I prepared this post last week. Today, we are in shock. Crazies again. In a little, old-fashioned supermarket. In a town where little old ladies walk around with a cane in one hand and their handbags dangling from the other. The picture of safe.

I will certainly have something to say about it later. I am glad I gave blood again this morning.

Back to the previously scheduled post:

Our local bakery is awful. Shocking, but true. For years, we went to a bakery in the next village, tucked away on a barely one-way street (I say “barely” because it was practically a tunnel, lined by houses that were erected when traffic was exclusively on foot, whose walls are well-scraped by passing vehicles). The oven was wood-fired, and the baker’s wife would wear big mitts to bring out hot pain de campagne. The baker was crowded with people waiting to buy it—you snooze, you lose. While waiting (in a huddle, never in a line), they discussed the weather, and their forecasts were 100% accurate. This is not surprising in a crowd of winegrowers and other farmers and gardeners. Stooped pensioners showed up wearing their plaid flannel bedroom slippers. In winter, the heat from the oven and the people would steam the windows on the bakery, and, when I got my lumpy loaf, holding it with my sleeves because it was still too hot to handle, it would steam up the windows of my car.

All the bread here, except for the last photo, is from Noez, an institution in Carcassonne, with a location near our vacation rentals in the city center and another on the edge of town.

Sometimes the Carnivore and I would eat the entire loaf while it was still hot enough to melt the butter, which we applied copiously. But our beloved bakers got tired of the early mornings six days a week and sold the bakery. The young guy who bought the place had his own ideas about things, and the bread wasn’t as good. He went out of business after two years.P1050823We tried other bakeries, but the problem with village bakeries is that you show up early, yet are informed that the hunters have passed by even earlier and have bought everything but a couple of éclairs, which aren’t very good for sandwiches. Or that the baker had a party the night before and is running late and so come back in an hour.P1020578Good French bread is a revelation, but disappointing bread is practically criminal.

Though most of my friends are cook-at-home-from-scratch experts, they don’t make bread. Restaurants might pride themselves on their elaborate patisseries for dessert, but they won’t make their own bread. For bread, one goes to the boulangerie. Every day.

I had noticed this French habit long before I heard of the four banal—the banal oven, which probably played a role.

What does the word “banal” have to do with ovens? Or “banalities”? Did you know these words are related to bread?P1080764According to the French Federation of Baking Enterprises, around 50 B.C., the Romans introduced (unleavened) bread to France, having adopted it from the Greeks.

Keep in mind that people cooked over a fire, and it isn’t all that easy to translate into an oven. I did it when I lived in Africa: I made an “oven” out of a very large covered pot that I lined with pebbles, and into which I placed a smaller pot that held the bread. Necessity is the mother of invention. It was delicious, BTW. P1020577Some people put ovens into the walls near the kitchen fireplace. Except that all these fires, including candles and lamps for light, meant that houses were burning down rather frequently. With houses sandwiched against each other, one person’s faulty chimney could quickly destroy an entire village. I saw a communal oven, with loaves waiting their turn, in Timbuktu, where not only is it safer to have a communal oven, but you wouldn’t want any extra heat in the kitchen, and wood is so scarce that it makes sense not to use fuel for individual ovens.P1080767So the seigneurs—lords—started building separate ovens for bread, and charging the locals to use them; meanwhile they banned home ovens.

Un ban in French originally meant a public proclamation—for example les bans de mariage, the official pronouncement of a wedding engagement. As official proclamations tended to come from the lords of the château, and as lords tended to proclaim what locals could NOT do more than what was permitted, the word “ban” assumed more of its current connotation of “forbid.”P1020580Imagine you’re living in your medieval village, you’ve made your bread, you’ve marked it with a B (seriously, everybody had to mark their bread to keep the loaves from being mixed up) and now you have to schlep over to the lord’s oven—le four banal—to throw it in the oven (for a fee). Plus, you had to bring a log to add to the fire. You might have to wait your turn. Other villagers will be there, waiting for their bread to come out. Of course, you all chat—about the weather (some things never change) and little things that happened. You see each other all the time and there’s little news to share nor is there time for delving into intellectual discussions. And thus, the word “banal” acquires its connotation of that which is idle, trivial, common or boring. Le four banal is where banalités—banalities—or fees for use of the oven (usually in kind, not in money) are exchanged.  P1020579And so you have the very bad pun of my title. I am not the only one to riff on glutton/gluten. And pain is not pain but bread, and rhymes not with rain but with hand, if you left off the nd. Kind of. Listen here. (My best title pun, if I may say so, was this one.)P1020581Keep in mind that until quite recently, all bread was whole-wheat bread and quite healthy. It wasn’t even salted until the 18th century, when the tax was lifted on on salt, which is related to the word salary, but that’s another monopoly and another story.

The job of baker originally started as le tamisier—the one who makes or sells sifters. Around 1200, King Philippe Auguste let the tamisiers build their own ovens, and around 1250—close to the same time the “new” city of Carcassonne was built—Saint-Louis ended the seigneurs’ rights to oven fees in cities, but these ovens continued for a few more centuries out in the countryside. The bakers joined together to control the supply of flour and bread, and it was forbidden to bake one’s bread at home.P1080768According to the FEB, it was in 1665 that a Parisian baker added some beer yeast into a light bread, making it taste better and producing a lighter bread. This was very controversial, and the medical faculty in Paris and the government itself came out against using beer yeast. However, taste won the day, because consumers demanded yeasty bread, and the ban was lifted in 1670.P1020536Around the same time, in the 17th century, bread in a long form started to appear in Paris: le baguette, which literally means “little stick.” Baguette also refers to chopsticks, an orchestra director’s baton, and, in the case of la baguette magique, a magic wand. This symbol of France didn’t take off outside the cities until the 20th century, according to the Center for Research and Study of Bakery and Its Companions. Maybe that’s why the lumpy roundish loaf is called pain de campagne.P1020538Very important advice: when you order a baguette in France, be sure to ask for “baguette tradition,” with a slight sour-dough taste and a chewy interior beneath a golden, bumpy crust. Do not save a couple of centimes by getting the plain old baguette, with a uniform crust and inside that resembles the foam in a mattress and that will be as hard as a rock in a couple of hours.

According to the Balladur Decree of 1993 (another decree! another bread ban!), the pain de tradition français may contain only these ingredients: wheat flour, potable water, salt and yeast, although it also can have small amounts of flour of broad beans, soybeans or wheat malt. It means that all the goodness of a baguette depends on the quality of the flour and the expertise of the baker.

Supermarket bread section. You’re supposed to use the plastic sachet to take out the bread.

The patron saint of bakers is Saint Honoré, whose feast day is May 16 (saints’ feast days are announced on TV daily with the weather report). Mark your calendar and celebrate accordingly.


37 thoughts on “A gluten for pain and other banalities

  1. Ah GOOD BREAD a disappearing food! In Umbria the best was made by Pakistani’s at a secret location on the outskirts of a nearby town. Once we had located a source of Manitoba bread flour we used a bread machine several times a week and took a loaf as a gift to Italian friends.

    Now in England no bread machine just the trusted Kenwood mixer. We even make a passable Fougasse!

    Thanks for the tip regarding what to ask for when buying a baguette in France.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this post – as a person who may never visit Europe or beyond the US and islands, I am so thoroughly enjoying the view and education through your blog posts. Thank you for sharing – We live in such a complicated world now, to think of and long for those simpler times…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. VERY unsettling news this morning….
    I can smell the fresh bread all the way over here. We are so looking forward to standing in line, waiting for our turn to buy our baguette. Then standing outside and rip the end off and pop in our mouth.
    Ali x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s just awful. One person can do so much damage. People were just livid.
      On my way to donate blood this morning, before events, I had a croissant. Still warm and DIVINE. Things like that give meaning to life.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed This article. There is nothing like fresh bread and butter. Unfortunately in the area I live, there are few bakeries. I love the European concept of bakeries, fresh markets, butcher shops, etc. Too bad it isn’t that way in the area I live. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There is nothing sadder than a bakery with poor bread. Unless perhaps an unexpected act of cowardice (terror) in a provincial supermarket. 😦 What a detailed and fascinating story you wrote about French bread — I learned something new about the etymology of ‘banalités’!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Catherine, we’re thinking of you and are so sorry (and furious and sad) that your beautiful area has been hit with this horrible act of cowardice. Tomorrow, we will march in Portland, Oregon in solidarity with the communities of and around Carcassonne and Trèbes and against gun violence.

    This is a lovely, informative post about a subject near to my heart.

    Tell us about Timbuktu and your time and life in Africa.

    With you at the market, Leslie

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The market was quieter than usual, but the streets were still full. After beautiful weather yesterday, today is cool and rainy, but people (especially tourists and smokers) were sitting under big umbrellas en terrace.
      I posted a photo on IG yesterday of an elderly lady pushing her walker down the middle of the street, feet from where the CRS members were shot at and also one block from the shooter’s home. I took the photo an hour after the drama had ended. Just proof that except for this one guy, this town is super-safe.


  7. Couldn’t believe that your very own peaceable kingdom had been invaded by this hideous violence. Crazy people. Crazy times. I salute the elderly walker pusher and all of you who proudly say you will not defeat us.

    ps In difficult times, I agree: yes to puns and yes to bread.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. On a day when millions are in the streets to protest too-easy access to killing machines, I cannot even begin to process what happened in France.
    I am marginally gluten-sensitive, cannot eat it in the US. But in six weeks this winter in France, I ate croissants and baguettes and sometimes decadent little pastries every day with no ill effects. There are various discussions about whether French wheat has less gluten, or perhaps it’s the absence of Roundup sprayed on everything, dunno. And I learned to order “baguette traditionelle pas trop cuit”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear you were able to indulge. Maybe the culprit isn’t the gluten but the other ingredients. French bread doesn’t keep–no chemical additives. It’s why people have to buy fresh every day.


  9. Very interesting post about the bread & baguettes. We have very good boulangeries here. What is interesting though is what we call “medialunas” . A dictionary will tell you they are croissants, but croissants are not our “medialunas”.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I have been thinking of you, as soon as I saw the news I wondered about your town. Such a tragedy. I am sorry for all who were lost.

    On another note, bread the food of life. I love it. I love nothing more than good hot bread and butter. This is a fascinating post filled with so much information about flour, bread and the baking that I did not know of. I cannot wait to reread it.

    Have a nice day.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What a fascinating post – I’ve only just had a chance to read through it properly!! Is the bakery in your village still all shut up, but with the oven there?? One of the bakers in Azillanet was looking to tackle his own bakery – he makes the most wonderful sourdough bread!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. 16 May, day of Saint Honoré? that smacks of a day to eat a Saint Honoré gâteau, which of course is not made of mundane bread but of delicious choux pastry! What a treat this would be!

    Liked by 1 person

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