The eighteenth century saw several shifts which, taken together, brought bread much closer to today’s than to what had come before. These included the use of a softer dough, a preference for long over round breads and, closely related, a taste for crust. Other changes were more subtle, or behind the scenes, if you will. Notably, economic milling, a more efficient processing of grain, arose and the middlings – gruau – went from being a waste product to providing the basis for a luxury flour.
This century was also the first great century of documentation, with near-manic efforts to put even the most banal facts down on paper. Ultimately, this resulted in Diderot’s Encyclopedia, which remains today one of the prime sources on numerous trades. Where in the past these had often been recorded incidentally, or at best for practitioners, now they were methodically studied and recorded in accounts made available to anyone with sufficient means and education. A number of such works preserved useful details on period bread-making. But two writers in particular gave it careful attention: Malouin and Parmentier. Malouin's work was by far the most detailed. But Parmentier, who was Malouin's effective successor, wrote several works whose importance has endured. Malouin in particular left such a highly detailed account of bread-baking that even specialists today would be hard put to absorb it completely. This means that any brief summary of eighteenth century bread-baking necessarily omits a wealth of material available in the period.
These two admirable and even endearing men did not always agree and their disagreements have an important place in bread history. But they shared not only a passionate interest in the problems around creating the best, most flavorful bread, but a very real concern for those who often had no bread at all.
Over the centuries, royal taxation had also made salt – a native French product – dauntingly expensive. As a result, by several accounts, French bakers now used it less. Though opposing evidence exists, the overall impression from period texts is that French bread was often viewed as bland because it was so often made with little or no salt.
Yet Malouin boasted of, as in previous centuries, the superiority of French bread:
One finds French bakers in all of Europe; and it is certain that in no other country in the world in general is bread made so well as in France. Baking, like all the other crafts, is more perfected there than anywhere else.A number of famines occurred in this period. The aristocratic monopoly on hunting prevented most of the poor from hunting their own meat, which at any rate had become impractical for residents of growing cities, as had foraging or farming, and so bread became central to the diet of the poor. The central importance of bread meant that “famine” typically was synonymous with a shortage of grain. In a time of increased research and experimentation, one side-effect of these shortages was to push figures like Parmentier to seek out alternative products, such as potatoes, for making bread.
Controversies over key ingredients
Salt, water and yeast are all simple, even elemental products, yet in this early modern century the use of each of these in bread was more or less controversial.
Yeast had become established in French bread-baking in the previous century (though sourdough remained the more common leavening method). Often, per Malouin, yeast and sourdough were used together:
Fermentation is not a simple dissolution, it is not a simple extraction; it is a more intimate division and at the same time a combination, from which a new composition always results: it is why to make good bread, one must use a leavening which successively produces these effects which are neither too prompt nor too slow; it is according to this principle that the bakers of Paris are accustomed to tempering the vivacity of yeast by mixing in sour dough to make softish bread, and to animate sour dough with yeast to make half-soft bread.But he also wrote: “Today we have returned to the old feeling against yeast, and it is agreed today that it is even better to do without it in making bread.” Parmentier shared the older scholar's reservations about the use of yeast, yet adopted a more resigned tone:
Although I am certain that yeast rarely makes good bread, and that it would be desirable that its use be banned in Baking, I nonetheless cannot refuse to dedicate an article to this artificial leavening....; because, well-founded as my reasons are (as admit several Bakers enlightened by experience), I do not flatter myself to be able to turn around spirits decided on this subject; but what matter, useful truths must always be presented; there comes a time when the clouds which cover them dissipate.Mercifully for Parmentier, he did not live to see the increased, not reduced, use of yeast in French bread. And yet even some artisan bakers today share his distrust of yeast.
The role of water
Parmentier seems to have been particularly frustrated by the long-standing idea that the type of water mattered when making bread.
In vain has it been claimed that rain water is the best for making dough rise, because being lighter than that of the fountain that of river and fountain, it better worked its way into the bits of flour mixed with leavening, than hard and cold waters which had trouble warming, not being suited to bread, and that the variety of this food came from the diversity of waters used in it: this opinion is absolutely unfounded, we must see how ridiculous and abusive it is.He then goes on at some length to describe the ways in which people would blame water for problems in baking without considering all the other elements in making it and reports his own experiments with the same flour in areas with different water. But the idea that the quality of the water affects the quality of the bread has never entirely disappeared.
Malouin complained about the reluctance of period bakers to use salt:
It is by economy that most bakers abstain from putting salt in the dough; and it is a false economy, because not only does the salt give the bread a better quality which makes up for the expense of salt; which is small, when it is used properly; but also because because salt making more water come into the dough, also makes more air come in, and so increases the quantity of bread.According to Le Grand d’Aussy, the royal tax on salt (the gabelle) had made its use less popular in bread:
Before the gabelle had made salt as expensive as it is today, the general custom in France was to salt bread. … This is the custom of almost all the nations of Europe; and this is why when foreigners come to Paris, they at first find our bread insipid, even if in actuality it is better that that made where they come from.(Note the stubborn French chauvinism at the end.) This may have been less of a problem for luxury breads, whose buyers did not consider cost. But it seems that ordinary French bread in this time was made with little or no salt.
Le Grand d’Aussy points out that other grains, such as barley, had been used by the ancients and questions why French bakers had come to use their talents mainly on wheat. In regard to barley, he writes:
How has it happened that this grain, so known for its restorative qualities, that this grain which inspired from Hippocrates an entire book of praise, that this grain finally from which the Greeks drew not only their best porridges, but further these fine and nourishing drinks which they called tisanes, is only intended among us for the fattening of poultry, for making beer, and sometimes gruel? By what lack of skill have we come to make of it a bread that only the most unfortunate of peasants dare to eat, and when, after the famous winter of 1709, the people found themselves reduced to it, it was called famine bread...
But the century’s famines made some neglected grains, if not popular, necessary. In 1709, Madame de Maintenon had oat bread made for the poor and said that if oats were properly made, they could yield a very good bread. A great deal of rice was brought in from abroad in the same year; it was used again in 1768.Gruau
In the eighteenth century, a shift occurred which would have profound implications for luxury breads. Millers had long discarded the middlings, or fed them to animals. In French, these have the same name as gruel: gruau. As a result, one has to be very careful in reading French texts to consider the exact date of the usage. Even for part of the eighteenth century, gruau, when it did not mean “gruel”, referred to what was considered an inferior by-product of milling. Almost overnight however it came to refer to the finest type of flour. Here is one account (which however, like many such tales, should be regarded with caution):
During the shortage of 1709, a miller of Senlis, named Pigeaut, very profitably exploited a process known in his family. Towards 1725, a certain Marin went to set up a mill in Nangis, began to gather the fat bran which bakers did not know how to use, and to sell a flour which soon gained a reputation. This is not surprising: the reground gruau [middlings], yielded precisely what we call bread of gruau, the most nutritious and the most succulent of all, when it is sincere and well-worked. The fortune made by Marin awoke his competitors. For a quarter of a century, skilled people, calling themselves bran merchants, spread out around Paris: they bought the remains of bakers' sifting to profit from it, and as Messieurs of the Parlement began to recognize that the grutum is not a dangerous poison, the police closed their eyes to the violations which the new trade involved.
(Bord, Histoire du blé en France)
The recuperation of middlings for a new and superior flour helped make possible what become known as “economic milling”.
In 1760, many millers in the Paris region began to use this technique. The details are unlikely to interest anyone who is not actually studying the history of milling itself, but the gist of the method was to clean and sift the grains and flour as the milling occurred. Here is how Bouquet sums up the operations in economic milling:
The first is to clean and sift the wheat before it falls into the mill’s hopper: the second, to mill it so that it cannot heat, nor contract any odor or other bad quality, nor yield too much waste or evaporation: the third, to bolt while the millstones work, to separate the different qualities of flours and middlings: the fourth, to remill the different middlings, to get a new flour from them.The most important result was that one got far more flour from a given amount of wheat, which Bouquet insisted would help eliminate shortages. While more than milling was necessary for that, this new method did improve the yield overall and became the standard one. The older method, with more separate steps, became known as “rustic milling” and continued to be used in the countryside for a long time.
For centuries, bakers had used what the French called “hard [or firm] dough” (pâte ferme). But by the eighteenth century, they had begun to use what was called “bastard dough” (pâte bâtarde), which was softer than pâte ferme but not as soft as the softest (pâte mollet).
Malouin gives an overview of these types of dough:
There are three sorts of dough in regard to consistency, that is, soft dough, hard dough, and bastard dough. Soft or sweet dough is that in whose composition the most water is used. Hard dough to the contrary is that in which the least is used. Bastard dough is neither hard nor soft, it has aspects of the soft and the hard: more water and less flour is need to make bastard dough than to make hard dough, as more water and less flour is needed make soft dough than to make bastard dough.
There is also brié dough which is the hardest of all, and on which one climbs, that is, it is kneaded with the feet.Malouin said that far less breads were made with hard dough in his time and that most bread was made from partially soft (bastard) or soft dough. One incidental effect of this change was that it became harder to follow the requirement that one stamp bread with one's assigned mark. It was also true that larger breads were more likely to be made with hard dough, whereas softer dough was required to make the smaller loaves.
Types of bread
The bread of Gonesse had replaced the bread of Chailli as the best by the seventeenth century; but by the late eighteenth century, the bread of that name was made nearer to Paris; Le Grand wrote: “Today very little [bread from Gonesse] comes to Paris. That sold under this name is made in the suburbs of Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin”.
The old distinctions of color still applied. The three basic sorts of breads were still made, with the middle quality, once pain bourgeois, now called pain de ménage (household bread) and the worst simply called pain bis (dark bread). Malouin references these as, for white bread, the former bread of Chailli (the siligineus of the Romans); for dark-light, the old coquillé bread (secundarius); for coarse bread, pain bourgeois (acerious) and finally dark bread, once fetis or brode bread (furfuaceus). “One can even distinguish different sorts of bread by their various forms: there is round bread, long bread, horned bread, bread in bourrelet, bowed bread (called hemicycleus, he says, by the Latins).”
Formerly more round breads were made than long breads: today, it is the reverse, because the crust is preferred; in households where there are a lot of people, more three pound loaves are even taken than six: thus one can eat it fresh.
In regard to the whiteness of bread, the usage, at least in Paris, is to make dark breads of twelve, eight and six pounds, and always round: white-dark breads of twelve, of eight, of six and of five, and also all round.The word miche has had a varied history in French and most often refers to the most common large loaf in a given time and/or region. Malouin defines it in his time as a small bread of one to two pounds.
Breads were also known by how they were used: coffee bread, soup bread, pottage bread (today literally also "soup bread", but then different). Pain de mie – crumb bread – was then used to produce crumbs for breading meats, for instance (today the term applies to white breads in the American style). Table breads were essentially rolls, included as part of the table setting.
Meanwhile, the most important change in standard breads was related to a change in taste.
Love of crust and long breads
Le Grand traces the growing love of crust (which had once been grated off in the best houses) to the increased use of softer dough. Malouin further traces the appearance of longer breads to the same development:
One can note that in general in the time when hard dough was preferred, or beaten bread, whose crumb is compact, less crumb was given to it by making it round or risen in a ball. Whereas when bread was made of soft dough, it was flattened to have more crust. And finally today softish bread is made long or "in bourlet", to give it the most crust possible, in increasing its surface.And later:
It was at the end of the last century, that long bread began to be made to have more crust; before, the taste was to eat bread with the crumb, as today it is to eat it for the crust. Today more soft bread is eaten than hard bread; the crumb of bread from hard dough, of beaten bread, is hard, and it has much more flavor than the crumb of soft bread today, which leads to its crust being sought and the crumb being left.Parmentier adds further notes on the same theme:
The round shape is equally abandoned, it is not currently used in Paris except for bread in hard dough and dark-light bread; the long form has been adopted, because it is more convenient to the oven, the bread bakes better and takes on more crust; but this shape has been abused in lengthening it into a flute, so that it is only crust rather than bread; these changes in shape and volume seem to be determined by the consistency of soft dough which succeeds infinitely better at a less considerable weight and in the long shape.Parmentier may be the first here to use the term “flute” for the long loaves which became standard in this era. While the term “baguette” would not be used for similar breads until the twentieth century, the shift from round to long breads was already made in the eighteenth century; the term “flute” would be used loosely all through the nineteenth century even as more specific terms were used for the major long breads.
Among long breads, another shape now emerged. Parmentier:
It is with [bastard dough] that one makes the large long loaves of four pounds, whose use is so common today in Paris and which are known by the name of loaf à grigne and split [fendu] bread, the one being put on couche and being prepared in stretching the dough and in bringing together the two sides, in the middle of which is thrown flour, lightly, to avoid their joining, one sets this dough on the side and on the upper part of the fold, which is what forms these toothed openings which are prolonged until the crumb; a similar method is used for split bread.The split in the fendu would later be made, not by joining the two sides, but by pressing the baker’s elbow down the middle of the dough. In the nineteenth century, this was to become one of the most common types of loaf.
In earlier centuries, the main workers mentioned in bakeries were the baker him (or more rarely her) self and his or her “boys”. By the eighteenth century, the staff was more complex. Malouin outlines the positions in a bakery, notably one with a long and enduring history, and a virtually untranslatable name:
The geindre is the master-worker who watches over everything in the bakehouse; he delivers the flour, he pours the water and he measures it. The geindre determines the quantity and the sort of bread to be made, and he warns the other workers what they have to do. It is the geindre who judges the preparation of the leavenings and the dough; he divides it out and he weighs it. It is the geindre who heats the oven; then he puts the bread in the oven, and after he takes it out.
Formerly, it was the geindre who kneaded, and then he was not in charge of the work of others; it was even through this function he had formerly of kneading that he was named geindre, from the word gemere, geindre or plaindre [moan or complain]. The Master-Bakers like to hear their kneader moan when he works the dough. When they don't hear him while he is kneading, they are in the habit of saying: this guy isn't moaning; you can't hear him any more than a crackling in the kneading trough. When to the contrary they praise him as a good worker, they say that he raises the dough well, and he moans well.Malouin goes on to explain that things had changed now that the Master-Bakers no longer watched over the work themselves. He gives an unusually detailed look at the process in an eighteenth century bakery:
The aide starts at the kneading trough while the geindre puts the bread in the oven. A short half-hour is needed to put it in; about an hour to bake it; a quarter of an hour to take it from the oven; and a half-hour or three-quarters of an hour to reheat an eight to nine foot oven; which all together makes at least two hours of hard work, over two and a half hours of fast work.
He only begins kneading when the leavening at the toupoint stage is ready, and when in his judgment the previous batch is baked and the oven reheated before the whole next batch he has to make is ready; he takes about an hour to knead.
The second aide brings the flour, he cleans the cauldron, he brings the water, he carries the wood, he splits it and sets it to dry. It is also the second aide who takes the bread off the cloth, and who puts it on the paddle when the geindre puts in the bread.
The third aide, who is the fourth worker, receives the bread as it comes out of the oven, and he sets it: it is the third aide who, when the bread has cooled, brushes it, then ranges it, and finally takes it to houses.Malouin notes further that bakers from different regions had different reputations, those from Langue-Doc, Provence and Touraine thought good; those from Champagne, Brittany and Picardy to have a heavy hand. He adds later that that there were then more bakers from Auvergne in Paris than from any other region.
He also cites an article (XXIII) from the Bakers' Statutes of 1680 stating that no one can be received as a Master Baker if he is infected with a communicable disease. To which he adds that "there are workers whose sweat is so awful, or their breath so bad, that they spoil the leavenings." If this image is not off-putting enough, he goes on to say:
Normally those who knead sweat a great deal from the force of the work, and the sweat falls into the dough, if one is not careful to give them a rag to wipe themselves; I have sometimes seen them rub themselves with large flour sacks. In the King's bakeries rags are passed to the bakers; there is reason to believe they use them.Unbelievable as this may appear to a modern reader, in the next century, this “flavoring” of the dough with the worker's sweat would be cited as a quality.
Ironically, Parmentier’s name has most endured because of his promotion of the potato. But his interest in what became a standard French food on its own grew directly from his work with bread. Ultimately, in his comprehensive work on the subject, he said firmly that it was NOT economical to make bread with potatoes, but that the food by itself was a promising and nourishing one. Still, he said, “some men must absolutely have bread, and if the food is not presented to them in this form, they do not think themselves fed. The people, in this as in everything else, are more attached to the form, than the reality, above all in times of trouble; they want their fundamental and habitual food, in the familiar shape, whatever the substance of it.” And so he presents several recipes for bread and even biscuits made with potatoes, with or without grains.
He was right to believe that potato bread would not displace wheat bread, even in hard times. Luckily, his pessimism about the French eating potatoes alone proved unfounded, and soon the French were eating them in a variety of forms and a variety of places. But this had little impact on their demand for bread.
As the Revolution approached, French bread had effectively moved into modernity. The distinction of bread by origin (Gonesse or Chailli) had faded. The long breads which would become the baguette were firmly established, even if darker, coarser bread continued to be sold in round (though not often spherical) shapes. The hard dough of the past had been firmly replaced by the softer “bastard” dough. A good crust had become one of the desirable qualities in a loaf. The split bread was now familiar, if not as common as it would be. Economic milling was well on its way to being the standard method, as farine de grau was to being the standard flour for finer breads in the next century.
The nineteenth century would brings its own significant changes, but only after the brief and dramatic interlude of the Revolution.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Pierre Jean-Baptiste Le Grand d'Aussy, Histoire De La Vie Privée Des Français: Depuis l'origine ...,Volume 1, Issue 1, 1782
Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. Tome second, Azyme-Cezimbra / par une société de gens de lettres 1751-1765
Denis Diderot, L'Encyclopédie. , Artisanats au 18ème siècle : [recueil de planches sur les sciences, les arts libéraux et les arts] 1751-1780
Paul-Jacques Malouin, Description et détails des arts du meunier, du vermicelier et du boulenger, avec une histoire abrégée de la boulengerie et un dictionnaire de ces arts, par M. Malouin, 1779
Antoine Augustin Parmentier, Le parfait boulanger, ou Traité complet sur la fabrication et le commerce du pain, par M. Parmentier,... 1778
Antoine Augustin Parmentier, Traité sur la culture et les usages des pommes de terre, de la patate, et du topinambour, par M. Parmentier, 1789
Gustave Bord, Histoire du blé en France: Le Pacte de famine; histoire--légende, 1765