When asked about living in France, the conversation often turns quickly to food. And why shouldn't it? In a country with a robust culinary tradition, food is not just a form of sustenance or a series of cultural norms–it's an entire social philosophy, built around notions of connecting with others. France has long championed this food culture: on average, the French clock over 2 hours each day eating or drinking, double that of the United States. Then there's the seven-plus course holiday feasts, a gustatory marathon that starts in the mid-afternoon and carries on long into the night. French chefs have cinched a worldwide reputation for their technical savoir-faire and gastronomic creativity, and the Michelin Guide is one of the world's go-to references for restaurant awards. Status and flair aside, good food is not just reserved for the fanciful and indulgent; it's a motor of France's economy. France is the leading agricultural producer in Europe, contributing 18 percent of all European agricultural production. In 2015, 54 percent of land in France was classified as agricultural, and at a commercial output of 6.1 billion euros, agro-alimentary production is the third largest economic sector in France. Food matters to the French, all the way down to the basic components of a simple meal. And perhaps the most basic, thus fundamental, element of any French meal, gastro or familial, morning, noon, or night, is bread. To understand the intense attachment that the French have to their bread is to understand the tumultuous, near-mythic history of bread in France. The baguette today is an institution, whose recipe is protected under the law. In 1993, the government passed a decree, updating an original 1905 law, that legally defined the fabrication and nomenclature of “French Bread”. By their definition, pain maison, or homemade bread, must be fermented, fabricated, baked, and sold under one sole establishment. If a baker wants to sell pain traditionnel français, or traditional French bread, it must be made exclusively with wheat and/ or rye flour, water and salt, fermented with a leavening agent–which has its own article defining its natural, yeast-based provenance–and cannot contain more than 3 percent the bread's weight of other flours–rice, soy, and malt, for example. Anything made outside of these parameters does not merit the title. This seriousness reveals that bread is not so much a quirky cultural charm or a thing of lore, but a call to a deep agrarian tradition and bread's paramount role in measuring one's quality of life. For the pre-industrial, pre-revolution peasants, bread was a primary source of sustenance, and wheat grain itself a tax for agrarian peasants. In years with a bad harvest, chaos ensued as grain was scarce and bread prices astronomical (in 1788 and 1789, prices of bread were inflated up to 88 percent of the worker's wage). In desperate moments, bakers might controversially cut their dough, replacing flour with inexpensive and inedible fillers such as sawdust and hay. Such an unsustainable way of living evidently led to conflict and riots. In those famous years of 1788 and 1789, these riots–born from a lack of good and affordable bread–were a sign of growing class inequality that would eventually amplify into full revolution against and overthrow of the monarchy. The United States' history with wheat on the other hand has been driven by quite different circumstances–notably a history of expansion and productivity–that doesn't hasn’t fostered the same kind of national-cultural ardor for bread. While this can be hastily summated in America's reputation for the garden-variety white bread, lacking flavor, texture, and complexity, I think a comparison of the parallel grain-cultivating histories merits a closer look. The bread we make tells us what we how we see our environment, the resources and people around us. The bread we eat tells a story of what we care about. Next week, I'll be talking more about bread: what makes a good loaf of bread, who makes a good loaf of bread, why we should all care deeply about the bread we eat, and where these ideas stand between two distinct, yet immense wheat-producing cultures.
To begin, let's square away a few questions: Who am I ? My name is Molly. As the title indicates, I'm an American living in Provence, a region of the south of France, near Avignon to be precise. I've lived in France for three years, and plan to stay here indefinitely. I love wildflowers, poetry, wearing mixed patterns, and the sea, amongst many other things. What am I doing here? In France? Digging my heels into my francophilia and putting my French degree to use. On this blog? Trying to sketch out the intersections of the different worlds I've lived in. An American living in France is nothing novel, so I'm not here to talk about what life in France is like. Rather, I'll be exploring the independent and simultaneous movement of different people and ideas all within a place and culture that I've come to learn and love. France is a country famous for its traditions, and yet what makes this culture so rich and loveable is its permeability; it's a culture in perpetual motion, where established tradition is in conversation with creation and evolution. What are you doing here? My guess is that you're curious about France (me too!) and above all, the exchanges that connect us to one another (!!). Despite this presently being a monologue, I hope this can evolve into something deeper: a weaving of stories and conversations. So don't hesitate to reach out, via the comments or email, to share your point of view, to deepen the texture of this budding project. I'm eyes and ears.