Baguette frozen out of French life

THE French have fallen out of love with the boulangerie. A bakery industry survey has revealed the people of France eat only a quarter of the amount of bread they did 100 years ago and now trail many of their European neighbours in consumption.

The French eat an average of only 150g of bread per person, per day, less than in Germany, where people consume some 230g a day. Even the Danes, the Italians and the Dutch eat more bread, the survey showed.

So is the baguette destined for gradual extinction, like those other icons of Gallic daily life, the beret and the 2CV?

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The country's beleaguered bakers are certainly worried. Bakeries are closing down at an alarming rate. In 1965 the country boasted 48,000 boulangers. Today there are only 34,000.

"Richer nations eat richer food," Gerard Brochoire, director of the national bakery institute, told an industry seminar on Thursday, in an effort to explain why the French are abandoning their former staple. However, the underlying reasons are more complex.

While the generation born before and during the Second World War tends to eat food for its nutritional value and continues to eat bread at least three times a day, younger people eat for pleasure and many have adopted more Anglo-Saxon eating habits, favouring a bowl of cereal in the morning, rather than the traditional Gallic "tartines" - bread and butter.

"It's a result of the Anglo-Saxon influence," said Anne- Hlene Mangin, of the market information group TNS Sofres. "In particular, young people prefer cereals for breakfast. This habit is very much on the rise, but very un-French as well," she said. "Life has fewer rituals than before. People eat less at fixed times."

The tradition of sitting down for three meals a day is declining. For bakers this is a mixed blessing, because while fewer people now munch through a baguette at lunch, 20 per cent of young people snack on baked goods between meals - previously unthinkable. Only 6 per cent of older people say they snack.

Another culprit in the decline of the baguette is the appearance of frozen dough - a phenomenon that bakers of the old school dismiss as being akin to fast food next to the haute cuisine of traditional hand-kneaded dough.

The president, Jacques Chirac, who defends the traditional baguette by loyally eating one and a half every day, showed his disdain for bread made from frozen dough by describing it as "not even a Christian food".

In an effort to halt the decline of a French tradition, the government has ruled that only bakers using quality flour without additives and who knead their own dough - a labour of love taking up to three hours to complete - have the right to call themselves boulangers. With the French still consuming some nine million baguettes a year, the enduring image of the Frenchman with the baguette under his arm is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

As the prize-winning baker Christian Vabret said: "The French baguette is a legend and the legend is not dead."

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