Bye Bye Boulangerie

Sadly, La Pâtisserie Blossac in Rue de la Tranchée closed last Sunday. The proprietors, Serge and Isabelle Richefort, are finally retiring, thirty-seven years after Isabelle, an accountant by training, joined up with her brother to start the business. A group of customers gathered together for a small celebration at the shop on the Friday before the closure.

This is the third boulangerie we’ve seen closed since we moved here in April 2018, and it follows a pattern that is being seen throughout France. One reason for this is the general decline in bread consumption. According to the National Association of French Millers (ANMF), people in France are shunning baguettes in favour of healthier options. French people are now, on average, eating 120 grammes of bread per day, compared to 150 g in 2003 and a hefty 325 g in 1950.

But there is another aspect to this story. Serge and Isabelle belong to an endangered species. The term boulangerie is reserved for bakeries where the bread is prepared and baked on site; frozen or pre-baked products are not allowed. There are still around 32,000 traditional boulangeries in France, but the number is decreasing at a rate of about 1,200 a year. Young people are no longer drawn to the lengthy hours of the traditional bakers who live above the shop. Shopping malls have taken root on the periphery of rural areas, drawing in people who are content to buy at supermarkets or chains, such as Paul, La Panetière, and La Mie Câline – companies that get their products from mills which supply ‘mixes’ (mixtures of flour, improvers, and various ingredients) which simply require reheating. There are even baguette vending machines. All well and good, but for many people, particularly in more isolated areas, the loss of a boulangerie is also the loss of a community hub, a place to meet and chat while waiting in line for the daily baguette or the weekend eclairs. The decline in numbers is reminiscent of that of village pubs in England.

Quelle horreur !!

For all the decline in bread consumption, the French still take their baguettes very seriously, They consume a staggering 10 billion of them every year, which averages out at about 150 per head of population. In 1993, in an attempt to combat the creeping industrialisation of the bread-making process, the government, under prime minster Édouard Balladur, passed a law saying that the only ingredient allowed in a “baguette tradition” are wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast or sourdough. It must be baked on the premises and nothing must have been frozen in its preparation. If you can buy “une tradition” you know you are in a genuine boulangerie.

At, the same time as the Balladur act, in another attempt to garner support for traditional boulangeries, the city of Paris created an annual Best Baguette Prize. One of the privileges give to the winner is the right to supply the Elysée Palace with baguettes. Paris is still well provided for, in terms of boulangeries, so the prize is highly sought after. When I lived there, in Place D’Italie, there was a lot of local excitement when the nearby La Fournée d’Augustine in Rue Raymond Losserand, won the competition.  The owners were obviously delighted, the regular customers slightly less so, as the queues that used to form outside got even longer as people came from all over Paris to try the baguettes.

 La Fournée d’Augustine 

In doing what I laughingly call research for this little piece, I am slowly beginning to appreciate that, for all that they moan about it, the French secretly love bureaucracy. They keep statistics about everything. So I suppose it’s natural enough, in a country where bread shortages helped trigger a revolution, they keep such an extensive amount of data about bakeries.  Half the country lives less than 1.4 miles of a bakery, “as the crow flies”, according to one government report. In cities, 73 per cent of the population lives within less than a half-mile.

How long do the French take to reach their bakery? According to a national bakery association, the average boulangerie run, including all modes of transport, takes just over 7 minutes. To be more precise, it’s five minutes in a city or just over 9 minutes in the countryside… I could go on but I’m boring myself now.

 I had a strange experience when we came to Poitiers. M. Cousson our estate agent had recommended L’Atelier du levain ( literally “the sourdough workshop”)in nearby Rue Augouard as a particularly good boulangerie, and indeed it was. When we first moved in, I would reguarly buy our bread there, being as polite and smiley as possible in a pathetic attempt to ingratiate myself with the rather severe-looking female proprietor. My efforts seemed to be largely wasted. Every day, she would took my money with a curt, unsmiling “merci”,

Then, one Saturday, as I put out my hand for my change as usual, she suddenly delivered a heartfelt little speech. How she now regret not learning English at school. Her wonderful teacher, M. Durande. What an opportunity! Wasted! Wasted! How stupid she had been!  

Somewhat alarmed, I mumbled something about it being never too late and got out as quickly as I could. From then on we were on good terms. She always greeted me with a smile and restricted herself to the occasional sigh and “Oh, how I wish I could speak English ”. Something instinctively told me that not to reveal that I was an English teacher. One morning, about a month later, the shop was unexpectedly closed.  There was a note of apology in the window saying this was due to family illness and that they would re-open on the following Saturday. On the Saturday there was another note of apology and a promise that they would “définitivement” open the following Tuesday. They didn’t. The shop remained closed and I never saw here again. 

Victor Hugo would get a 1000 page novel out of that.   

***

Three interesting things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1871, lawyer Clement Vallandigham accidentally shot himself while demonstrating how a ‘murder victim’ may have accidentally shot himself. His client was found not guilty.

Most sex between giraffes is homosexual: in one study, same-sex male mounting accounted for 94 per cent of all sexual behaviour observed.

The total cost of rescuing a stranded Matt Damon in all of his films (including Saving Private Ryan, Interstellar, and The Martian) is an estimated $900 billion.

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