30pm – you can’t buy a butty at lunchtime but people need bread for tea.) and vagaries of stock, and queue if I arrive at a popular time, and various other inconveniences, or I can just grab a load of bread at the supermarket when I do the rest of my shop, freeze supplies for the week and be done with it. In short, I can go British.
That’s being sensationalist, of course. The French have more of a bread culture than we do, and that’s reflected by the range that’s still available at boulangeries and the general preferences people express. Ask a British person how they’d like their baguette cooked, and they’ll blink, confused, and possibly reply ‘in the oven?’. A French person will tell you ‘bien cuite’, ‘pas trop bien cuite’, ‘un peu plus cuite’ etc. (You are genuinely asked if the loaf is OK before you pay for it. And I have seen many a person request a different one. Because they’re not awkwardly sheepish like we are.) The standard baguette isn’t actually that exciting, but once you get onto ‘Tradition’, ‘Grand Siècle’, wholemeal, seeds, funny twisty shapes and whatever else they fancy, it gets a lot more interesting. French campsites tend to offer a bread delivery service, because it is unfathomable that you could begin the day without. Rural communities have a bread man the way Britain once had milkmen. And everyone, from the smallest child to old ladies or respectable looking businessmen types (if such a thing actually exists), struggles with the temptation to break the end off a fresh baguette and nibble it on the way home. I’m yet to meet anyone who rips open the Hovis bag to snack on the crust as they drive out of the supermarket car park.
I romanticise France and the French, and I’m fully aware of that: I travel through selected areas living a very particular lifestyle and I find it more appealing than the mundanity of my British existence. (Incidentally, I also bought the last remaining ham and cheese sandwich at about 2.30pm in the rain from a very grim Breton town. And I’m vegetarian. But that’s another story.) But it is genuinely true that in some aspects, and bread is very much one of these, they seem to belong to a younger, more innocent, perhaps more traditional age. And I’d really rather they didn’t grow up, didn’t get cynical and lose the sense of magic that surrounds this mystical craft and the wonder of eating something that is basically made from flour and water. Apart from anything else, have you ever tried to pack a sliced loaf in a bike panier?