Wednesday, 4 November 2009

bread and brioche

photo taken and bread baked by steve brett

I've been doing a bit of research into bread. This is mostly because a friend of mine recently told me the reason for the invention of the French loaf. The baguette is a symbol of France (though it is thought to have originated in Vienna) because of a law passed in 1920, which stated that no-one should be working before 4am. This meant that baguettes were the only sensible choice as their shape made them far quicker to bake.

The baguette's significance in French culture echoes the significance of bread's importance to culture in general. It appears in biblical references, prayers and hymns and has been used for centuries in political rhetoric as short hand for all food as well - it could be argued - as for other material wealth. It is a symbol of prosperity and security. In ancient Egypt, bread's role in the diet was crucial. It provided protein, starch and trace nutrients and was eaten by people of all levels in society.

It is bread's role as an equalizer in society that interests me. Returning to France and more specifically to the French revolution, it can be seen that bread was symbolic in the proletariat's rise to power. Firstly, There was a division between the peasants and the bourgeois aristocrats in the very type of bread they consumed. Peasants at this time (C18) would eat only dense brown bread, while aristocrats would eat only soft white loaves, believing their constitution to be too refined to deal with anything else.

Secondly, the legendary - and rather miss translated or maybe even fabricated - inflammatory remark by Marie Antoinette "let them eat cake" in response to hearing that the peasants had no flour with which to make bread. The correct translation of this is in fact "let them eat brioche" which is a sweetened, more expensive, egg based bread. Whether or not this remark was actually made, it represents the view of the division between the classes; the way in which either were considered to view food. One sees a luxury, the other a necessity.

This view of the class divide is obviously a generalization but it is the symbolic line that has been drawn time and again between the workers and the bourgeoisie. Bread is an has been used in political speeches to suggest a fair chance for people of all means. However, while there may be bread for everyone, there is still only brioche for the privileged few.