PARIS — Lockdown or no, the lines extend down the block. One person after another, six feet apart, sometimes more. They line up to buy the bread they always buy — baguettes, pain au lait, sourdough — even in a global pandemic.
Bread, made of flour and water, is the definition of essential food and a near-universal image of spiritual sustenance. But it occupies a unique niche in France, where regimes have toppled because of it and where this highly regulated commodity has long been a national symbol.
In a time of crisis the likes of which France and Europe have not seen for generations, consumers here are turning back to bread — a commodity the French depend on less these days than they once did but that serves as a source of immediate comfort in the midst of uncertainty.
“You have this return to basics,” said Apollonia Poîlane, who runs Poîlane, the famed Left Bank boulangerie that her family has operated since 1932. Classified as essential commerce, bakeries are now allowed to be open seven days a week, unlike before.
These days, Poîlane offers any number of different artisanal breads that are popular with regular customers and tourists alike. But the minute the pandemic began, Poîlane says, its classic sourdough wheat loaf — simple, unadorned and longer-lasting than other varieties — became an undisputed bestseller.
“That, to me, is a sign that when everything else goes missing, we come back to something that has fed us for generations,” she said.
This is as true in the provinces as it is in Paris.
Alexandre Viron, a miller who runs a midsize operation in the southern French city of Toulouse, said in a telephone interview that sales of baguettes, the iconic French loaf, have largely declined in recent years in favor of other varieties. But he said the coronavirus crisis has seen bakeries adapt to changing demands.
“In general, bakers have reduced the number of pastries and viennoiseries they make,” he said. “There’s a push toward bread. They’re increasing the number of large loaves that are sold entirely or by the piece, which allows customers to have a bigger daily intake than a baguette. This is bread that lasts longer.”
For Steven Kaplan, a historian of France at Cornell University who specializes in the history of bread, it’s important to note that bread occupies a far less important place in the modern French diet than it did in earlier eras, especially after the Industrial Revolution.
In 1875, he said, the average daily diet in France included 800 grams of bread, a figure that then dropped to 630 grams in 1900, 400 grams in 1950 an approximately 82 grams today.
In a crisis such as this, it’s not the calories represented by bread that matter, but the symbolism, he said — a “kind of promise that we’ll get through it.”
“The power of bread is particularly emotional now. It’s no longer caloric, a vital necessity,” Kaplan said. “Bread still is the conveyor of this extraordinary, important feeling we have that the state cares about us. It’s a reaffirmation of solidarity. Solidarity is really represented by sharing bread.” (Baguettes were price-controlled in France until 1986).
On the note of solidarity, one of the most common French words for friend, “copain,” literally means “person with whom you break bread.” In French, bread is “pain.” Similarly, one expression for wealth is “avoir du blé,” to have flour.
The cultural currency of bread is clear. Is there a more perfect image of quintessential Frenchness than the photographer Willy Ronis’ “Le Petit Parisien,” the 1953 snapshot of a little boy gleefully running through the streets of Paris with a baguette as tall as he is?
Another contender for that prize has to be Elliott Erwitt’s “Provence, 1955,” his iconic photograph of a boy on his father’s motorcycle, gazing back at the camera as they head off alone on a poplar-lined country road, berets, baguettes and all. The power of the image is not the whole but the sum of the parts: What we see is “la France profonde,” at least as it used to be.
And the baguettes, of course, are the only aspect of that world that remains: Few people besides tourists wear berets these days.
So it was really no surprise that when France’s lockdown was announced in mid-March, many flocked to bakeries to stock up on the one product they felt they could not live without — a reflex deeply rooted in French history, in which fears of starvation were common.
“For the French, this is a much more Pavlovian jolt than it is for the Americans,” Kaplan said. “There’s no French person who doesn’t have the memory of Grandma or Grandpa talking about how we had nothing to eat except horrible rutabagas in 1943.”
He added: “There’ll be a return, a kind of rhetorical return to basics, to fundamentals.”