Friday, February 26, 2016

FRENCH BREAD HISTORY: Seventeenth century bread

This is the seventh in a series of posts on the history of French bread. The preceding post in the series was on Renaissance/sixteenth century bread. Further information on bread history can be found on Facebook in the Bread History Lounge.- If you want to MAKE medieval bread, click here.

The seventeenth century was a turning point in French bread history. At the start of the century, bread in France was not very different than it had been in the Middle Ages. By its end, bread had changed in several significant ways; it was already closer to the bread of today than that which had preceded it for centuries.

Breads at the start of the century

The last Parisian bread statutes in the sixteenth century were set in 1567 and renewed in 1577; they named the usual three qualities of bread: white, pain bourgeois and pain bis.

In his Théâtre d'Agriculture (1600), Olivier de Serres listed the main breads of Paris (presumably as they were actually sold, not necessarily as the law defined them). He begins his list with the luxurious pain mollet:
The finest bread is that called pain mollet ["softish bread"], which bakers make by tolerance.... It is normally small, and round: is very light, spongy, and flavorful, because of the salt put in it, which makes it less white than it would be without it, none of the other breads either of the city or the field being at all salted.
This is a useful, and unusually specific, description of the bread itself. It is also important in specifically saying that most bread in the region was not made with salt at this point. (Why the salt changed the color is unclear, unless the salt itself was impure.)

Strangely, he skips simple white (blanc) bread, which theoretically was the best available to most people. Did those who could afford white bread in fact more often buy the better (but officially suspect) pain mollet?

He may be considering the next two grades of bread as white, whereas the earlier statute treats pain bourgeois as of middling quality (between white and dark):
The breads called Bourgeois, and that called Chapter [Chapitre], come after the mollet, only differing between them in the form, the Bourgeois rising more in its rounding, than chapter. which is more pressed, flatter: both are of very white substance, highly kneaded, weighing sixteen ounces.... Dark white [bis blanc] follows next; it is a little grey. Finally the Dark [bis], which being of the darker color is also of the lowest price.....
He is one of the first to mention the bread of Gonesse, which replaced that of Chailli as the best quality of bread in normal trade:
From neighboring villages, various sorts of bread are brought to the said city, of which the most remarkable is that of Gonesse... It is very white and fine, holding its own with mollet when eaten fresh, but after a day is not pleasant. This bread varies in body, being made large and small, in flat round shape...
In the same way exists bread from other places, varying in body, in shape, color, quality and price, there being large, small, round, long, white and gray, intended for all sorts of people.
De Serres writes that in Paris household bread (pain de menage) sometimes actually was made in private homes, though sometimes too by bakers, and that it could be made in any desired shape. but was always halfway between bis-blanc and bis.

In 1611, Randle Cotgrave published a French-English dictionary which is a classic source for a great deal of period information. In providing definitions for various breads, he also incidentally inventories those available in France at the time.

His definition of pain mollet is similar to de Serres': “a verie light, verie crustie, and savorie white bread, full of eyes, leaven, and salt.” Note that at this point it was made with “leaven”; that is, sourdough leavening.

Cotgrave also defines pain de cour and pain de bouche as synonymous with pain mollet, as was already true in the previous century. All of these referred to an especially good quality of white bread, beyond the white bread (pain blanc) typically mentioned in statutes; the latter was also named as pain de Chailli, which he defines as "a verie white bread (named so of Chailli a village) the loafe whereof is to weigh 12 ounces, and to be sold for 12 d[eniers] .Paris[is] when a Septier of wheat is worth 20 s[ous]. Tourn[ois]."

Though they are sometimes synonymous, he defines the middling quality breads separately: pain bis-blanc ("wheaten bread, or bolted bread”) and pain bourgeois "crible bread betweene white and brown; a bread (that somewhat resembles our wheaten, or cheat) a loafe whereof is to weigh, when tis baked, 32 ounces.") The same is true for the lowest quality of bread, which he defines separately as: pain bis ("browne bread, houshold bread, course bread") and pain de brode ("browne bread, course houshold bread; a loafe whereof is to weight 96 ounces, or six pound.").

His definitions for a number of other breads include one for pain de Chapitre as "a fine, white, hard-kneaded, and flat manchet, weighing about 16 ounces.” As seen earlier, this bread had been known for some time, but was not mentioned in statutes. However the next Parisian statutes (in 1635) define these four types of bread: white (de chaillis), pain de Chapitre, pain bourgeois (bis-blanc) and bis (or brode). Until now, Parisian statutes had typically defined three grades of bread; now there were four.

The same statute says (for the first time) that bakers can, if asked, make pain mollet, “Gonesse style”. This is a rare mention of the bread of Gonesse together with the bread of Chailli; the former was starting to displace the latter as the preferred bread from outside Paris. Cotgrove defines it as “a delicate white bread, made in a village called Gonesse; whose water is reported to be the chiefe cause of that delicacie." Going into the eighteenth century it would be known as the best bread in the Paris region. Note however that the statute refers to "Gonesse style" bread made by Parisian bakers; that is, even this early on it was not necessarily made in Gonesse itself.

Note too that some of these definitions overlap or contradict each other; bread terminology has rarely been technical or codified and often varies with each author. Otherwise, nothing about these breads is significantly different from those mentioned in the previous century. Some are specifically described as round; the others probably were as well. Nor is any difference noted in how they were made, all of wheat flour: sifted to different degrees of quality, and leavened with sourdough.

Yeast and the queen's pain mollet
Marie de' Medici, raised in Florence, married Henri IV in 1600 (she would not be crowned until 1610). By 1644, a special type of pain mollet existed called “bread in the Queen's style” (pain à la Reine). Unlike earlier pain mollet, this was leavened with yeast, not sourdough. De la Mare, at the start of the eighteenth century, wrote more specifically that it was made with milk, which made it harder to leaven, thus requiring yeast to leaven it.

However, writers in previous centuries mention bread made with milk, but nothing about it being made with yeast. And all the details on how the new pain mollet was made come in 1667 or later. As for the queen's supposed use of this bread, it is not clear if one of her bakers came up with the idea or if it was something she knew from Florence. Whatever the case, the standard narrative is that Marie de' Medici developed a taste for bread made with milk and yeast and so popularized pain mollet made in this way. By the middle of the seventeenth century, pain mollet was synonymous with fine bread leavened with yeast, despite the fact that the bread had been known since at least the fourteenth century and had always been made with sourdough.

Pains de fantaisie
This is in turn led to a variety of fashionable breads, all made with more or less milk or butter and leavened with yeast: pain de segovie, pain à ia montauron, pain de Gentilly, etc. While in previous centuries a variety of breads had existed across France and in different contexts, this variety within Paris was an innovation and the start of a spectrum of breads being available in Parisian bakeries that went well beyond the three or four breads defined in statutes.

The bakers who made these and the standard breads were known as “bakers of petit pain”. This literally means “small bread”, today it means roll and in fact the standard size for white breads had long hovered around a pound, indeed making them by today's standards like rolls. The other bakers were “bakers of gros pain”. This literally means “large bread”, but Cotgrave defines the term as “coarse brown bread” and typically it was the coarser grades of bread which were made in the larger sizes.

Bakers of petit pain loved pain mollet for a particular reason. Unlike the standard breads, it was not regulated ("taxed") by size and price; bakers could charge what they wanted for it. What is more, such bread appealed to a wealthier clientele. Not unexpectedly, bakers preferred to make it. This was so much the case that the 1635 statute obliged them to have the standard statutory breads on hand. The right to make pain mollet was exceptional (“They can nonetheless make pain mollet, Gonesse style, and otherwise, for the convenience of those who want to use it”) and had to be exercised with discretion; they could not display this bread out front (“so they will put it in the back rooms of their shops, or wherever it will not be seen”). As different varieties of pain mollet became fashionable, the temptation to focus on these became all the stronger. In 1645, a statute's language showed a certain exasperation on the part of the authorities:
Nonetheless for several years the said Bakers, excusing themselves from observing the Statutes, have stopped making bread of Chailly; and instead of the latter, against the Law's intent, excuse themselves from making [it] and substitute several other sorts of breads, to which they give names which strike their fantasy; that is pain de la Reine, à la Montoronne, à la mode, pain bléme, Gonnesse style, and various other names; which breads they make with no order or weight, and do not garnish their workspaces and boutiques with any other bread, and sell the said shaped bread to the public's great detriment, as much by the loss of weight in making the said bread, which is not so nourishing as Statutory bread; and the said Bakers find so great a gain in selling the said counterfeited bread, that they make almost no other, so that at ten to eleven o'clock in the morning one does not find in the best Baker's shops any pain de Chapitre, and very often no bis blanc, which is the bread of the poor, and so that individuals who go to get bread, either Chapitre or Bourgeois, not finding any, are forced to buy the said counterfeited breads...
The statute goes on to try to force bakers to have the standard breads available and to sell the various pains mollets at prices linked to those for the statutory breads. Note the phrase “names which strike their fantasy”; this was the start of a long history of bakers preferring to make unregulated luxury breads that were later known as “fantasy breads” (pains de fantaisie; the English would call them “fancy breads”), making it hard for customers to buy the statutory breads at regulated prices.

The Quarrel of Pain Mollet
For several decades, the various types of pain mollet were made with yeast without incident. It must have helped that, in theory at least, they were intended for a limited clientele. Most bread was still made with sourdough, as it had been since Roman times. Pastry-makers used yeast and it later came out that in some cities in France even bread-bakers did so. But in Paris its use was as exceptional as it was unchallenged.

Until 1667, the year of the “Quarrel of Pain Mollet”.

Ultimately this tempest in a teapot would determine the place of yeast in Parisian bread-baking. But it began with an entirely different question: what bread could cabaret-owners buy for their clientele? (Cabarets at this point were little more than taverns which could officially serve meals.) They had been obliged to buy bread from Parisian bakers – effectively, bakers of petit pain – but wanted to buy bread from outside Paris – typically in large loaves – which they would then cut up for their customers. The makers of the more luxurious Gonesse bread joined them in their suit, being after all bakers from outside Paris.

Anyone who has paid careful attention to modern food disputes may have noticed that sometimes what is really a fight over access to a market is framed as being about health/and.or safety. The latter after all is an altruistic concern as opposed to the more self-interested goals of commerce. This is what happened here. In trying to avoid buying the smaller Parisian breads, the litigants came up with the claim that, because these were made with yeast, they were unhealthy.

This led to different decisions, first by a group of doctors, who declared the use of yeast unhealthy, then by the Parlement (a judicial, not a legislative, body). In the course of deliberations by the latter, it was pointed out that bread was made with yeast in some other places in France. Unfortunately, no specific places were named. Probably, these were cities closer to the north; that is, near the Flemish, who had long used yeast in their bread.

A series of decisions ended with one on March 21, 1670 which rejected the cabaret-owners' request (so that they were still obliged to buy their customers' bread from Parisian bakers) and explicitly allowed Parisian bakers to use yeast, but on condition that they buy it locally and that it be fresh.

As a practical matter, this meant that yeast was now a standard leavening method in Paris. But in practice it continued to be used mainly for luxury breads, or to reinforce sourdough leavening.

It is not clear how seriously this affair was taken in its own time, but once yeast became commonplace in Parisian baking, it looked trivial, even comic, in retrospect. A hundred years later, when another group of doctors tried to ban inoculation (then new in France), La Condamine, a supporter of inoculation, responded by writing a long humorous poem on the pain mollet controversy. Though the poem never once mentions inoculation, his withering satire of those who resisted change was plain at the time.

Other breads and uses of bread
The best documented bread has always been municipal bread. But sources mention others.

De Serres describes some of the bread from outside Paris:
As for the bread of the village folk around Paris, laborers, vineyard workers, and other workers of the earth, it is typically made of maslin, which is composed of wheat and rye of which the flour being finely sifted is shaped into good bread for the tenant-farmer, his wife and children, and a second for his servants.
He also uses the term pain rousset (reddish bread) for another bread made with wheat and rye, this one he says given to the gentry for reasons of health. He later refers to “true maslin” (vrai meteil), which he defines as coarsely sifted wheat flour. He also describes a pain bigarré (pied bread), made with alternate layers of wheat and rye dough – that is, of white and gray color.

Oat bread had rarely been mentioned in France since the Middle Ages, but Cotgrave gives a translation for this term, suggesting that it still existed. Today, pain perdu (literally, "lost bread") simply means bread pudding, but Cotgrave defines it as a ”broth made of wine, rose-water, and sugar, eggs and bread." He also refers to pain fraisé; this very literally means a reamed or plaited bread, but he defines it as "a Panado of the crumbs of stale bread soaked a while in 2 or 3 changes of water, then boiled in a pipkin with butter, or any other sweet and fat moisture; or in a Capons broth; and often stirred." (This recalls a curious use of saved bread crumbs in the Regula Magistri, an early monastic law.)

Pain coquillé already existed in earlier centuries but Cotgrave defines it now as "a kind of hard-crusted bread, whose loafs do somewhat resemble the Dutch Buns of our Rhenish Wine houses." He also defines the very large pain de brasse as “a great houshold loafe of course bread, like our Chesloafe.” (The latter has not been identified.)

A special type of bread, pain de mouton (sheep bread), was given by servants to their masters' children on New Year's Day. This was basically a very small white loaf, glazed and sprinkled with wheat grains.

The term pain de fenêtre (window or display bread) referred most literally to the bread a baker put on display (bearing in mind there were no plate glass windows at this point; the window was simply an opening). Cotgrave defines it as “brown bread”, but other sources say to the contrary that it was whatever best bread the baker made, displayed to tempt customers. Parisian bakers were obliged to give a pain de fenetre to the Priory of St. Lazare, implying that the bread was a favored one. Rather than being contradictory, the two different meanings may reflect the fact that the authorities (as seen above) sometimes obliged bakers not to display their pain mollet, for instance, but to sell it discreetly from a back room, leaving only lesser breads to show in their windows.

Beyond the breads of Chailly and Gonesse other breads from outside Paris were known as pain chaland, a term which is variously said to refer to the barges which brought them into town or to the clientele which bought it (chalan meant a barge, chaland a business' customers).

The Chailly and Gonesse breads were not the only ones to be prized in the nearest big city. Cotgrave defines the bread of Potensac as “a delicate bread made in a Village called Potensac, near unto Bordeaux.". He also mentions a specific loaf called pain de pannière, “a great white loaf yielded by the Tenants of St. Gondon sur Loire unto their Lord, yearly, and besides their Cens." Very likely other such special types of loaves or bread existed which went unrecorded.

Long bread
French bread until this point had, with few exceptions, been round. Sometimes it was spherical; sometimes it was round and slightly risen. But whatever the variation, the basic round shape had dominated French bread for centuries.

Rare exceptions can be found. De la Mare wrote (in the eighteenth century) of “long, split breads of two pounds” that existed in 1577. In a quote above, de Serres includes long breads as one type of those made in places beyond Paris. In the seventeenth century itself, La Varenne, in describing napkin folding, recommended putting two long breads on top of one type of fold.

These very rare references are enough to show that long breads were not completely unknown before the end of the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth however these would become dominant.

Le Grand d'Aussy (1783) placed this change at the end of this century and linked it directly to the new pain mollet: “It is only towards the end of the last century when the different sorts of the breads called mollet were greatly multiplied that long bread began to be made, because the crumb of the latter being less good, more crust was wanted.” If Le Grand was right, then the advent of pain mollet made with yeast (which is what he was referring to) not only led to longer breads (which have proportionately more crust relative to the crumb than round breads), but initiated the French love of a good crust on bread, something never mentioned in previous centuries. (Note though that Cotgrave describes the earlier pain mollet as "verie crustie", suggesting that this was already viewed as a quality in 1611.)

In this century then, Parisian bread-baking changed in several key ways. The term pain mollet became virtually synonymous with yeast-leavened bread, even though such bread had existed for centuries as a sourdough leavened bread.The use of yeast became standard, if still far from universal. This may in turn have led to making more long breads, a development which would culminate in the baguette, and in new appreciation for a good crust.  The idea of pains de fantaisie (fancy breads) first appeared and would play a key role in French bread-baking well into the twentieth century. A much wider variety of breads became available in commerce, whereas in previous centuries no more than four or five, relatively stable, types had been offered.

Less enduringly, the bread of Gonesse replaced the bread of Chailly (in fact, Chilly) as the best bread brought in from outside Paris.

Overall, bread in the seventeenth century made important strides beyond medieval bread towards the bread Parisians know today.


De la Mare, Nicolas, Traité de la police, vol 2 1722

Olivier de Serres, Le Theatre d'Agriculture et Mesnage des Champs d' Olivierde Serres..., 1603

A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, ed. Randle Cotgrave, 1611
Assembled from two scans in the French National Library by Greg Lindahl

Guybert, Philbert,  Toutes les oeuvres charitables de Philbert Guybert 1644

Journal du palais, ou recueil des principales décisions de tous lesparlemens & cours souveraines de France Vol 3

Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique de Grimm et de Diderot, depuis1753 jusqu'en 1790 Vol 4 1829

Cholet, Estienne, Remarques singulières de Paris 1881

de La Varenne, Francois Pierre, Le cuisinier francois, ou est enseigne la maniere d'apprêter toutesorte de viandes  1680

Legrand d'Aussy, Pierre Jean-Baptiste, Histoire De La Vie Privée Des Français: Depuis l'origine de la Nation jusqu'à nos jours, Vol 1, Issue 1 1782

For an English version of Le Grand d'Aussy's texts on bread, along with pasty and sweets:

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