Monday, 26 June 2017

Bread and French history - a digression

A lot of the cheese I write about is French, and there's a particular French food culture which I've begun to understand as I research it. It's not about haute cuisine - though France has its fair share of Michelin stars - it's about having high expectations for everyday food, for the food of the common people. While Britain has a huge dichotomy between the supermarket pizza and the foodie culture of nouveau street food and snail porridge, in France every school serves four course lunches and many of them now promote local food and organic produce in the canteen.

So: the place of bread in French history. No bread, no Revolution, no Rights of Man.

As every Englishman knows, Marie Antoinette said 'Let them eat cake'. Actually, what she said is qu'ils mangent la brioche, which is not quite such a wild non-sequitur as most boulangers will still sell you a brioche loaf... at a price. The better translation would probably be 'Why don't they get the artisan-made sourdough wholemeal loaf with added chia seeds?' And apparently it may not have been the unloved Austrian who uttered the memorable words in any case.

However you translate it, though, one of the reasons for the Revolution was a rising bread price together with static wages. Bread was a staple - the main item in the diet of most working people - not a luxury, and it was rapidly becoming unaffordable.

Following the Revolution, many privileges previously afforded only to the nobility were thrown open to all. The end of feudalism was not gradual and partial, as in some states (for instance Britain), but complete and sudden. And one of the aspects of that change was that instead of the landowner having a bread oven, and charging people to bake bread in it, a village could have its own oven for all to share. (A link in French on the four banal - that's banal as in 'ban' - has pictures of a couple of communal ovens here.)

The other big food change that came with the Revolution was the throwing open of the hunt. So while 'hunting' in Britain means toffs with red coats after a fox, or a huge pheasant shoot for a bunch of merchant bankers, in France 'hunting' means what your neighbour does on Saturday morning instead of going to the supermarket, and is likely to involve putting meat on the table for Sunday lunch.