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Planners and Bread

Jan 5


I bake my own bread using techniques that have come to be known as artisan breadmaking. But it turns out it would be more accurate to call it “free-market breadmaking.”

It is hard to find good bread in the small town I live in today. But it was equally hard to find good bread in Portland when I first started breadmaking in the 1970s. What local bakers called French bread at the time was little more than Wonder Bread shaped into long, thin loaves.

The artisan bread movement began in the late 1980s when a few bakers in New York and California began making simple bread doughs that they allowed to ferment for long periods at relatively cool temperatures. These long rises allowed the bread to develop strong flavors even with a minimum amount of yeast. The 1993 book, The Village Baker, is often hailed as the inspiration for artisan breadmakers across the country (and indeed I purchased this book when it first came out and still use it today).

And yet I remember baking French bread in 1975 using a recipe from Julia Child, who stressed letting the dough rise for long periods at cool temperatures. Why did it take so long for this technique to become popular?

It turns out that the lousy “French” bread we so often ate in the 1970s and 1980s was due to French planners between 1945 and 1980. After World War II, many nations adopted wage and price controls to prevent inflation. The United States quickly dropped such controls, but France maintained them–for thirty-five years.

The controls rigidly fixed the price of bread in France. A loaf of bread had to weigh a specific amount and consist solely of flour, water, yeast, and salt. The price controls did not stop inflation; they only forced producers to find cheaper methods. The only way bakers could reduce their costs was to reduce the amount of time they allowed the bread to rise. This gradually reduced the flavor and quality of French bread.

Meanwhile, Americans visited France in the 1960 and 1970s. They bought French bread and because they were in an exotic location thought they were getting something good. “Oo la la, real French bread!” Some of them were inspired to come home and start bakeries where they did their best to imitate the flavorless bread they ate in Europe.

French price controls finally ended in 1980. Bakers soon began experimenting with older techniques that involved longer rises at lower temperatures. As documented by Peter Reinhart, some even allowed their bread to rise only at refrigerated temperatures. Such breads developed strong flavors unknown in the 1960s and 1970s. Of course, when Americans visited France in the late 1980s, they tried these improved breads and some of them came home to start their own artisan bakeries.

Charles De Gaulle famously asked, “How can you govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?” The answer is, you can’t — not if you insist on governing it the way De Gaulle did in the 1950s and 1960s. But if you let the free market rule, you might end up with thousands of kinds of cheese, breads, and other consumer goods.

So if you remember the tasteless French bread made by many bakers before 1990, you can blame government planners. And if you enjoy the artisan breads being sold by many bakeries today, you can thank the cessation of such government regulations.


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner