The French Baguette
The baguette is a French icon and known the world over. You might be surprised though to learn the role that an Austrian military officer and labor laws played in the development of this French cuisine staple. It’s not even as old as you might be thinking too !
Well neither the croissant or the modern French Baguette is really that old or indeed completely French in origin although I’ll concede there’s some dispute. I’ve dished the dirt on the lovely croissant elsewhere but let’s talk about the origins of the French Baguette .
What is a Baguette ?
A long thin loaf of French bread, usually made from a basic lean dough. It’s shape and size about 2ft long and 2” wide is very distinctive. It is known as the baguette in France with few similar variants . A short baguette is known as a baton, a thin one a ficelle (string) but hey ho – we all know what a baguette looks like .
Designed to be torn into chunks with some butter and perhaps a really good strawberry jam, jelly, confiture, eaten with that first cup of coffee or chocolat chaud in the morning. Mmm – getting hungry ?
The classic French baguette
The Origin of the Baguette
France has had long, thin bread for a very long time. During the time of Louis XIV (1638-1715) they could be very long indeed. As in a yard or two long! Which must have made getting them back from the shops quite a challenge. There was no mention of the baguette at this time.
The French liked long loaves of bread made with a conventional bread dough in a normal bread oven. The French loved a lot of crust – probably because of all the soup type meals they ate at the time.
If you start looking into the history of French bread making you’ll hear of many types of bread – boulots, splits, jockos, nattes, benoitons and many others – but you won’t see the baguette mentioned.
Just the place to go for a six foot loaf of bread
A Change of Direction
We have the Austrian artillery officer August Zang to thank again for sending French baking off in different direction. He’d already brought Viennese baking recipes and techniques to Paris and set the croissant off on a different direction (read more about that here). He did the same for French bread. What was his secret ? Many think it was his oven. He brought something to Paris called a deck oven.
These injected steam directly into the oven. The steam allowed the crust to expand before setting thus creating a lighter loaf. It also melted the sugar on the bread’s surface giving it a shiny appearance so typical of the modern day baguette. The bread is often referred to as Pain Viennoise which if food historians are to be believed came in a variety of shapes and sizes – not just baguette shape.
In fact one very common form of bread in France in the 19th century was round (boule) hence the baker being a boulonger and it remained so well into the 20th century surprisingly enough.
So what changed ?
The birthplace of the modern croissant and baguette? Arguable but August Zang was certainly influential.
It’s the Law
In 1920 a labor law was enacted which prevented bakers working before 4am which meant they did not have time to bake the “breakfast boule”. This coincided with the wide use of deck ovens with steam injection. So the boulangers of France turned to the baguette style loaf which could be baked quickly. Customers liked the whiter, sweeter bread and the bakers loved it because it went stale quickly so the customers had to come back for more later in the day !
That bread became known as the baguette in the early 1920s and is now known the world over and an iconic symbol of France. Food historians argue about if it evolved from the Pain Viennoise or was it as a result of the 1920 legislation and changes in the way dough was made and bread cooked ?
“In France cooking is a serious art form and a national sport”
The Modern French Baguette
It’s fair to say that the baguette has become synonymous with France, popular in its home country and the world over. My only tip ? If you can’t get a real one from a French boulangerie, do try to find the real thing closer to home.
Commercially produced white bread dough in stick shape is not the same. Often called a French Stick, it’s more of a Viennoise style bread with a softer crust and more doughy bread. Nothing wrong with that – it’s just not going to give you the taste or experience of a bagutte.
A baguette should have a crust which is crisp and shiny. The bread inside light and slightly dry. Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t last – that tells you it’s a real French baguette !
A fresh slice of baguette with some fromage and charcuterie is the ideal lunch for many Parisians
Inspired by France is a small family run business/blog . We have lived and worked in France at various times in our life and hope to spend a lot more time there in the future.
We love all things French ranging from film, music and literature to the simple pleasures of French cooking and the odd glass of wine. We want to share our love of France with other France fanatics !