In the 2007 romantic drama No Reservations, Catherine Zeta Jones’ usually straight-laced character, a classically trained chef, wisecracks, ‘What are the three secrets of French cuisine? Butter, butter, and butter.’
It is proof enough of the French culinary archetype branded into the global subconscious that the phrase ‘classically trained chef’ conjures for many of us an image of a French saucier laboring over a perfect demi-glace. But this butter enthusiast would like to humbly suggest three alternative, somewhat nebulous ingredients of the French meal that elevate it to the pedestal it enjoys: moderation, quality, and community.
In an article for the Guardian, Ann Chenin describes the ritual of French mealtimes as being so regular, so punctual and indubitably sacred, that one can ‘set their watch by it’. This need to sit down in company twice or thrice a day, sharing freshly cooked, seasonal food across a communal table, befuddles many who are more used to a grab-and-go work lunch, or a lonesome microwave dinner. So why is this the norm? Why, despite rising prices and the dominion of fast food over much of the urban West, does the joyous togetherness of the sit-down meal prevail in France? Chenin consults French natives, who theorize that France’s Roman Catholic heritage plays a role. The ritual of the Eucharist, combined with an ancient culture of monastic winemaking, has created a lasting habit of celebrating a meal, rather than simply inhaling sustenance.
Temperance sweetens the indulgence of French cuisine; a single glass of wine with lunch is par for the course, as is a fortnightly pot-de-crème or portion of lush foie gras. The key lies in long mealtimes, smaller portions, and family-centric routine. Where circumstances allow it, snacking is relatively rare among the French, and meals tend to be at set times, laid out in methodical courses. Baguettes (of which the French consume around ten billion a year), croissants, and other artisanal products are naturally leavened rather than pumped full of additives – and there are roughly 32,000 independent bakeries in France. That’s just short of the number of Starbucks outlets on this planet.
But this level-headed, wholesome approach could never divorce mealtime from the realm of pleasure. The French gastronomic meal was recognized by UNESCO in 2010 as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity due to its attention – among other aspects – to terroir, seasonality, and the conviviality of eating in groups. Respect for culinary craftspeople also contributes to the myth of the French plate: cheese making is unquestionably an art, as is pairing food with a harmonious wine. Wherever it is affordable, one is encouraged to use the very best poultry, produce, and libations. This balance of excellent food with measured eating, though largely generalized here, appears to have created a culinary muscle memory of sorts: it is not hedonistic to enjoy fine food at one’s leisure, simply sensible.
The BreadEx team has been faced with an embarrassment of riches in narrowing down bakes to celebrate France and its cuisine. It is a true pleasure to introduce you to our four breads for the month of May:
The Austrian inspiration evident in this bread’s name hearkens back to the 1800s. Local brewer’s yeast, Hungarian-milled white flour and Austrian steam-baking methods combined to create a style of French pastry called Viennoiserie. These fine, sweet, buttery pastries were softer than their naturally leavened sourdough counterparts, boasting thinner crusts and milder flavors. Pain viennois, one of France’s favorite sandwich breads, hails from this tradition. It is characterized by its lightly enriched crumb and deep scoring, creating a picture-perfect pattern atop each demi-baguette.
French Onion Soup Focaccia
There is little left to say of our Genoese-inspired focaccia: crisp bubbles adorn the crusty top, the tender crumb is scented with extra-virgin olive oil, and everything is united by generous lashings of the month’s flavors. For our French focaccia, we have drawn inspiration from a humble dish that grew popular in the US in the ‘60s: French onion soup. The sweetness of deeply caramelized onions is lifted by fragrant thyme leaves. Chunks of Gruyere add further complexity, bringing to mind the broiled cheesy croutons that top the most decadent onion soups.
Black Pepper Pain de Mie
The rectangular tins that house pain de mie – a name focusing on this bread’s soft crumb – perform a two-fold function. They economize on space, as a squared-off loaf is more efficiently stacked than a billowing one, and they also reduce the exposure of the bread to radiant heat, creating a barely-there crust. The simplicity of this lightly sweet, milky bread makes it applicable in numerous dishes, but we’ve dressed it up a touch with freshly cracked black pepper, making it especially suitable for savory applications like a croque monsieur.
This bear-claw-shaped bread comes accompanied by jingle bells, as it forms one of thirteen desserts in the traditional Provencal Christmas centerpiece. Each dessert represents a participant in the Last Supper, and the Gibassier is a particularly lavish attendee – a heavily enriched dough combining butter and olive oil is further flavored with candied peel, spices and orange blossom water. The bread is also popular as a breakfast item, and can be found in biscuit variations in other regions of France.
We hope our brief sojourn through French breads has inspired you to learn more about this country’s well-documented culinary history. To stay up to date with our latest bakes, join our mailing list.