Eighteenth Century French Breads
It is difficult to define many Old
Regime breads from France, much less explain how they were made. A
number of the names that have survived appear to be different names
for the same bread and descriptions of their composition (such as
they are) can be contradictory. When instructions do exist, they
often are for large quantities and so modern home bakers will be
required to do some calculation. The ingredients, though they were
simple and can be readily approximated today, were in fact almost all
different in important ways, complicating the task for anyone seeking
to be truly “authentic”.
Still, enough information exists to
give a more or less specific idea of the composition and often the
making of these breads. This was a period when interest in the manual
crafts was on a par with interest in the greater ideas which arose at
this time and Diderot was not the only one to write in loving detail
of how the simplest things were done. Among several who wrote about
bread-making at the time, Paul-Jacques
Malouin in particular stands out, and much of what follows was
taken from his highly influential L'art
du Meunier, du Boulanger, du Vermicillier (volume
I of Jean-Elie Bertrand's Descriptions des arts et métiers).
Malouin is so manically thorough that at one point he apologizes for
providing so much detail (the modern researcher smiles...). But he
nonetheless omits or ambivalently describes some of the more common
breads and so specifications are added from other sources, notably
Nicolas de Bonnefons' Les
délices de la campagne
and Diderot's ever helpful Encyclopedie.
At the least, this catalog, if not
quite complete, will give those who study the period, bakers or not,
an idea of what breads were eaten then. Hopefully, too, some with the
relevant skills will be tempted to reproduce one or more of the
breads listed. (NOTE: Anyone who does so is invited to share
their experience. )
The label "Traditional" has taken on a power well beyond its pleasant, rather comforting associations; it is effective enough commercially that you will see it attached to a range of breads made with a range of methods. "Traditional" French bread can be anything from bread made, at least in part, with methods that are only a few decades old, or it can claim roots going back before the arrival of Austrian methods (with August Zang in 1839) in Paris. So whether or not breads that do not strictly adhere to eighteenth century methods and ingredients are traditional is too amorphous an issue to address here. What can be said is that certain things did exist then and others didn't.
Notably, despite claims by some very prominent bakers to the contrary, long narrow breads (as opposed to round ones or, in the 17th century, long wide ones) were already common and yeast was already used by itself as a ferment. (Note that "narrow" here is relative; some baguettes today are thin and evenly narrow for their entire length; others however swell a bit in the middle, much like some breads Malouin shows). These methods were NOT, as has been claimed, introduced by Zang, and are perfectly appropriate for any traditional bread that does not claim to be based on pre-modern methods. They are French methods, not foreign innovations.
On the other hand, anything called a "traditional baguette" is taking a pretty short view of tradition - the first significant use of the word for a bread comes from 1920. Does that mean there is no such thing? Well, again, long thin breads were already dominant in this period, so the bread may have existed, if not that label for it. But it would have lacked two key identifying characteristics that were already common by the late nineteenth century: grignes (the scores across the front of the bread) and a steam-glazed crust. The latter is a direct result of use of the Viennese steam oven, introduced by Zang in 1839. It may be that grignes were starting to be used at the end of this century, but if so they were very much a new innovation.
In other words, if you want to make French bread that is clearly identifiable as "traditional" in the sense of going back to the Old Regime, do not score the front (you might split it, which is quite different) and do not steam-glaze it. For lighter finer breads, feel free to use butter or milk, but for household and other common breads, flour, water, leaven or yeast and, very optionally, salt are all the ingredients you need. Baked of course in a wood-burning oven and using not only (as one writer puts it) "organic" flours, but coarsely ground and sifted flours as well. If you do use yeast, brewer's yeast - preferably from an actual brewer - is the only acceptable option (which may - some disagree - give the bread a distinct flavor).
Is any commercial baker likely to market such "traditional" breads? Iffy, at best. But then "traditional" itself is so shapeless a term that the question is essentially moot.
Several terms and ingredients were
assumed in descriptions of eighteenth century bread making.
Types of dough
Dough was described as ferme
(firm or hard) or molle (soft), or in-between, that is,
batarde (bastard) or (more rarely) moyenne (medium).
Firm dough had been the norm until the end of the seventeenth
century; “bastard” dough would become the standard dough
by the nineteenth (and, with due allowance for modernization, is
still the standard dough today). The difference lay largely in the
amount of water used and the way it was kneaded, though other
elements (cooking, leavening, etc.) could affect the end result.
An especially hard dough - pâte
briée – was so hard it had to be kneaded with the
feet. But this was falling out of favor by the eighteenth century. A dough with a similar name - pâte broyée - was pounded with iron clad sticks, which apparently would have made the bread harder and fine grained.
Note that the hard outside crust on
breads was sometimes grated or cut off, a practice which may have
been more necessary when hard dough was the norm than when soft or
medium dough became standard. Such bread was known as Pain
Chapelé. (This was also
the name of a soft roll – see Pain Mollet.)
Bear in mind that
for a long time not only was the bread harder, but ovens were harder
to regulate, so that over-cooking of the crust may have been more of
a problem. Legrand d'Aussy also said that, quite simply, people in earlier times did not like the crust:
In general today we eat far less bread from firm dough than before. This is why we give ours a lot of crust, and then to the contrary people cared so little for the crust that, at the tables of the rich, says Liébaut, they were always careful to grate the bread.
had a financial incentive to continue this in the eighteenth century:
they sold the grated crust as chapelure.
However, the finer breads were often glazed with egg yolk and water
and it is very unlikely that they were grated.
While bread was made (as will be seen) in various shapes, the
default shape was already long and narrow, and Malouin refers to the
round shape as how “bread was shaped in former times”
(though he himself gives instructions for several round breads and
seems to prefer that shape: “The round shape is in general the
most useful for bread” ). To a modern non-specialist, a number
of the breads would have looked like baguettes.
These breads would
typically have been made in large wood-burning ovens especially
constructed for that purpose. Among other things, this meant that
different parts of the oven could be more or less hot, and so some
recipes refer to “quarters” of the oven. Otherwise, the
very rare modern bakers who will use such ovens presumably know far
more about the nuances of using them then can be offered here.
A pound was equal
(as now) to sixteen ounces; an ounce was equal to eight gros, and the
gros to sixteen grains.
A French pint was
equal to two English pints.
A chopine was half
a French pint, or one English pint.
minot was an old measure about equal to a bushel, or eight gallons,
equal to, in the UK, 36,37 liters, and in the US, 35,24.
of the measures used are intuitive - “the size of two eggs”
- or based on relative proportions of ingredients.
Modern home bakers may get good
approximations of the breads described, at least as contrasted with
modern breads, by using modern ingredients. But almost every
ingredient in the period was significantly different. with a
predictable impact on the end result:
--- continue to Common Breads ==>
Eighteenth century bakers placed great importance on the type
of water used, both in terms of its locale and in terms of the
specific source (river, fountain, well or rain). The bakers of
Gonesse claimed that the distinguishing element in making their
(very popular) bread was the local water.
Some claimed that rain water was best:
degree of goodness of bread often depends on the quality of the
waters put in while kneading it: on must, as far as possible, use
the lightest water, because it works itself better into the
clumps of flour mixed with the leaven.
is claimed that rain water is best to make dough ferment and
rise, because it is lighter than that of fountains or rivers: it
is certain that it is the difference in waters to which one must
attribute the exquisite taste one notices in certain bread and
which others, though made with the same flour, do not have.
Bonnefons suggests taking a pint of each kind of water and
using whichever is lighter.
Having run trials, Parmentier later concluded that this made
no difference, but at least one modern French baker again
considers it important.
Bread-making texts use a number of terms in ways found rarely
or not at all elsewhere and one type of water was called eau
degourdie, which at
first glance suggests unthickened or unnumbed water. (To “wake
up” numb legs is to degourdir them.) Gourd
can suggest both heaviness and numbness caused by cold. In
practice, the term referred to chilled water; that is, the
inverse of lukewarm water. Where the latter is slightly cooler
than hot water, the former is slightly warmer than ice water.
Salt was gray (from salt marshes around France) or white
(largely from the seaside in Normandy). Sea-salt was made into
loaves, twelve of which were tied together in a wicker holder
called a benate. Probably as used it would have been
fairly coarse, grated from the loaf by the buyer or seller. Some
grocers who sold salt (among other things) were known as
regrattiers, a word which suggests “re-grating”,
so they may have done the grating for the customer. Salt was also
sold by the bushel and fractions of a bushel.
Salt was a major source of income for the French monarchy,
partially because its obligatory purchase, the Gabelle,
was a kind of tax, but apparently also because of sales abroad.
(One French writer claims France was uniquely positioned
geographically to produce salt; several other countries however
had salt mines, producing what the French called fossil salt and
the Revolutionary government kept out Spanish and Portuguese
The use of salt in bread was not a given and depended in part on the availability of it in certain areas. Also, the Gabelle, at least in Legrand d'Aussy's time, seems to have made it too expensive for regular use:
Before the Gabelle made salt as expensive as it is today, the general custom in France was to salt bread... It is still the custom in almost all the Nations of Europe; and this is why when Foreigners arrive in Paris, at first they find our bread insipid, even if it is really much better than that which they make at home.
He also quotes another author who says that in areas where bread in the past had sometimes been eaten without salt for reasons of expense, the bread of the rich was still salted.
Milk was of course fresh from the cow and incorporated the
cream, which rose to the top when the milk was left to sit.
A modern home baker who lives in the country may have no
trouble obtaining a similar ingredient (allowances made for
modern feed, local grass, etc.) In a city, organic supermarkets
might offer something close. Failing that, consider mixing cream
back into a quart of milk.
While butter was no doubt churned fresh in some places, a
surprising amount of it was already imported, ready made and
salted, not only from other French provinces, but Holland,
Ireland and England and even Denmark, usually in earthenware
Some was also melted and purified, mainly in Isigny in
Normandy, and again shipped in earthenware pots. Melted butter
was said to last as long as two years.
Leaven (old dough)
Until the seventeenth century, for centuries levain
(leaven) was synonymous with old dough (pâte
- “fermented dough”). This was retained from the last
batch made (though individuals could also buy this from their
It was produced in several stages:
The first leaven or head leaven, a bit of
dough kneaded with normal leaven, left to ferment separately.
Ready in twenty-four hours.
The leaven of the first, the first leaven after
it has been refreshed, sometimes called “the refreshed”.
The leaven of the second, the leaven coming from
the second (the preceding batch).
The all-point leaven, that is, the leaven of the
This was a labor and time intensive process and in later years
bakers began to shorten it. Experienced modern bakers may already
have their own approach to using old dough. Otherwise, take a
look at Joe Pastry's guide to creating a starter
and making old
dough or Jeff Pavlik's specifically
18th century method for (laboriously) producing this.
Malouin also, a bit confusingly, calls the first dough mixed
with old dough or yeast a levain. This usage is typically
expanded here to “flour mixed with leaven”. Also, very exceptionally, other fermenting agents, such as vinegar or verjuice, are mentioned as leavens.
In the eighteenth century, this always meant brewer's yeast.
Though yeast was widely used by the start of the eighteenth
century, it was often still referred to as an artificial
leavening; i.e., a dubious substitute for old dough. Parmentier
in particular disapproved of its use.
Yeast was also sometimes used as an adjunct to old dough (which has led at least one writer to the erroneous idea that it was only used in this way.)
Yeast was literally obtained from brewers. Practically
speaking, this meant that it included impurities which may have
flavored the bread. Not only did this inconvenience lead to the invention of pressed yeast, but apparently it remained a problem even after its invention, as late as 1886:
Vienna Pressed Yeast. The yeast manufactured in Vienna and Moravia possesses excellent qualities. It does not impart a bitter taste or odor to bread or cakes, as is frequently the case with other pressed yeast, the bitter taste being no doubt caused by hops mixed with the yeast.
Today, a baker could use brewer's yeast,
though even that is probably purer than its Old Regime ancestor.
In terms of authenticity, the best solution would be to find
someone who makes their own beer, using eighteenth century
methods (preferably French), and getting the barm from them.
Second-best would be to contact a microbrewery if there are any
nearby (and if they are even legally allowed to sell you their
To do so, however, you'll have to find a brewery that produces ale, as per this useful note from the Society of 18th Century Gentlemen:
With very few exceptions, virtually all beer in the 18th-century was top-fermenting, which classifies it as ale. In top-fermenting beers, the yeast sits on top of the beer while it is eating away at the malt sugars, creating the frothy barm that also provided the yeast for baking bread. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution and widespread glass production that bottom-fermenting lagers came into widespread production.
In America, in fact, at one point ale itself was used for bread-making and those trying to make period French bread might be able to usefully adapt these instructions on "How to make 18th century American Quaker Barley Bread with brown ale".
By the way, Legrand d'Aussy points out that this innovation, like other Parisian fashions in food, was less readily successful in the provinces than those in clothes, for instance:
One adopts a Parisian fashion, because one wants to display opulence and show style. One rejects a Paris stew, because one has one's own which the organs have been used to since childhood...
The same thing seems to have been only the more true of bread, and today in France, even if the yeast-based baguette can be found everywhere, the most common sourdough type bread is still known as pain de campagne (country bread).
Even today, French flour differs from American flour. For an
excellent discussion of the nuances between modern flours, see
Joe Pastry's Flour
Basics. For a closer focus on American vs European flours, see this page on The Classification of Flour.
In terms of Old Regime flour, the simplest thing to say is
that it was stone ground and sifted through cloth. While bran and
the best flour were both separated out, this would have been an
imperfect process. Even the finest flour was probably quite
coarse by modern standards; conversely, even the coarsest modern
flour would have seemed ethereal to people of the time.
Stone grounding meant, among other things, that some stone
(albeit miniscule) got into the flour, or so say some writers.
While stone-ground flour can be found today, a home baker
might create something closer to period flour by grinding wheat
in a blender or coffee grinder and then sifting it through
cheesecloth or other porous cloths. And then perhaps pounding it
with a rock?
Beyond this, one technical note is required. These texts mention two separate "superior" flours: the "flower" of the farine and the gruau flour. The first was made from the portion of the endosperm closest to the germ; the second from the "groat" of the wheat, or the portion of the endosperm closest to the husk. (The latter was said to be slightly yellowish.)
The "flower" (which in English, over time, became "flour"), was simply the finest sifted flour from the initial milling. The production of farine de gruau requires more explanation; those with an interest in the particulars will find them below.
Otherwise, both the history and the technology of milling are
terrifically complex. Anyone wanting to investigate it in detail
might take a look at Peter Alekseevich Kozḿin's Flour
milling: a theoretical and practical handbook of flour
manufacture (1917), which
among other things includes a
detailed description of Malouin's image of an eighteenth century
Farine de gruau
At the start of the 18th century milling and sifting were done once. Among other things, this resulted in the gruaux being sifted out. (Gruau is most often translated as "groat" and also as "gruel"; some uses in milling - as below - also suggest coarse clumps. None of these meanings are useful in describing the flour and the French word is often used to describe it even in English. However, the English milling term "middling" is a fair translation of this use of the word.)
There were in fact three "groats"/gruaux, as Panckouke's Encyclopédie méthodique explains:
In general the groat is a grain crushed and husked...; there are oat groats, barley groats and wheat groats...
The groat is the hardest and dryest part of the grain; it is above all that which held the germ, which is firm and white like the almond. The groat is, in years which are not moist, the part of the grain closest to its husk, the most exposed to the dryness of the air and the head of the sun: this portion of the grain remains in the gruau milling.
It is above all the second groat which is the part closest to the husk, because there are...three sorts; that is, the white gruau which is the first, the coarse gruau or the grey gruau which is the second and finally the dark gruau which is the third....
The second gruau is covered in part by the second husk of the grain, which makes it grey. This second gruau is even dryer than the first; it has more flavor, it takes in more water, and it is more sought out by pastrymakers.
The sifted gruau was fed to animals until after the middle of the century when a new form of milling, mouture économique, became popular around Paris (it was decades before it spread throughout France). One key aspect of "economic milling" was that it re-milled and sifted the flour. As a result, it became possible to use the milled gruaux:
Economic milling furnishes several qualities of flour, different types of bread are made from them: thus, the flours of gruaux having the most flavor, are preferably reserved for the table and fancy breads; those called the flower of the flour [fleur de farine] are used for pain bourgeois; the third for white-brown bread, and the fourth and last for brown bread... the mix of all of the different flours together presents the bread called de ménage which, strictly speaking, is the true wheat bread.
Another way to understand this is to describe how the flour was milled with the new process. After the wheat has been cleaned and milled in the first two steps:
The third consists of sifting the flour, and separating out the crushed and unmilled parts called gruaux. This operation is performed by means of different sieves, placed in the hopper, whose movement answers that of the mill-stones. The upper sieve sifts precisely as much flour as the mill-stones make; it is very fine, and makes up about half the total output in flour from economic milling. The rest of the crushed grain goes out through the lower end of the first sieve, and goes through a conduit into a second sieve, larger and looser than the one before it. From this sieve come three sorts of imperfect flour called gruaux. At the head of the sieve are found the white gruaux. in the middle, the gray gruaux. and at the far end pollard [recoupe].
The fourth operation is to remill the gruaux and the pollard. First the white gruaux are put back in the hopper, and using the first sieve an excellent flour is obtained, because by this operation, the wheat germ is crushed, and the germ contains what is most tasty and substantial in the grain. The rest of the white gruaux which the first sieve does not let through are mixed with the gray gruaux and remilled again twice; using the first sieve a good flour is obtained, but inferior to that of which we have just spoken. Finally the pollard is put back in the hopper, and a brown flour is obtained, roughly like the last flour from the gray gruaux. The pollard is only run through again once.
(Note Pautian's mention of the germ being incorporated into the best gruau flour; this is not mentioned by other writers.)
To complicate matters for English-speakers, the different grades of gruau correspond to several distinct terms in English. Here is a comparison from 1851:
These are called respectively in London and Paris —
|London. ||Paris. ||Called. |
|Fine flour. ||White flours, 1st quality, ||de ble. |
|Seconds. ||White flours, 2d quality, ||de le gruau. |
|Fine middlings. ||White flours, 3d quality, ||de 2e gruau. |
|Coarse middlings. ||Brown meals, 4th quality, ||de 3e gruau.|
|Pollard. ||Brown meals, 5th quality, ||de 4e gruau. |
|Twentypenny. ||Bran, fine and coarse. |
|Bran ||Waste, &c.; ||Remoulage and Recoupe.|
In the nineteenth century, farine de gruau became THE luxury flour and was used for "Viennese-style" products like croissants. At some point, however, the terminology may also have shifted so that farine de gruau now referred to the former fleur de farine - in its 8th edition (1932-5), the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française defined pain de gruau as "bread made with the finest flour [fine fleur de froment]". When France adopted a numbered system for flours, farine de gruau became number 45, which is generally said to be equivalent to American pastry flour.