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Friday, January 30, 1998 Published at 15:43 GMT

Special Report

Bon Appetit - The bread war

BBC correspondent Kevin Connolly reports from Paris and, not surprisingly, loves French cuisine. However, there are some aspects of French cooking which make an Englishman's eyebrows rise. So one day, after a good meal, Kevin sat back and wrote down his impressions of the French love affair with food. BBC News is publishing online the four parts of his report, and Kevin's second course is called "The bread war":

Kevin Connolly: Bon Appetit - The bread war (14')
The first time you drive an armoured vehicle is an intriguing experience. It has a turning circle so large the opposite ends might almost be in different time zones. The gap between putting your foot on the brake and the whole thing even beginning to slow down is so long it is easy to forget why you wanted to stop in the first place.

Behind the bullet-proof windows everything else on the road - like oncoming drivers swerving anxiously - acquires an air of distance, like news of a disaster in a place you have never heard of.

Still, whatever the drawbacks of the vehicle in general, the day the BBC's first armoured Land Rover arrived in the desperate city of Sarajevo in the dangerous summer of 1992, it was fallen on with gratitude, not subjected to an exhaustive technical critique.

An encounter with the French Foreign Legion

[ image: Reporting during the war]
Reporting during the war
Few journalists who spent time there by choice ever matched the courage and dignity of those stuck there by circumstance. By coincidence, one of those who did - another BBC reporter - happened on the afternoon in question to have been caught by a bombardment in the PTT building, which was used as a headquarters by the UN and thus as an aiming point by Serb gunners and mortar crews.

A battalion or so of soldiers from the French Foreign Legion stood around trying to strike a balance between standing near enough to open ground to look brave and near enough to shelter to be safe.

A short drive away, in a makeshift office below a ramp leading up to the building, I was taking shelter with a group of more prudent journalists. Inspired, however, by the impregnability apparently offered by our new wheels, I set off to pick up our intrepid colleague so that no-one should have to walk around during the afternoon bombardment.

On the way up the ramp I did notice that the vehicle, whose power steering turned out in a subsequent check-up to be defective, handled like a supertanker. But it was only when I got up to the car park outside the PTT building that I realised it was almost impossible to steer.

Try to imagine doing your driving test in a bulldozer during an artillery attack under the amused but hostile gaze of a thousand foreign soldiers.

A few minutes of my inexpert manoeuvrings were enough to turn the frightened troops into a relaxed and rather appreciative audience for what must have looked like a cross between 'Top Gear' and 'The Guns of Navarone' as I attempted to park.

Sadly, the manoeuvrings were not enough to prevent me from colliding with a rather odd looking two-seater armoured French scout car with huge external springs on its suspension, which made it look a bit like a cross between a tank and a pram. Even through the bullet-proof glass the damage was clearly extensive.

The young officer whose personal transport it was ran towards us, oblivious to the danger. He performed a rather impressive hornpipe of rage as I rummaged through the gearbox looking for reverse and, when I found it, he receded, still gesticulating furiously.

Unfortunately - okay, carelessly - I still had my foot on the accelerator when I found first gear again. This sent us hurtling back into the wreckage of the scout car in a second and much more violent collision which shattered the windows, broke every light fitting and bent the dagger-shaped tricolour pinned to the front bumper.

[ image: The pay is alright, but the croissants need improvement]
The pay is alright, but the croissants need improvement
As I carried on pushing the huge gear lever around, vaguely hoping for some sort of contact, my more intrepid colleague jumped down again. The young French subaltern was incandescent with anger.

"Once!" he shouted at my partner. "You can do this once to me, but twice ..!"

He cast about in the recesses of his English homework, done long ago and far away, for an appropriate insult. "I could report you to your MP!" he raved.

Time for apologies

Eventually we lurched and jolted away down the ramp towards our colleagues while here and there through the bullet-proof windscreen the odd block of flats on the near horizon smouldered and the occasional black-tinged plume of smoke from nowhere indicated continuing mortar fire.

After a parking manoeuvre which lasted about forty minutes I began to feel rather uncomfortable about the French military vehicle. I had written off another of our cars the previous week and knew how much paperwork this kind of thing could generate.

The next morning I set off to see the young officer and found him calm and neatly turned out and rather embarrassed, as decent people always are if they have been engaged in an out-of-character row like the one between us which had taken place the day before.

I presented him with a bottle of vodka, carefully hoarded since my arrival from Moscow where I was living at the time.

"I'm very sorry about the scout car," I told him.
"Actually," he replied, "I'm not too bothered. It made a nice change from what I've been spending most of my time doing since I got here."
"Why?" I asked. "What was that?"
"Answering complaints from the troops about the quality of the baguettes and the croissants from the mobile field kitchens," he said.

And so, long before I ever lived in France, in the middle of someone else's war, I was introduced to the tense and difficult relationship between the French and their daily bread.

It's not bread, it's a life-style

In the years after the first World War every man, woman and child in France ate more than one-and-a-half pounds of bread a day.

Every day.

I make that something between a ton and a ton and a half each every year. It conjures up an image of kids dragging their feet on the way home from school, knowing they would end up after tea stuffed with dozens of slices of bread. Or pensioners being rushed into hospital with bread poisoning.

In modern France whoever goes around rummaging through the pantries and fridges of the nation now calculates that a rather more normal sounding five ounces (142 grams) a day per head gets eaten.

Now you might think that would be seen as a modest cause for national rejoicing, a sign that getting on for a century of progress and prosperity interrupted by war has produced a richer, healthier and more varied diet.

More varied at least than the French enjoyed during a period when they must have been dining off bread soup followed by roast bread and then bread ice cream three times a day to get through their annual quota. You might have thought that, but not a bit of it.

Welcome to France.

Here, viewed through the distorting lens of morbid introspection the French use to examine such questions, the 20th century decline in the national bread habit is seen as something of a cause for anxiety. It represents the severing of the link between the tranquil, rural society France so recently was. Urbanisation here, after all, is largely a 20th century phenomenon.

Going for the whole loaf

At one level the object of veneration is the baguette, the long, thin, crusty loaf of brilliant white bread which has come to be regarded as a sort of culinary baton to be handed down from generation to generation.

You will hear stories of how the baguette's characteristic shape evolved because of the need to find a loaf which soldiers of Napoleon's Grand Armee could stuff down their tunic trousers when they were on the march.

It is an engaging and picturesque historical image, only slightly spoiled by the fact that the loaf in its modern form probably dates from around the 1920s. But it's a reminder that the French surpass even the British in their flair for instant invented tradition.

The man who did not like baguette

I had all this explained to me in snatches in the cold, bleary hours after dawn one morning in the tiny corner shop run by the man who has, for two years running, won the loaf of the year contest in Paris. Every individual point was reinforced with a poke of a floury finger into my chest. Rene St Ouen, a short, untidy man with a grizzled crew-cut, is a man with a passion.

His bread comes in huge, dome-shaped loaves with an outer crust blackened in the oven until it looks as though it's re-entered earth's atmosphere and then cooked to the texture of mahogany. On the inside it is rich and dark and nutty from the use of wholegrain flour.

This is the bread you will be served should you ever be invited to dine with the French president at his official residence, the Elysees Palace, which happens to be just around the corner from M. St Ouen's shop.

The long, thin, lightly browned baguette, seen everywhere else in the world as a symbol of French culinary pride, is regarded here with a mixture of pity and scorn. The master baker can hardly be bothered to turn the blowtorch of his contempt on to it.

"What's your favourite food?" he asked me suddenly.

Now this is often a trick question in France in which your answer is used as the departure point for a lengthy treatise on French superiority, nearly always delivered when you don't have the time or the patience to listen.

"Oh, roast meat, fish, cheese, soup, curry, stew, things like that," I replied guardedly, experience having shown it's always best to avoid being too specific in these circumstances.

"There you are," he replied triumphantly, "exactly the kind of thing that goes perfectly with good bread. Bread subtly changes the taste of everything else on the table. It's impossible to eat without it."

The story of the loaf of the year competition provided conclusive proof that M. St Ouen is a man who sees the world from a uniquely bread-o-centric point of view.

I had never given much thought to what such a contest would actually look like. My mind's eye conjured up a fantastic vision of a man dressed in white standing under a bank of spotlights, blinking back tears, holding a golden loaf above his head and saying it wouldn't have been possible if it hadn't been for his mum and dad.

At the very least I pictured something like that old bread advert on the telly where a group of bakers squeezed and prodded a succession of loaves in unmarked wrappers, saying things like, "I think it's one of Eric's from Lincoln," before someone, inspired, finally says, "It's one of Cyril's. Nice one, Cyril." A world of matey, blokish, affectionate competition. Not so, it seems.

The format of the competition is a kind of blind tasting by experts who select a loaf identified only by a code. The reaction of M. St Ouen's peers a few years back when he first won the loaf of the year award was less than enthusiastic, possibly because of the refreshing frankness with which he criticised their efforts during his victory speech.

Anyway, in circumstances about which he was a little vague, M. St Ouen was excluded from the following year's competition. He won it anyway, to the irritation of the judges, by entering under an assumed name and then, at the appropriate moment, bursting forward to announce his real identity, like a 1930s starlet coming out from inside a cake.

The results: victory again, a ban from subsequent competition and a continuing contract with the presidential palace, as well as a certain reputation among purists as the standard-bearer for real traditional bread.

Whatever M. St Ouen thinks of the more conventional baguette, however, the French government has been persuaded that it is under threat and it is worth saving.

The threat comes, of course, not from dismissive super-purists but, more prosaically, from supermarkets which manufacture bread in industrial quantities from giant batches of frozen dough. The result, of course, is perfectly acceptable bread mass-produced in huge quantities at affordable prices.

Predictably, the result of this has not been mass national rejoicing at a reduction in the cost of bread but a wave of nostalgia for the way of life represented by the small baker, producer of the vastly more expensive baguette.

In what the French sniffily refer to as Anglo-Saxon countries, the passing of such a figure might be a modest cause of regret to be offset against the generally accepted benefit of cheaper, more convenient food supplies. In France a campaign of agitation by the bakers, who portrayed themselves as custodians of some of the key traditions in French life, produced legislation which attempted to restrict the right to hang the sign 'Boulangerie' outside your door.

You can if you mix and knead your own dough and bake it in the shop. You can't if you buy the dough off somebody else ready-made and then simply cut it up into lumps and shove it in the oven.

So, in legislating to save old-fashioned bakeries, French politicians sincerely believe they are legislating to save a little bit of history rather than pointlessly flying in the face of economic reality.

The particular rules in question, however, are more remarkable as proof of depth of sentiment than as evidence of skill in parliamentary draughtsmanship. If you don't satisfy the requirements you are prevented by law from calling your shop a bakery but there is nothing to prevent you from displaying a sign calling yourself a baker, even if you're buying in your raw materials from the freezer department of the supermarket round the corner.

Needless to say, the effect of all this on bread consumption, and indeed on the number of bakeries in France, has been negligible. Still, in some way too deep for words to express, there is still satisfaction that a link with the past has been preserved and a certain idea of Frenchness defended.

[ image: Where's the bread?]
Where's the bread?
I bumped into the Foreign Legion and its mobile baking service again a couple of years back, far from the dangers of Sarajevo, in the arid, featureless land where the borders of Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia meet in the burning African desert. The Djiboutian side of the frontier, not far from the hottest place on earth, is patrolled, in as much as any wilderness is worth patrolling, by the legion.

As we bounced along on a concrete-springed jeep filming the soldiers gamely trying to look as active as possible, a camel train perhaps a quarter of a mile long suddenly appeared from behind a rocky outcrop.

The camels were roped together collar to tail, the traders swathed in robes and scarves against the wind and burning heat. With the sun behind them they were silhouetted black against the cloudless sky.

It was an incongruous meeting. They could have stepped from the pages of an illustrated bible, a supply train for the Three Wise Men; our camouflage vehicles were laden with automatic rifles and TV gear.

We stopped to talk, as you do in a trackless waste, and they generously presented us with gifts of sticky dried fruit. We had nothing to give them in return, having disposed of our last cartons of Marlboro cigarettes in the previous village, although maybe they would have preferred Camels anyway.

Struck by sudden inspiration, one of the sergeants rummaged around in the glove box and came up with a rather crushed looking croissant wrapped in foil. This was duly presented with some ceremony to the head of the camel train and we moved on, honours even.

Eventually one of the other soldiers said, to no-one in particular, that a piece of bread like that didn't seem much of a gift, given that troops are often reminded their role is partly ambassadorial.

The sergeant bridled with annoyance and delivered, not altogether seriously, a rebuke that distilled centuries of tradition into a single sentence:

"I haven't just given him a piece of bread," he said. "I've given him a piece of France."

  • Part 1: A taste of cruelty
  • Part 3: The King of Wine
  • Part 4: The final course

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