GOOD BREAD IS BACK - by STEVEN LAURENCE KAPLAN
A contemporary history of French bread, the way it is made, and the people who make it.
Professor Kaplan is the Goldwyn Smith Professor of European History at Cornell University and Visiting Professor of Modern History at the University of Versailles, Saint-Quentin. The French government has twice knighted Kaplan for his contributions to the "sustenance and nourishment" of French culture.
From the book's jacket: "Widely recognized as a leading expert on French bread, the historian Steven Laurence Kaplan takes readers into aromatic Parisian bakeries as he explains how good bread began to reappear in France in the 1990s, following almost a century of decline in quality."
In 326 pages of his book, Professor Kaplan takes the reader from the bakery dungeons of eighteenth-century France, along the twisting, turning road to modern day baking. This wonderful book is the best written history book I can recall reading and a fascinating journey told flawlessly by an author who has a thorough understanding of the history of French bread and has meticulously researched his subject.
The opening to Chapter one
"Good Bread: Practices and Discourses
Let us go into the narrow, oppressive space of an eighteenth-century baking room. In Paris, this probably means heading down into an ill-ventilated basement, lit by the few candles grudgingly granted by the owner's wife, who kept the accounts. Even though the conditions may have already been less difficult in her day, George Sand did not find the expression 'dark dungeon' too strong. The work was hard and often mind-numbing. Someone had to prepare wood for the fire, then light it, draw water, handle bags of flour weighing 150 kilos [330 lbs.], then knead 100 kilos or more with his hands or sometimes his feet. The baker's boy responsible for the kneading was called le geindre, the groaner, because of the sounds he made while he worked: "A kind of painful cry", Sand called it, 'you'd think you were witnessing the final scene of a murder.' From the worker's standpoint, this 'forced labor' came under the heading of criminal behavior: 'Night, a time of rest, is a time of torture for us,' baker's 'boys'---journeymen---complained in 1715, and the refrain was echoed throughout the nineteenth century by other protesting this 'nocturnal slavery, ' this morally and physically destructive 'captivity.'
The air in the bakery was heavy, sometimes thick with flour dust and sometimes suffocatingly humid. When the oven was in use, the heat was overwhelming. Apprentices worked in rough underclothing (often made of old flour sacks) and dripped with sweat, enriching (or infecting) the dough. Before baking began, especially in winter, the bakery was damp and freezing cold. The environment was as unhealthy as the work was exhausting. Louis-Sebastian Mercier, a chronicler of eighteenth-century Parisian ways, was struck by the contrast between butcher's boys, who were sturdy, ruddy fellows, and baker's boys, who could be seen in shop doorways looking wretched, haggard, and pale, like flour-drenched scarecrows. The baking room was usually cluttered with tools, work surfaces, and supplies. There was just enough room to maneuver and carry out the simplest operations. Sometimes the workers could barely stand upright."
Professor Kaplan uses this segment to set up and lead the reader on a trip through the evolution of French baking, and what a trip it is.
Here's a link to a Youtube video showing Professor Kaplan at a boulangerie inspecting the goods, so to speak.