Eighteenth Century French Breads
At the start of the French Revolution, people no doubt ate the same breads they had under the Old Regime, though several bad harvests may have limited this. But on November 16, 1793 (Brumaire 26, year II) the Convention ordered that only one type of bread be made: the pain d'égalité (equality bread). On November 26 (Frimaire 6), the General Council outlined more specific instructions to take effect on December 6:
Bakers will only cook a single type of bread.
The idea was that all classes should eat the same bread. But rather than choosing a common, but average, bread like gros pain, the Convention opted, not for the lowest common denominator, but for something slightly below it. By several accounts, the result was equality in at least one sense: people of all classes hated it equally. Several authors mention the expectation of even the poorest people that they would get white bread, at least since the start of the eighteenth century, and this bread is most succinctly described as brown bread (very bad brown bread). Nor can it help that it was said to contain a lot of bran - bran was used to make bread for dogs. Though at the start of 1794 - after a bad harvest -, the journalist Mallet du Pain did write:
In all the kingdom, except Paris, only a single bread is eaten, called equality bread; it is mixed with rye or with barley and bran. It is not worth the good ammunition bread, but the city dweller and the villager are too happy to have this kind, and if a farmer or a burgher had the idea of making better bread for his use, in reserving the equality bread for his valets, he would be denounced, incarcerated, pillaged and probably have his throat cut.
Note his unfavorable comparison to "the good" ammunition bread. The latter was made in different ways over the decades, but one thing had always held true: it was considered the worst bread in France. Except, apparently, during the period of "equality bread".
The fact that the sick and fragile were often excused from eating this bread may also be sufficient comment on its quality.
The nationally mandated bread was not the first to be made; several pains d'égalité were declared in various localities almost from the start, made in different ways: "As of August 1, 1789, our adminstrators have prescribed the making of a standard bread, with equal quantities of wheat, of rye and of rice, known by the name of pain d'égalité" (Duchateau). In 1792, it was decided in Chartres that: "bread must be the same for all; bakers must mix a sack of flour of superior quality, one of inferior quality and another of third quality, to make the pain d'égalité." (Bethouart). In 1783 (Nivoise 9, year III) Saint-Ybars ("Montybars", during the Revolution) in the Ariège, declared that:
No baker can make anything but pain d'égalité, which will be half wheat and half millet; that this bread will only be delivered for coupons for a pound and a half a day; that nonetheless the said bakers can make a quantity of white bread for the sick and the old only, a quantity which will be fixed for them by
the municipality and that it will only given to the said sick and infirm recognized and as mandated, all on pain of fifty livres fine.
From November 1793, only equality bread was sold at Guingamp. It was a mix of rye and wheat and the same for all. (Pommeret)
In February 1794, the bread was made in Verdun with two thirds wheat flour and one third of barley flour. (Parisot)
In January 1795, white bread was again made, in Clermont-Ferrand at least, and probably nationally. (Académie des sciences, Clermont-Ferrand)
It seems unlikely that any modern baker would want to make this bread, but the above mentions offer a range of possibilities for those who do. It apparently was never made with any great finesse and was made with imperfectly sifted (thus, bran-heavy) wheat. It may be, however, that modern, health-conscious consumers would be less horrified by it than many in the period.