A brioche by any other name…would still make a hell of a breakfast. Though I do wonder exactly when brioche as we now know it first come into being. The only thing that can be said definitively about brioche is that the current eggy, buttery version is a recent development, perhaps 200 years old at the oldest. Prior to that, say in the eighteenth century, brioche was just a fluffy white bread, made with little (if any) butter or eggs.
The word “brioche” first appears in print around the year 1400 in France. The trouble is that the document in which the word appears says nothing about what this food, whatever it was, tasted like or where it came from. A popular theory is that brioche originated in Normandy in northwestern France (crêpe territory, as you may recall from last week). Advocates of the idea point to the word’s similarity to the old Norman broyer which means “to knead”. “Aha!” they say, “the word means ‘to knead’ and brioche is a type of bread you have to knead! That settles it!”
Only you have to knead just about every type of bread, don’t you? “Oho!” the Norman advocates then say, but Normandy has been making the world’s finest butter for over 500 years! Butter is what brioche is all about!” But then as I mentioned it’s been established that butter wasn’t used in brioche until after 1800.
My personal belief is that like baguettes, brioche is an urban phenomenon. Finely milled and sifted (i.e. “bolted”) flour is the basis of brioche, and that was nearly impossible to find in any quantity outside of big cities like Paris before the middle 1800’s. Advances in cloth making led to the development of very fine sifters as far back as the mid-1700’s, yet fine soft flours weren’t available in any quantity until the high-speed roller mill was invented about 100 years later in 1834.
Thus the Normans like just about everyone else in Europe before the age of industrialization would have been eating denser, chewier boule-type breads made from course ground flours. Only a few wealthy Parisians would have had access to the really, really good flours, and then a good 300 years after the word “brioche” first pops up in those old French texts.
All of which means brioche probably isn’t Norman, and in fact it may not actually be French. It was after all the Viennese who were really on fire in the realm of baking and pastry back around the year 1800, the time the first true “brioche” comes on the scene. We know the Viennese invented baguettes and croissants, after all (though they had different names for them). Could they also have been responsible for brioche? Eh, it’s a possibility.