Legends, Laws, and Lengthy Loaves, French Baguette History

Written by on April 29, 2015 in French Icons, Gastronomy

french-baguette-history

The baguette is as French as France itself. There isn’t much that is more traditional than the long slender loaf of bread. See one and you will know it instantly as a symbol of France. At any hour of the day, on the streets of any village, town, or city in France you will see someone strolling along with one of these elongated loaves tucked under their arm.  That’s because this ubiquitous bread may be eaten at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

The word “baguette” means wand, baton, or stick and refers to the shape of the bread. This term became attached to the thin sticks of bread we know today, in the early 20th Century. However, the baguette’s history may go back much further.

No one knows exactly when or why this French loaf took on its current shape, but there are several stories, and even some laws that give us clues to the baguette’s heritage.

French Baguette History

One patriotic tale explains the possible origin of the baguette (but not its shape) by linking it to the French Revolution. Lack of bread was the principal complaint from the people of Paris and it’s said that this played a large part in the overthrow of the monarchy. Bread was the mainstay of the French diet and the poor people were tired of watching the nobility eat copious amounts of fine white loaves while they faced shortages and had to make do with bread that was barely edible.

After the Revolution, making sure everyone had quality daily bread was high on the priority list.  In 1793, the Convention (the post-Revolution government) made a law stating:

“Richness and poverty must both disappear from the government of equality. It will no longer make a bread of wheat for the rich and a bread of bran for the poor.  All bakers will be held, under the penalty of  imprisonment, to make only one type of bread: The Bread of Equality.”

history-of-french-baguette

Could this law truly have created the forerunner of our beloved baguette?

Another story claims that Napoleon passed a decree that bread for his soldiers should be made in long slender loaves of exact measurements to fit into a special pocket on their uniforms. Since those measurements were close to the size of a modern baguette, some people think this might be when the bread first took on its current form.

Yet another anecdote affirms that when the metro system was being built in Paris, the workmen from different regions just couldn’t get along and the overseer of the project was concerned about violence in the dark, underground tunnels.  At that time, everyone carried a knife to cut their bread, so the supervisor went to the bakery to request loaves that didn’t need to be cut.  A loaf of bread was regulated by weight, so in order to make it thin enough to be easily torn, it ended up being long and slender.

Baguettes on steroids

Whenever and for whatever reason the first wand-shaped breads were everywhere by the mid 1800s in Paris. But these weren’t the French loaves that we see today. No, they were baguettes on steroids. Many foreign visitors marvelled at the extraordinary lengths of the Parisian bread they saw.

porteuse de pain darker (1)They described loaves of bread 6 feet (2 metres) long being delivered by women carrying them stacked horizontally, like firewood, in a frame on their backs.  Housemaids were on the streets at 6:00 in the morning carrying these long loaves home for their employer’s breakfast.  In the afternoon, young boys could be seen using these lengthy baguettes as pretend swords and engaging in mock battles before the bread made its way to the family table. One visitor remarked that in a restaurant, the baker came in and stacked loaves 6-8 feet (2-2.5 metres) long in the corner like a bundle of sticks. Another describes the bread having to be laid on the dining table lengthwise because it was longer than the table was wide.

Those long breads that made such an impression on 19th Century tourists must have been the forerunner of today’s more manageably sized baguette. The modern, shorter version seems to have come into being in the 1920s, when a law was passed prohibiting bakers from working between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m.  The current baguette was probably developed because its thin form allowed it to cook faster. It was during this time that the term “baguette” first became associated with the slender loaves that are seen everywhere in France today.

Today, even though bread is an accompaniment to a meal instead of the main course, it still plays an important part in French life – and the most popular bread in France is the baguette. Since there are boulangeries (bakeries) everywhere in France, there’s never an excuse for not having a nice crunchy baguette with every meal.  And while you’re walking home nibbling on the end of your baguette, you can ponder the French Revolution, Napoleon and the Paris metro… and be thankful that you’re not trying to manoeuvre a 6 foot (2 metre) long loaf of bread down the street.

Find the best baguette in Paris – it’s official as hundreds of bakeries are judged each year.
The very best baker in the north of France invents a new baguette
Bread – a cultural experience in France
Things to do in Montmartre, Paris – baking bread with an expert

Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she blogs as thecuriousrambler and is the author of French Holidays and Traditions. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”.

Tags: ,

Related Articles

Indulge your passion for fabulous food in northern France

In 2010, UNESCO awarded French cuisine ‘World intangible heritage status’, reflecting the importance of great food in France. A nip across, or under, the English Channel to northern France reveals a wealth of gastronomic delights. From lush produce at street markets, to tasty treats at the supermarket, cheese shops, wine shops and boulangeries that smell so […]

Continue Reading

How to do coffee, the Parisian way

At some point in history, it just became a fact that everything is more stylish in Paris. Of course, lot of other cities have their own version of “cool”, but there seems to a be a special way in which the Parisians do things that make everything seem so effortless and so… chic. Coffee is […]

Continue Reading

Cheese and Wine – the flavours of France

Nothing characterises French cuisine like cheese and wine!  Both have been made for centuries in France, it is said that Cantal cheese from the Cantal region in the Auvergne has been enjoyed for at least two millennia and it’s mentioned by Roman historian Pliny the Elder in a document dating back to 1 BC. There […]

Continue Reading

Who was Jean Jaurès | History of France

Wherever you go in France you’re sure to come across a Place Jean Jaurès, a rue Jean Jaurès, Avenue Jean Jaurès, schools and even metro stations of that name in Paris and Lyon. Every French school child will learn about Jean Jaurès. He is one of the most well-known figures of French history, though he […]

Continue Reading

A Soap story from Marseille | Savon de Marseille

Genuine Marseille soap is made by artisans with the provenance, passion and long-standing tradition in their blood to lay claim to makers of genuine Marseilles soap. A bar that contains 72% olive oil – and once tried, you will always be loyal to its soapy concoction. History of Marseille Soap In 1688 Louis IV passed […]

Continue Reading

Subscribe

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Subscribe via RSS Feed

Comments are closed.

Top