Where does brioche REALLY come from?

That’s a tough question, reader Janey. You’re quite correct that the word “brioche” has existed in the French language since about the year 1400. It’s a variant of the Old Norman broyer which means “to knead” or “to break up.” However just because the word has existed for that long it doesn’t mean that anything like modern brioche was around back then.

What did exist in Normandy in those days was bread, but also butter. Indeed Normandy has been producing some of the world’s best butter for about 500 years. Did they combine the two? There’s no way to know for sure, but let’s assume they did. The result would have been something on the order of a dense whole grain boule with butter incorporated into it. After all the Normans were rural folk, and wouldn’t have access to finely milled, finely bolted white flours, which didn’t come along until about the mid-1700’s in France anyway. They also would have used slow-rising natural levains (starters) which can’t deliver the light, fluffy textures that packaged yeast cultures can.

So my thinking on this is that it was the Viennese who brought what we now know as brioche to France, specifically Paris. They had the technology, as the Six MIllion Dollar Man fans of old like to say. They had the flour, the leavening, the ovens…and don’t discount the inclination to mix bread dough with lots of very rich additives.

The French probably just adapted the old word to fit the new imported product. To be sure, brioche got even better when Norman butter was added to it. So it’s not as though brioche isn’t French, it’s just that it’s not solely French, and that’s OK I think.

4 thoughts on “Where does brioche REALLY come from?”

  1. It’s worth noting that even if brioche did refer to some sort of bread in 14th (or even early 15th) century French, we almost certainly wouldn’t have a recipe for it. Even the Menagier de Paris, who is an excellent source for recipes and general household management at the end of the 14th c. just tells his wife to get specific types of bread from the baker. Actual recipes for bread are very rare in mediaeval cookbooks; it was generally made by bakers (not cooks) who didn’t write down their recipes – either because they were making the same thing every day and didn’t need to, or because it was considered a guild secret.

    Also – the Norman bakers in question might have used a leaven, or they may have used barm from the top of the ale barrel. One of those rare bread recipes, from a mid-15th c. English book, specifies using ale barm to make an enriched bread (the recipe involves fine flour, eggs, sugar, and butter, so it was definitely a fancy bread). That should be closer to using a liquid yeast culture, and result in a fluffier bread. One of these days, when my husband doesn’t have all of the brew buckets tied up making wine, I’m going to start a batch of beer in one and try scooping off a cup or so of barm to make bread with.

    1. Excellent and fascinating, Jane! All I’ll add is that from what I know the Northern Europeans (Germans and Austrians) were historically very good at creating (and later packaging and selling) concentrated cultures from both top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting beers. So while I think it’s true that other European peoples probably used barms for bread, my feeling is that those from German-speaking areas were among the most potent.

      Thanks for the terrific comment!

      – Joe

    2. My God, a kindred soul!

      Yes, indeed it is true that bread recipes are rare in France, not only in medieval times but overall, since professionals most often made bread. Still, some sixteenth-seventeenth writers, for instance, described how to make bread for people in the country.

      A seventeenth century dictionary defines brioche as: “Type of cake, or of bread which is made of fine wheat flour, eggs, cheese and salt.”

      But another, only slightly later, mentions only flour, butter and eggs.

      Note that this says nothing about a leavening which must have been used; for pastry makers in this period, it was often yeast, even if that was just coming to bread-baking in France.

      So this would have been pretty close to the standard brioche.

      A 1611 French-English dictionary calls it a spiced bread and references it as Norman.

      So the Norman brioche might not have been ours; but I wouldn’t count on them not having fine white breads. One (whose name escapes me) popped up in English rents after 1166 (when many English records were maintained in the language of the conquerors).

      1. Thanks Jim! They key question, at least in my mind, is “fine” and “white” relative to what? While I don’t count myself among the skeptics of the world, I’m highly…let’s say “dubious” that anything like modern flours existed in Europe as far back as 1611, to say nothing of 1166. Fluffy white breads require technology that simply did not exist at the time. Steel rolling mills, capable of pinching off germ and bran, didn’t come along until the industrial revolution. That means all breads prior to that time would have been whole wheat by definition, the wheat berries being ground by rotating stones in water, wind and animal-powered mills.

        That doesn’t in and of itself mean that the flours, and by extension breads, were necessarily heavy, since the coarse flours could have been sifted (“bolted” in the parlance of the day) through cloths. The trouble there, again, to my understanding, is that bolting cloths themselves were pretty coarse affairs until well into the 1600’s. Fine silk bolting cloths didn’t come along until the 1700’s and were used mostly by Dutch, whose trading companies had access to such fabrics. But even then they were rare, expensive and tended to wear out quickly. Add to all this the fact that even the most advanced millers had no way of even cleaning grain until about 1800 (and so even the finer flour grades contained a fair amount of dirt, millstone dust, bits of stalk, smuts and molds, insect and animal droppings and whatnot) and you have a base material that was nothing like the quality we enjoy today. And all that’s assuming the miller was honest. Let’s not forget that grain millers were synonymous with fraud in those days, notorious for “stepping on” flour with chalk, bone meal, ash and other flour-ish substances

        All of which is to say that formulas are one thing, the reality of the base ingredients required is quite another, at least as far as I can see. The idea that peoples living even 200 years ago ate breads anywhere near the quality we now enjoy is, at least to me, a rather romantic notion. I think it is – remotely – possible that something like a fine white bread existed around Marie Antoinette’s day, but if it did it would have been in a very small quantity, and then only in a large urban area like Paris.

        Or such is the extent of my knowledge in the subject. Always like a lively discussion with you, Jim!

        – Joe

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