25 June 2007

The baguette is back

The baguette is back

Steven Laurence Kaplan


A contemporary history of French bread, the way it is made, and the people who make it376pp. Duke University Press.$27.95; distributed in the UK by Combined Academic Publishers.£16.99.978 0 8223 3833 8

To be a baker’s boy in eighteenth-century Paris must have been pretty close to hell. You were effectively a slave, both to your master and to the intricate demands of sourdough fermentation. The working “day” began close to midnight. Wearing rough, uncomfortable underwear made from old flour sacks, you were forced to knead as much as 200 lb of dough at a time, using nothing but your hands and – in desperation – your feet. This kneading took place not once but many times over the night, usually in a clammy cellar too dark for you to see what you were doing, and so hot that the dough sometimes melted before it had risen. The baker’s boy in charge of kneading was known as le geindre, the groaner, on account of the blood-curdling noises he made as he worked. When you were finally granted rest, sometime in the morning, you were obliged to sleep in the blinding heat of the bakery. After three hours, you were forced to wake up again, to minister to the sourdough starter, which, like a newborn child, required round-the-clock feeding. In 1788, the journalist Louis-Sébastien Mercier described how unhealthy bakers’ apprentices looked. Unlike butchers’ boys, who were robust and ruddy, bakers’ boys were flour-coated wretches, huddling in doorways, haggard and white.

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