Man Cannot Live By Bread Alone

D48776A3-0DBA-48A7-9AA2-EBA6573F2461We’ve enjoyed visiting the various boulangeries we’ve come across during our travels. More often than not, they’ve provided the only sign of life in otherwise comatose villages, open all hours and always staffed by a ruddy-faced, portly Madame. Possibly, there’s also a farine-dusted husband lurking in a back-room, who is drawn out by the intrigue of our English debate about which shape of baguette we should choose on that particular visit.
And when the Boulangerie is also a Patiserrie, well, Heaven can wait. Even in the smallest, most de-populated settlements, the range of patisserie on offer is simply astounding, with glass-fronted displays layered with choux delights; individual tartes topped with every conceivable form of jelly-glazed fruit; layered mille feuilles so deep that anyone choosing to consume such a delight would need a snake-like unhingable jaw to allow safe passage; beignets of such lightness and fluffiness, filled with apple, apricot, caramel or jam that it’s impossible to believe they translate simply as ‘doughnuts’; small quiches whose tiny, handwritten labels boast of such exotic content as shrimp, crab, tomato, goat’s cheese, aubergine, peppers, caramelised onion or indeed any combination of the above; cascades of gleaming white meringues stacked to represent a chalk cliff fall; honey coloured light and spongy madelaines each shaped like a tiny toy boat, nudging each other gunwale to gunwale as they await an orderly flotation on the next high tide.
And the bread! How can a nation produce so many different shapes and types? Even the fairly straightforward national symbol, the baguette, seems to be available in a staggering variety of lengths, shapes and subtle variances of constituents. Typically, being English, after commencement of sociabilities with our breezy, confident, cheerful and hopefully accurately delivered ‘Bonjour’, we lapse into muted boggle-eyed pointing, complemented by a muttered ‘un’ ou ‘deux’ dependent on need, but more often than not, whim.
But what on earth do the French actually do with all that bread? Yes, as previously observed, it’s a national institution but we’ve yet to witness any customer leaving a boulangerie with a solitary loaf. They seem to buy them, in great quantities and – quite literally – by the yard, as they emerge clutching half-a-dozen or more baguettes, each individually wrapped in a flimsy form of tracing paper, bizarrely reminiscent of Izal toilet paper. They totter home with this vast array of bread tucked under their arms like some crusted multiple armament, seemingly ignorant of the fact that it will all become stale and inedible within about 40 minutes. So how can they use so much, so quickly? Well, if you’ll indulge me, I have a theory.
At home, when experiencing a surfeit of unwanted bread, our frugality will often cause us to blitz it into breadcrumbs, bag it up and freeze it for re-use at some point (normally Christmas) for bread sauce or some other accompaniment.
And it was this which led me to discover that the cuisine-driven French have amongst their number two historical heroes who together solved France’s surplus bread issue.
In the early 18th Century, an unremarked chef-patron in a little known village in the Loire Valley hit upon the idea of re-baking stale bread, before which he cut it into small cubes, to be crisped in the residual heat of the ovens used for the mighty cassoulets which – in those days – were a staple item on the Menu Du Jour.
Coincidentally, a French housewife in Provence, challenged by a surfeit of chicken scraps which her husband (the local Boucher) insisted on bringing home for domestic use, realised that by milling the nub-ends and dried-out leftover baguettes she could create sufficient breadcrumbs with which to coat the chicken pieces, thereby combining two otherwise redundant items into a palatable foodstuff again.
So, we must, with our tongues very firmly lodged in our cheeks, applaud the un-named chef-patron from a Loire village called Crouton, and uphold the efforts of Madame Goujon, as national, but completely unacknowledged heroes of French Cuisine. Voila! Case closed.

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