French are skipping the bread?


An entire civilization if about to fall flat. It seems that bread consumption in France has been decreasing and is about half of what it was in 1970 and just one-sixth what it was a century ago.

The average Frenchman these days eats only half a baguette a day compared with almost a whole baguette in 1970 and more than three in 1900. Women, still the main shoppers in most families, eat about a third less than men, and young people almost 30 percent less than a decade ago.

The bakers and others in the bread industry are not taking this sitting down. “Got Milk?” You’ve heard or seen those promotion, right? It has been an extremely successful campaign for the dairy industry here in the US. Now it seems that, in so many words, the French bakers are asking “Got Bread?

When we visited Paris a few years ago there were bakeries everywhere. We loved to pop in, order a quick sandwich made with a fresh baguette and be on our way to see and photograph the sights. It was a cheap lunch! But, times are changing even in a country with as many traditions as France.

“Eating habits are changing,” said Bernard Valluis, a co-president of the [bakers’ and millers’] lobby. “People are too busy or work too late to go to the bakery. Teenagers are skipping breakfast.

To combat these changes The bakers’ and millers’ emphasize a number of things.

The campaign’s Web site, www.tuasprislepain.fr, explains that “France is a ‘civilization of bread’ and this food is part of the traditional meal ‘à la française.’ ”

Bread is described as healthy and useful in avoiding weight gain. “It is rich in vegetal protein and fiber and low in fat; glucides are a source of energy,” the Web site says, using the French word for carbohydrate.

If people on diets want “to avoid giving in to something with fat and sugar, bread is there,” it says. “Its satiating effect allows you to wait for the next meal.”

Then there is the congeniality effect: “Remember that buying fresh bread on the way home is a simple way of showing loved ones that you have thought about them and of giving them pleasure during the day.”

A national bread festival is held every May around the feast of Saint Honoré (the patron saint of bakers) so that the French can sample different breads, learn how bread is made and even learn how to become a baker.

And Paris holds an annual contest to select the city’s best artisanal baguette maker, with the winner’s breads then gracing the tables of President François Hollande at the Élysée Palace for a year. In April, after an afternoon of tasting 152 baguettes, the jury chose Ridha Khadher, who left Tunisia as a teenager 24 years ago to become a baker in France.

The trend however is clear and strong.

Bread is ceding its place on the table to rivals like breakfast cereals, pasta and rice. France may still enjoy the highest density of independent bakeries in the world (32,000), but in 1950 there were 54,000.

According to Steven L. Kaplan, an American historian whom even the French consider the world’s foremost authority on French bread, breadmaking has followed two trends in the last century: a steady decline in the quality of most products, and the emergence of a new breed of artisanal bakers devoted to excellence and tradition.

The decline in quality started in 1920 with the transition from slow breadmaking with a sourdough base to a quick process using yeast. Mechanization in the 1960s contributed to the making of bread that lacked taste and aroma.

As usual, Big Government is “here to help.”

… in 1993, the government came to the rescue with a decree that created a special designation: “the bread of French tradition.” That bread has to be made exclusively with flour, salt, water and leavening — no additives.

The “tradition,” as it is called, is more expensive than the ordinary baguette, which uses additives, a fast-rising process and mechanization, and accounts for about 75 percent of the country’s bread sales.

And, as most people will acknowledge raising the cost of a good reduces the quantity demands. Thank you, Mr Big Government. And, the bakers’ and millers’ campaign doesn’t seem likely to boost bread consumption.

Both Mr. Levin and Mr. Kaplan, the historian, say the bread lobby’s campaign is more cuckoo than coucou.

“My quality has never been better,” Mr. Levin said. “My business, too.”

Mr. Kaplan was more critical. “This campaign looks like the inside of a white baguette: insipid,” he said. “It’s asking people to buy bread as part of their routine, like washing your hands or brushing your teeth. We need to talk about bread as an object of pleasure. We need to celebrate breads that make your taste buds dance.”

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