Sad times in France, according to a November 10 article in the New York Times!
Village bakeries in rural areas have been closing down in alarming numbers. Townspeople are up in arms as they are being deprived of their daily baguettes and weekend éclairs. More importantly, one of the last remaining cornerstones of village social life — the bread and pastry line-ups — are vanishing. Where else can they now meet face-to-face, chit-chat, and gossip with neighbours?
The small butcher shops and produce vendors have closed, too!
“Without bread, there is no more life,” says a resident of La Chapelle-en-Juger in Normandy. He lives across the street from the now-shuttered boulangerie of the village. “This is a dead village.”
Why is this happening?
The article speculates that young people are no longer drawn to the long hours of the traditional bakers, who apprentice for years and who live upstairs from the bakery. Shopping malls have taken root on the periphery of rural areas, drawing in people who are content to buy at supermarkets or chains. Customers, especially the young, are not eating as much bread.
People still want their bread, though, the Times article says. And baguettes can now be purchased from vending machines in select areas. Vending machines! The most significant indignity of all! Quel drame!
Rural life in La Roche Vineuse
Several years ago, Jen and I spent two holidays living in a small village near the city of Mâcon in the Burgundy wine region.
The local boulangerie-patisserie was a seven-minute walk from the house we rented in the town of La Roche Vineuse. The bakery was on the town square, across the street from a cafe and a grocery-smoke shop. On market days, you could buy produce and meat from trucks that parked there, including live and recently killed chickens.
It was a beautiful ritual to walk to the boulangerie in the morning, buy a baguette and a couple of croissants or pastries. We’d break out the cultured butter and tear hunks off the baguette, sip our French Press coffee and revel in the experience. I used to say this was the best boulangerie in all of France!
And it was also our entry into the life of the village. We’d nod at the woman behind the counter, test our French with her and find something to laugh about. Some in the line would help us order our bread, correct our pronunciation, and tell us little things about the village. When we went back a year later, they greeted us like old friends.
We also learned that on weekends, the locals made two trips to the bakery each day, buying a baguette each time for breakfast and dinner. It was unthinkable not to have the freshest bread possible at the dinner table.
Invasion of the Super Stores
Mid-way between La Roche Vineuse and Mâcon, a ten-minute drive away, was a huge Carrefour supermarket. It was not unlike a Save-On-Foods or Thrifty’s. You’d float down the aisles with your grocery cart and encounter beautifully laid out areas devoted to cheeses, meats, local produce, and … bread and pastries.
You’d go to the checkout and be rushed through the line by a stern-faced clerk who had neither the time nor inclination to converse or share humour with a pair of ridiculous anglophones.
It seemed a sacrilege to buy bread there, but we did, once. I can tell you it was every bit as delicious as our own boulangerie! French bread standards remain high wherever you buy it! Even the vending machine baguette is passable, according to one villager in the Times article.
One of the only places for Internet reception near the village was a local Macdonald’s restaurant. Jen and I went there several times to collect emails. We were a little saddened to see screaming kids and harassed, overweight parents in numbers. Not the France we’d romanticized about!
What happened to our boulangerie?
That was 10 years ago! We could sense the changing rural fabric of the country even though we didn’t see baguette vending machines. Still, I wonder if our favourite boulangerie-patisserie in La Roche Vineuse is now shuttered like the one described in La Chapelle-en-Juger.
And what would that mean to the abundant cultural life of our little village? Where would we ever see the produce clerk who asked me so many questions in her halting English about Vancouver and Canada? Where would the old men in the cafes go, who sat outside sipping Pernod and smoking Gauloises?
It’s difficult to underestimate the role bread plays in French culture, or at least the baguette. The local boulangerie has not suffered the same fate in the cities, the Times article suggests.
“In Paris, people walking home at the end of the day, munching on a bit of baguette, remains a part of the cityscape,” it reads.
Half of France lives within 2.25 km of a bakery, according to a recent government report. In cities, 73 percent of the population lives within less than a kilometre. The average trip to a bakery takes 7.4 minutes on foot, or other modes of transportation. To be more precise, it’s five minutes in a city or 9.4 minutes in the countryside.
Imagine a government report that looks at this level of minutiae! The Loyal Opposition in our own country would be scandalized! But, as I said, the French take their bread seriously.
“Bread is life!”
The role of bread in France is illustrated beautifully in a passage from the Times article:
“We were there for baptisms, communions, weddings, and we made their yule logs,” Mr. Culeron [a baker from a nearby town] said.
On Sundays, people were taught that Jesus was the bread of life. At home, they carved the sign of the cross into bread crust before the start of the meal. Children were admonished never to put a loaf on its back because “you don’t earn your bread while lying on your back.”
“That’s how I was raised, and how I’ve raised my children,” said Fabien Rose, 46, who lives within a stone’s throw of the old bakery in La Chapelle-en-Juger. “That’s why the bakery has an enormous place in a village — because bread is life.”
… And North America?
Such a profound difference from North American culture! We’ve been raised on bread that comes from plastic bags and is often little more than mush and no flavour. The closure of a local bakery would not have a significant impact on a rural village here.
But I believe North America is developing its own bread culture. The so-called artisan bread movement is introducing flavour and character into bread. Real bread lovers have higher standards, and I expect this will have an impact on the bread market over the long term.
More in another post!