Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Our daily bread

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.


  1. The breadth of your blog coverage continues to amaze me William. Your knowledge of French and world affairs is astonishing. Your energy is inexhaustible. Bon courage!

  2. Thanks for those complimentary words, which are a bit excessive (the allusion to "world affairs"). The "breadth" of my blog has always been inspired by the special meaning I've given to its name, Antipodes. Normally, of course, this term is a synonym for Australia and New Zealand, and an Antipodean is simply an Australian or a New Zealander. But, as I've explained from time to time, that has never been the sense in which I've used this word as the name of my blog. (Readers who might come to my blog believing that it's mainly about Australia and New Zealand would indeed be disappointed.) As you know, the adjective "antipodean" means "opposite feet". In other words, every person on the surface of the Earth has an antipodean partner who's simply the individual on the other side of the planet, at that particular moment in time, whose feet happen to be aligned with the first person's feet. This has nothing to do with Australians or New Zealanders. It's simply a universal geographical observation. Wherever you are, and whatever you're doing, you're accompanied constantly by other individuals—your antipodean partners, who change from one instant to the next—who are standing on their heads with their feet pointing up at yours, and doing all kinds of weird things. My mother always used a unique adjective to describe my wife: "Christine's different." But my mother never tried to explain "different to what". Simply different. In the same way, in my blog I attempt to be Antipodean, constantly trying to stand on my head with my feet in the air. Like Christine, I'm "opposite", but not "opposite with respect to such-and-such a thing". Simply opposite. What this means at a concrete level is that, if I talk at one moment about homely things such as my dogs and my donkeys, then maybe, the following day, I'm likely to talk about totally different things, which don't seem to have anything to do with dogs or donkeys. If I write, say, about French bread, then I like to also mention the stuff that the British call bread. If I happen to refer to some aspect of my existence in Australia, then I'm liable to switch to the observation of corresponding aspects of my life in France. Etc, etc… It's almost certainly this Antipodean spirit of my blog—a constant obsession with upside-down opposites—that creates the illusion of what you call "breadth".

  3. Jim and I make nearly all our own bread, only splashing out on the occasional Turkish bread that we haven't been able to replicate in our home kitchen. Think it needs a really high heat. As we've installed a new oven, courtesy of my 94-year-old father's generosity, perhaps we should try again.

    Like you, we despise white pap that toasts to cardboard. And why pay $6 for a loaf of mass produced 'good' bread and miss out on the pleasure of making it, with the help of a bread machine for the kneading and first rise, at home?

    I remember you blogging some time ago about you and Sophia making your standard walnut loaf.

    Do let us know if you do install a super wood-fired oven.