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A pint of beer, some bread and a slab of your finest cheese

The BBC report that the baguette is making a comeback in France.

In France, that national symbol, the crusty baguette has in recent years been threatened by a decline in bread consumption and the rise of industrial-style baking.

Industrial bread production is a curse of the modern age. These days you can buy buy bread virtually everywhere in the world, but unfortunately most of it is tasteless and has the consistency of cotton wool. For this we can thank the food scientists who developed the 'Chorleywood method' of making bread more quickly and cheaply. In Britain, industrially-produced white sliced bread is one of the items that supermarkets sell at very low prices to attract customers. This in turn has driven many local bakers out of business, especially now that large supermarkets bake bread on the premises.

Near to where I used to live in London there was a very traditional bakery that sold excellent wholemeal and white bread. The guy baked the bread over night, and sold it in his shop in the morning, and you had to be there fairly early before it had all gone. Unfortunately he was quite elderly and very slow at serving customers, so it was no surprise when landlords increased the rent and the shop shut down. I am sure that story has been repeated many times in High Streets up and down the UK.

Never mind, there's probably a bakery in your nearest supermarket - that's just the same, right? Sadly not, and it will have been made in a factory using industrial methods and then sent to the store to put in the ovens and sold as freshly baked. Which it is, strictly speaking.

The same problem exists in France, but there is a stronger tradition of good quality bread, and even today you will normally find a local baker in even the smallest towns. Unfortunately, many of also them cut corners by using frozen dough and shortening the fermentation process (as with the 'Chorleywood method'). I recall that about ten years ago there was a campaign to support the traditional methods, and a special sign that the real craft bakers could put outside their shops, but I'm not sure whether it still exists. So, what with hypermarkets and local shops that use short cuts, it has become harder to get really good bread, even in France.

Now, as well as the BBC report, The Guardian reports that two guides have been produced on the best bread in Paris.

There may be a parallel here with beer in Britain. It reached a point where the industry was dominated by a small number of national companies (both brewing beer and owning pubs) who had acquired most of the regional brewers and quietly dropped their traditional beers. Then a group of fat blokes with beards started the Campaign for Real Ale and highlighted the good pubs and good beer that was available (from companies such as Marstons and Youngs, for example) and things started to change.

[Then the government started interfering, limiting the number of pubs that brewers were allowed to own. If you need proof that governments should keep out of these matters, this must be a prime example. I thought at the time that rather than selling off pubs, the companies would actually focus on that side of the business and sell their brewing interests. I haven't been following this very closely, but I believe that is exactly what has happened. There are now a small number of companies each owning a large estate of pubs, and although many of them are actually operated by individual landlords, they have little choice but to buy beer, wine and spirits from the pub owners. They, in turn, do deals with the big brewers to buy large volumes at very low prices. Smaller, independent, brewers still have great difficulty in selling their beer to most pubs, though there are still genuine free houses, and so I don't think the government achieved what they wanted. It was ever thus.]

Back to bread, and I really hope that these guides encourage people to seek out the traditional craft bakers, and persuade some of the others to change their ways. I have many happy memories of holidays in France eating very well in the evenings and been quite content to eat a simple lunch of a freshly baked baguette with fresh, ripe tomatoes or some cheese. Oh, and perhaps some wine.

In fact, a cheese sandwich with a pint of beer is a good example of how much food can vary. At one extreme, we have sliced white bread from a large factory, tasteless mass-produced "cheddar" , and an anonymous national brand of beer. At the other, the bread has been made with dough that has been allowed to rise slowly, and then properly baked to give a good crust, the cheese is traditionally made and left to mature, and the beer is from a local brewery that cares about its products. A world of difference, but you are very much more likely to encounter the first type of food than the second. Anyone who can help to reverse that trend gets my full support!


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