A month ago, well after 10 o'clock in the evening on the state-owned TV channel that specializes in documentaries (France 5), a program about bread utterly enthralled me. I was dismayed that such a fascinating and fundamental subject should be dealt with, late in the evening, on a relatively secondary media platform. A few days later, however, I learned that I had been far from alone in watching this wonderful celebration of our daily bread. Over three-quarters of a million viewers had been intrigued and subjugated, like me, by this subject.
Funnily enough, one of the stars of the show was a French-speaking US academic who explained that he had been searching doggedly for a concrete theme enabling him to tackle a vast research subject: the marvelous specificity of French culture. Then suddenly, the ideal subject hit him in the face, as it were: French bread! In fact, the bread theme hit him simultaneously in the nose, the eyes and even the ears… prior to the mouth. (When freshly-baked baguettes are taken out of the oven, the cooling crust makes a gentle crackling sound for a few minutes. Bakers say that their bread is "singing".) A correctly-prepared and perfectly-baked French baguette is indeed an exotic masterpiece of everyday gastronomy that deserves admiration and universal respect.
A few days after watching this TV program, I dropped in at a ceramics store on the outskirts of Valence to make inquiries about their wood-burning stone bread ovens. I said jokingly to the lady who was giving me documentation: "Can you guess what made me think about the idea of installing a bread oven?" She answered immediately: "I suppose you watched the marvelous TV program on bread, a few nights ago." I had the impression that I had been drawn into some kind of bread fraternity.
Meanwhile, on the other side of what they refer to as the English Channel (which the French call la Manche), look at this ugly tasteless stuff—devoid of structure and texture—that they refer to as "bread":
Apparently the Brits invented this kind of foodstuff about half-a-century ago (which is really weird, when you think about it, since they're located just across the water from France), and they're as proud as hell, today, to be able to claim that they've exported the recipe to faraway places such as Australia, South Africa and South America.
I've just been reading an article in the UK press which reveals that the invention of this stuff was the work of "research bakers at Chorleywood". I have the impression that many British folk who've grown accustomed to this product would be most upset if they heard me saying that I find this "bread" utterly insipid. Maybe there are British bread-eaters who would be nauseated and physically ill if they were forced to sit down at an outdoor café table and eat a crisp fragment of a freshly-baked baguette with a chunk of Camembert cheese. Besides, I can already hear the whine of members of the Aussie community telling me that there's no better stuff on the planet than white cotton-wool factory-made sliced bread from Sydney smeared with yucky Vegemite. Thankfully, I don't need to get involved in discussions on questions of that kind. I have the good fortune of living in France.