After the beret, the tight black turtleneck and the skinny mustache, is there anything more stereotypically French than the baguette? I think not, which is a bit, oh, how do you say in your country…ironic. For the baguette is not French. Or to put it more precisely, the baguette was not invented by the French. Like so many other landmark bread and pastry innovations, it was the brainchild of the undisputed master bakers of Europe, the Continental kings of crust and crumb, the Viennese. They were the first to develop not only the technique of shaping and leavening the quick-rising long loaf, but the steam-injected deck oven that made the baguette’s trademark crackly crust possible.
Up until around 1850 the traditional French bread was the large round peasant loaf known as the boule. Leavened by slow-rising wild yeast and baked in a wood oven, the boule is the root of the French word for “bakery”, boulangerie, and a clear piece of evidence that the baguette is not traditionally French (there being no baguetteries in France the I’m aware of…save for the drum equipment stores …“stick shops”, in other words).
In fact the baguette is all about the city and city folk. Especially Parisians, who were famous for their love of bread crust even before what we now know as the baguette became popular. In fact before “Vienna bread” as it was known then (and is still known in some quarters) ever hit Paris, bakers were beginning to make longer, more torpedo-shaped loaves in an attempt to increase the ratio of crust to crumb. When the steam-injection oven finally hit town, well, it was like pouring gas on a fire. Soon everybody had to have a loaf of this spindly new “stick bread” every day.
This is how the French “fresh bread every day” eating aesthetic came into being, and contrary to what some food romantics would have you believe, it was industrialization and city living that was responsible for bringing it about. Unlike their boule-making country brethren, French city folk were the ones who worked the factory jobs and had the disposable income it took to buy their bread fresh — up to several times each day.
In time, as the Industrial Revolution advanced and the French economy moved away from subsistence-type farming, the innovation of the steam-injection oven made its way out into the countryside. By 1900 or so, the entire nation was mad for the baguette. The love affair continued unabated until about 30 or so years ago, at which time many urban French began to reexamine their baking traditions and demand country-style boules once again. Isn’t that always the way?