The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

If French Bread Is So Good, Why...

Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

If French Bread Is So Good, Why...

If French bread is so good why don't we see more of it in the U.S.?  I've read so many articles praising the quality of French bread and even more from frustrated bakers who can't come close to duplicating it.  It wouldn't take much to obtain some French wheat grain, bring it to North America and grow it.  I think that I've found one answer as to why this hasn't happened.  It's not that their flour is so much better.  It's that the French flour is so much worse, or to put it in less inflammatory words, French flour has less protein.  North American bakers have historically opted for higher protein wheats.  There may well be other reasons such as lower yields, etc....dunno.  Now Canadian prairie wheat growers have come up with a wheat suitable to their growing conditions, and that wheat duplicates French wheat.  What's the difference?  Less protein.  Here's a link:  http://www.cwb.ca/public/en/library/research/popups/wheat_Prarie_Spring.jsp  It would be interesting to see if some of our bakers out there have access to this type of grain and could report back on their findings.

What do you think?

Cliff. Johnston

crumb bum's picture
crumb bum

Hey Cliff

I have a theory about french bread.  I give them all the credit in the world for their contribution to not only the bread world but the food world in general.  Now that that is out of the way here it is.  I think French bread is like Russian vodka and like Coors beer used to be in Oregon.  All overrated because of the difficulty in obtaining the genuine article.  We want what we can't easily have.  Isn't it a hoot KA makes a flour to mimic what by all reports is weak flour and we buy it?  Lesson here is great bread does not need great flour, just great technique.  I think the French would have drooled at the thought of having our flour.  I also think that part of the greatness of French bread has to do with consuming it in France.  The atmosphere makes it taste better. It's like that sandwich your wife makes, it tastes better when she makes it instead of you.  I don't know this for a fact but I would venture to guess that the bread made by the vast majority of the breadophiles on this site is every bit as good as the French bread we hold up as the holy grail.  Sometimes I think we look back too much for our inspiration instead of forward.

Da Crumb Bum

Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

Hey, Bummer, you hit the nail right on the head.  The pasture always looks greener on the other side of the fence.

Cliff. Johnston
"May the best you've ever seen,
 Be the worst you'll ever see;"
from A Scots Toast by Allan Ramsay

breadnerd's picture
breadnerd

It's really not a matter of "better" or "worse" it's just that American wheat strains were developed over the previous 50 or so years for the industrial-type baking of white sandwich breads. The higher protein contect helped the dough hold together when mixed in this setting--the baking process for wonder-type breads involved intense mixing and very little proof time, it's very unlike the way you make bread at home (or in an artisanal bakery).

This flour was great flour for it's purposes, but when people tried to make bread with different techniques it just didn't work as well. So a lot of earlier bread books either talk about looking for different types of flour, OR they altered their techniques to adapt to the flour that 90% of people had access to at the grocery store. If you want to make breads with longer rises and wetter doughs, then a lower-protein flour just works better.

Nowadays there definitely are a lot more options out there. The artisan bakers are working with agriculture to create different types--there are even seed-saving organizations for breeding ancient wheat strains from egypt etc. Just like the latest guidelines for whole-grain nutrition is encouraging the popularity of white-whole wheat flours etc.

 

I do think the idea you can't make french bread here as good as in france is a little over-stated. Of course there are regional differences on all sorts of food, that's what makes it fun, but I suspect if you used similar flours and techniques you would be hard-pressed to have an average french or american citizen tell the difference :)

 

Now, the question is, can you make NYC bagels outside of NYC? :)

 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I think it has more to do with what you eat and the way one eats the bread.  How often does the average American sit with down to a meal of cheese, smoked meat, bread and wine? Or just bread and cheese served on the cutting board with a sharp knife?  The shape of the loaf is ideal for this kind of "cut off as you eat" way of eating.  Americans are hooked on the sandwhich (just look at the bread available) assembled in the kitchen, the Art of eating elegantly on a board, awkward.   Mini Oven

fthec's picture
fthec

The first question is why would one want to make NYC bagels anyway?   Montreal bagels are much better.  Nevertheless, I digress.

Have any of the above posters actually been to France to try "French Bread"?  Yes the ambiance and nostalgia are contributing factors to the whole experience.  But, there is no question, that in general French bread is better.  Not to say that some bread in North America isn't excellent--  it is, and it's getting better all the time.  The difference is that in Europe, France in particular, bread commands a great deal more respect than it does here.

My next point concerns flour and protein content.  It irks me to constantly hear the misguided idea that protein content (especially high protein level) is critical to good bread.  This is categorically false, especially for home bakers.  There is a great deal more to bread than protein content alone, too much, in fact, to discuss here. 

crumb bum's picture
crumb bum

Hey all

I would like to comment on a few of fthec's points.  First of I have never had the pleasure of eating French bread in France.  I hope to one day be able to cross that one off my list. I know bread is revered in France but I honestly don't think it's held up with any less reverence among the great artisan bakers in the US or the members of this site.  After reading the post about "you know your a bread baker when..." thread, you know the people on this site are certifiably bread insane.

I also don't want to imply that weak flour is bad flour.  What I find cool is how they used this flour to create their bread legacy.  In the old days I imagine that flour came from a very local source.  These bakers of old had to use whatever the field produced and did so with amazing skill.  If they had our flour and distribution capabilities they might not have had to create the techniques they did, or they may have come up with stuff we havent even thought of yet.  Thats what I ment about not looking back, we have all this great product and knowlege.  I think we have it in our hands and minds to push bread to new levels. Kind of fun to think about.

About the NYC bagels I have heard the stories (fables) about the water being the x factor.

Da Crumb Bum 

andrew_l's picture
andrew_l

is a very variable thing! You can get some very average bread from supermarkets and bakers, but most small towns (and some villages) still have at least one good baker. But it amazes me how quickly the baguettes seem to go stale! My home made sourdough lasts much longer.Last time I was in France (quite a short journey from where I live in the South of England) I got some organic bread flour - and was very dissappointed with the results. 
http://www.viamichelin.com/viamichelin/gbr/tpl/mag5/art20060701/htm/gastronomie-croquet.htm
This is a bakery I must try sometime...
Andrew

andrew_l's picture
andrew_l

With fats added - even if shelf life and keeping qualities are considered a benefit - the softer, more pliable loaf would, to me, be much less "French". I LIKE going to a bakery and having to eat the food  I buy while it is fresh!!!!  I also have had no trouble buying baguettes - haven't been to Paris for a few years, but , Senlis, Lille, St Fois, Brantôme, St Suliac, Calais, Dijon etc all have them in heaps. Some average - some bad - the best, stunning. 

manxman's picture
manxman

 

Can not imagine a place in France NOT selling baguettes

 From my house in a radius of 5 miles there is at least 15 bakeries selling superb baguettes. More often than not different types. If you need one to be stale in an hour get one from a supermarket.

An artisan loaf is governed by a decree which states flour yeast water and salt only

The flour normally type 55 may contain up to 2 percent bean flour, 0.5 soya flour and 0.3 percent malt four.

The bakers who use poolish finish with a softer sandwich type baguette but will last longer 

 

 

Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

Manxman,

Thanks for the insight.  I'll have to give them a go one of these days soon.

Cliff. Johnston
"May the best you've ever seen,
 Be the worst you'll ever see;"
from A Scots Toast by Allan Ramsay

filbertfood's picture
filbertfood

I lived in France off and on from 2002 until 2004 and never had a problem finding baguettes.  In fact, when I was living in a city in the southeast of France, the most popular boulangerie in the city center was contained a wood burning oven and produced fresh bread everyday.  If I was returning late from work, I couldn't even get a baguette past 4 o' clock.

When I lived in Normandie, it was the same thing.  Sure, many people went to Carrefour and bought the mass-produced baguettes to simplify their lives; however, the neighborhood shops were still out of bread by around 5 or 6.  It's important to note as well that in many French villages they have a local bread that is a specialty of the town or region.

When everyone here was in Paris, did you go to Paul?  Geez, I think they had five varieties of baguettes on any given day--even in the bigger Metro stations!  The point is: the baguette is still a staple.  I visited many families and they almost never ate pain de mie, the equivalent to our Wonderbread, and almost always preferred going to the boulangerie on the corner and getting bread for dinner.

Finally, to say that flour does not make a difference couldn't be any further from the truth.  Over the past 5 years I have been baking towards the perfect baguette and have had reasonable success.  I decided to look into imported flour and lo and behold, I was able to get some type 55(0) Turkish flour and there was no comparison.  This isn't just because I'm selling it.  The whole reason I'm selling it is in order to provide people with a more valid point of comparison.  The flour I imported came from a large company in Turkey that sells to major bakeries in Istanbul and also to Carrefour and Metro.  It is purely flour, no extraneous ingredients, just wheat flour that has been milled with the proper extraction rate thusly giving it 55% relative ash/mineral content.

If you are concerned with your baguettes into swords, place them in a plastic bag from your local grocer.  They will then keep moist and can be refreshed in the oven.

Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

I'll have to get some of your type 55 flour and give it a go.

Cliff. Johnston
"May the best you've ever seen,
 Be the worst you'll ever see;"
from A Scots Toast by Allan Ramsay

filbertfood's picture
filbertfood

Hi Cliff,

You can email me about the flour inquiries@filbertfood.com.  ehanner is doing some test runs, which I hope he posts.

BROTKUNST's picture
BROTKUNST

Filberfood .. I visited your website. The cost for your (5lb) T55 may be 'ok' actually but shipping it for almost $15 tells me that you guys don't have good terms for your shipping, don't you ? I'd be interested to try it out and I think it's great that somebody offers this flour (which may or may not be better) but unfortunately the shipping kills the idea.

 

BROTKUNST

filbertfood's picture
filbertfood

That is straight from the USPS shipping schema.  Email me and I'll see what I can do: inquiries@filbertfood.com

Oldcampcook's picture
Oldcampcook

I was stationed in Paris some years ago and used to buy my baguettes daily from a little local bakery.

When my wife got pregnant, I had to go every evening to a local cafe and get her a "sandwich jambon" (ham on baguette with french mustard."

As great as the bread was, it seems to me that the baguettes I have been baking for the past several months (I just got into bread baking) are as good as the ones I got in France.

Unless my old memory is fading more rapidly than I thought.

redivyfarm's picture
redivyfarm

I found a gem in your posting to this very long thread. I think that tastes and aromas can be evocative beyond simple memory. Your delicious bread is nourishing your heart and mind.