What’s So Special About French Bread?

At times, very rare times, quality is more important than profits: a mini-history of French bread.

Originally published August 8, 2016

This Cotton Gin Story is brought to you by Ary Albán, the shoemaker from Cali, Colombia who continues making and repairing shoes because it is what he knows and what he enjoys.

Listen to it here or read the story below.

The shoemaker’s father was a bread maker. Ary helped him in the bakery and watched him mix the ingredients and knead the dough and produce bread that nourished the neighborhood.

Ary’s father told him about the industrialization of bread making in France, and the story went like this:caption_edited

In France, the corporations wanted to make more money. The bread making businesses decided to change their processes so that, instead of people mixing ingredients and kneading the dough, everything was done by machines.

But what happened? The French people started buying less bread. They didn’t like the industrialized version of their baguette. So, the corporations responded by researching. They discovered that bakeries in the neighborhoods still produced bread that people enjoyed eating. And how did they make this bread? By hand.

The story goes that the corporations discovered that by mixing and kneading the bread by hand, the human touch added something to the quality of the bread. The human touch made the bread good.

So, the bread making industry began to change their processes. They reversed some of the machine mixing in order to involve more people, and produce bread that everyone would buy and enjoy.baguette

Now, what I like about this story is that it highlights the dangers of removing people from the production process. It develops the idea that machines cannot do certain jobs as well as humans, and that while it may not be as profitable, people add an, often intangible quality – humanity – to their work.

It’s a good story. It communicates a lovely message. But, it made me wonder, is it true? Would a business actually be willing to give up profit to ensure higher quality?

As it turns out, the process of industrialization of bread making did not just involve the use of machines. Bread was industrialized through the use of ingredients that had also been industrialized – modified and transformed for a more profitable use in the marketplace.

wonder breadAmanda Benson, from the Johnson and Wales University describes in her thesis, “The Rise and Fall of Bread in America”, how millers and bakers influenced farmers to produce the wheat used to make white flour. She explains that because the extraction of white flour from wheat was wasteful. By being wasteful, it made white flour scarce, and therefor desirable by upper classes. This demand allowed millers and bakers to pressure the farmers to grow the wheat they could capitalize on.

6778252056_6ca59fbbd9Benson goes on to detail the use of bleaching agents to achieve a whiter colored bread, mixing machines that helped guarantee the form and consistency of the bread, and advertising campaigns that reinforced consumer habits and brought us the idea that this bread was better than darker bread that was not completely uniform in its shape.

Michael Pollan, a renowned food writer and activist, pointed out in his documentary series “Cooked”, that the milling and bleaching processes in flour had reduced the amount of nutrition that they contained, which in turn generated the opportunity to create enriched flour. Vitamins and minerals were added to restore its nutritional value. This of course is both redundant as well as profitable, adding an additional process to the industrialization of bread.

Back to the story, though.

Ary claimed that it was the French who had somehow battled industrialization to make their bread better than the mass produced stuff being sold around the world. It turns out that there is some truth in the story. However it was not as heroic as he told me, with a reversal of the mechanization process.

sliced breadWhat happened was that, as Amanda Benson describes in her paper, the French, after a time consuming the extra-white, mass-produced, cheap, industrialized bread – they began to miss their traditionally made French bread. Due to the national pride in their cuisine and the important staple that bread is in their diet, demand for a higher quality product grew. She states, “the quality of bread was more important than quantity and/or volume.”

French millers felt a responsibility to provide better quality flour for the bakers, and to top things off, in 1993 the French government released a decree, “The Bread of French Tradition”, that outlined the standards and processes required by law to make bread.

These steps in conservation of bread making tradition were accompanied by an international bread making competition, that not only brought attention to the quality of bread that was being produced, it also inspired producers of ingredients to amplify their offer of higher grade flours and yeasts.

So, it turns out that Ary the shoemaker’s story of epic conflict: the human versus the machine, a conflict that seems to be won more and more often by the machines as we move second by second into a mechanized and technified future, was not quite accurate. Instead, it was a story of a culture against a corporate consumerist machine. Which is also a story that seems to be won all too frequently by the “machine”. In this case, however, due to a set of factors that favored the quality of the product over the profit to be made, the French were able to save their French bread.