French President Emmanuel Macron has been making a lot of headlines lately: criticising Trump’s “****hole” comment, rejecting the UK’s post-Brexit expectations, and protecting that greatest of great cultural icons of France: the French baguette.
Last year in November, Macron faced pressure from the country’s 33,000 bakers who were up in arms at the suggestion of eliminating a law dating back to 1919 which enforced a weekly day of rest for bakers.
The suggestion had been made by the country’s grocery giants and bakery chains who insisted that bakeries should operate seven days a week for the sake of better business and free enterprise. But the bakers argued that observance of the 1919 law gave them a much needed break from exhausting work and brutal hours.
Now in January, bakers and bread are again on the president’s plate, as he lends his support to a demand being made by the National Confederation of French Bakers to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
With its crisp crust and soft, fluffy centre the baguette, argues Macron, is part of “the daily life of the French, in the morning, at midday and in the evening. It’s not a matter of beliefs, everyone has it.”
This demand was prompted by a perceived threat to the “baguette de tradition” or traditional baguette which, by law, must be made using only flour, yeast, salt and water. The threat is being posed by supermarkets and grocery store owners who have no qualms about selling baguettes made in factories or frozen half-baked baguettes that must be fully baked in the oven.
There are several origin stories told about the baguette. The most popular and most probable one of them dates back to 1920. This was the year a law was passed in France that prevented bakers from working between the hours of 10pm and 4am. This restriction made it impossible for them to make the traditional large bread loaf in time for customers’ breakfasts.
The longer, thinner baguette could be prepared and baked in far less time and so it quickly took over as the nation’s choice of bread. So much so that it is referred to by some as the French loaf or French bread.
Celebrated food author and TV chef Julia Child lived in France from 1948 to 1954 with her husband Paul Child who was an American diplomat. During her time spent in Paris, Marseilles and Provence, she developed a lifelong passion for French food and French cooking.
Through her popular TV show The French Chef and several cookbooks, Child introduced the American public to French cuisine. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1 she provided the following recipe for the authentic French baguette. Just four simple ingredients and viola!
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
In the mixing bowl of a stand mixer using the flat beater, combine the yeast, two and a half cups flour and salt. Mix on low for about 30 seconds.
With the motor running on low, pour in the warm water. Continue mixing until a shaggy dough forms. Clean off beater and switch to the dough hook. Mix in the remaining cup of flour a little at a time to make soft dough, adding more or less flour as needed. Knead the dough for five minutes. The surface should be smooth and the dough soft and somewhat sticky.
Turn the dough on to a kneading surface and let rest for two to three minutes while you wash and dry the bowl.
Return the dough to the mixing bowl and let it rise at room temperature (23°C) until it becomes three-and-a-half times its original volume. This will probably take about three hours.
Deflate the dough and return it to the bowl. Let the dough rise at room temperature until not quite tripled in volume, about an hour-and-a-half to two hours.
Meanwhile, prepare the rising surface: rub flour on parchment paper placed on a baking sheet.
Divide the dough into three, six or 12 pieces depending on the size of loaves you wish to make. Fold each piece of dough in two, cover loosely, and let the pieces sit for five minutes.
Shape the loaves and place them on the prepared towel or parchment. Cover the loaves loosely and let them rise at room temperature until they're almost triple in volume, this'll take about one and a half to two and a half hours.
Preheat oven to 450°F. Set up a “simulated baker’s oven” by placing a baking stone on the centre rack, with a metal broiler pan on the rack beneath, at least four inches away from the baking stone to prevent the stone from cracking.
Transfer the loaves on to a peel. Slit the top of the loaves and spray them with water. Slide the loaves into the oven on to the pre-heated stone and add a cup of hot water to the broiler tray.
Bake for about 25 minutes until golden brown. (Remove parchment paper after about 10-15 minutes to crisp up the bottom crust. Spray the loaves with water three times at three-minute intervals. Cool for two to three hours before cutting.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, January 28th, 2018