Saturday, June 8, 2019

FRENCH BREAD HISTORY: Nineteenth century bread

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

At the start of the nineteenth century, French bread had suffered badly from the Revolution. It began to recover in the first decade, but for a long time got mixed reviews from foreigners. Despite the end of the royal salt tax, Parisian bread still often lacked salt. The breads themselves only changed incrementally. Long breads (sometimes now called “flutes”) continued to dominate; some were now slashed in the way familiar on today’s baguette. The simple hemispherical loaf remained common as well. The idea of pain mollet persisted, but no longer applied to a whole class of bread. Some of the earlier fancy breads (pain de fantaisie) survived, including the eccentric artichoke bread. New ones appeared, such as the bonaparte and the giberne (“ammunition pouch”), as well as a small oval “English loaf”, very unlike actual English bread.

A number of laws survived from the Revolution. New ones obliged bakers to contribute to a public warehouse as part of an effort to avoid the famines which had long plagued France. For whatever reason, France was not to again experience anything like the worst famines of previous centuries. Bakers were now divided into four different classes, based on the volume of their business.

All through the Old Regime, bakers had accepted price regulation – the “taxing” of bread – as a matter of course, but after the Revolution they bitterly resisted it. Finally in 1863 a new law established what was then called “the liberty of bread” and not only eliminated price controls but other limits on bakers. This was considered a milestone in the profession, but raised its own problems and soon some limitations were being restored. By the next century, bakers were again regularly complaining about the “taxe du pain”.

August Zang and the Boulangerie Viennoise
August Zang had been an artillery officer in Austria, but opened the first Viennese bakery in Paris at the end of the Thirties. He is best known today for introducing the crescent-shaped kipfel, which in Paris became the croissant (and solidly French). But his pain viennois (Vienna loaf) was more noted at the time and became a hallmark of luxurious living. His own version was rectangular and made mechanically; the French versions, hand-made, took widely varying forms. (It is important to note that none resembled today’s pain viennois, which looks much like a baguette; this resemblance may have prompted the erroneous idea that Zang himself introduced the baguette.)

Viennese bakers used steam in their ovens to help gild their loaves. Once Parisian bakers learned this method from Zang, it became a standard aspect of French baking and ovens were actually made which introduced steam during the baking. This is now standard in French bread-baking.

Zang also introduced the elegance now seen in surviving nineteenth century Parisian bakeries, using mirrors, brass fittings, mosaics, etc. This was a major change from the old Parisian bakers, which had simple wooden shelves and often bars on the windows.

Zang himself would return to Vienna in 1848 and become a major newspaper publisher. He did his best to bury his history as a baker, which remains imperfectly known today.

Yeast and the pouliche
Two false claims are often made about Zang. One was that he introduced the use of yeast into French breads. But that had begun in the seventeenth century and if some breads were made with a mix of sourdough and yeast, others were already made using only yeast. As it happens, in the nineteenth century, the Viennese did greatly improve yeast – resulting in the separate and purified form of yeast we know today. But Zang played no part in that.

The other is that Zang introduced a pre-fermentation method called, today, the poolish. In fact the original word was pouliche, meaning a filly, and the method first appeared in France well after Zang. But the use of the homonym, starting in the twentieth century, led some to claim it was a Polish method. Since Polish baking had no obvious connection with Paris, the idea grew up that this Polish method had been adopted in Vienna and brought to Paris by Zang. It has NO basis in fact.

And now, the BOOK:

Before the Baguette: The History of French Bread

Also available as an epub : Smashwords ebpub version

Preview on Amazon's "Look Inside" 
or take a peek at the Table of Contents here:

Extra-long breads
Before mid-century, gigantic loaves began to appear in Paris. One American tourist described them as like “crowbars”. The most visible of these, the jocko, looked like a giant baguette. It came in a number of other sizes, one of which looked exactly like a baguette. But others existed, notably the pain marchand de vin (wine shop loaf) which could reach 1 m 80 cm. It was flattened down the middle and raised along the edges, and used in wine shops which in this period also sold basic meals.

One explanation for these outrageous lengths was that above or below a certain length, a loaf was considered a pain de fantaisie, which meant it was not subject to price controls. Whatever the case, these striking loaves would endure in France well into the twentieth century, though few Parisians today even know they existed.

Another common bread in the period was the fendu (split), a wide bread about three feet long with a long split down the middle. In many ways, this functionally played the role of the baguette in the period.

Other breads
If most of the eighteenth century pains de fantaisie had faded by mid-century, a number of other breads appeared in this period. The English muffin (simpler than today’s) became a standard Parisian offering. Flûtes crevées (“split flutes”), also called “table breads”, were small sticks about eight inches long, Another roll called a navette (“small boat”) was basically a miniature fendu. An especially white roll, using the very luxurious gruau flour, was called a gruau loaf. Extra dextrine – a type of sugar – was added to the dextrine loaf. The simplest form of biscuit – a hardened twice-cooked bread – still existed, in a slightly more sophisticated form. Wafers – both for sealing letters and Communion – were still made.

In the country, peasants still made their own household bread of maslin. Large rye loaves were made in Paris and Lyons – largely as laxatives for the well-off – but also in poor provinces.

Porteuses de pain
The first mentions of female bread porters come at the end of the eighteenth century, but they are most mentioned in the nineteenth century. Though some men delivered bread to people’s houses, images above all show women, carrying bread in aprons, racks or baskets, pushing wagons or guiding those drawn by dogs. The profession was poorly paid and demanding and became the subject of one of the century’s most popular sentimental novels. Though the profession itself died out in the Nineteen Thirties, Xavier de Montépin's La Porteuse du Pain was still being shown on screen in the Seventies.

Roller mills
Around 1878, roller mills first came to France from Hungary (long known for its flour). These were not widely adopted at first but, faced with competition from English, German and Belgian bakers who were using roller milled flour, the French finally ran tests in 1884 which resulted in acceptance of the new milling technique, which became the standard one.

The flour produced by the new mills was whiter than that previously produced and not everyone approved. Nutritionists increasingly began to point out that dark bread had many advantages over white. But this was a hard sell in a country where even the less well-off had come to expect white bread as a matter of course.

The increased speed and heat of the new mills also introduced a new danger: flour explosions, which also occurred in bakeries due to a build-up of meal dust.

The French had only begun to appreciate a good crust on bread at the end of the seventeenth century. Now it was so established quality that one series of tests determined the ratio of crust to crumb on different popular kinds of bread. Most now contained from a quarter to a third crust; the smallest jockos (much like short baguettes) were almost half crust.

change in taste had a linguistic impact as the word croustillant (literally, “crusty”, but with far more sensual connotations in French) became common, applied not only to baked goods, but naughty stories and pretty women.

As this century ended, varied changes had brought Parisian bread much closer to today’s. Slashes became standard on many loaves. Yeast was no longer the impure side product of brewing beer, but a separate pure product as it is today. Roller mills became standard and substantially transformed French flour. The pouliche/poolish fermentation method, still used today, first appeared. If the word baguette was not yet applied to a bread, breads very much like baguettes were already common. The croissant was solidly adopted as a French roll, despite its Austrian origin, and the Viennese technique of using steam in ovens had become standard in Paris. Strikingly long loaves, though forgotten today, had become and would remain a part of the Parisian landscape. Overall, the idea of a bakery as a handsome space with a wide variety of offerings was established even if the luxurious elegance inspired by Viennese bakeries would become less common going forward.