French bakers or ’boulangers’ number around 33,000 in France, says Jean-Pierre Crouzet, president of UIB, the French craft bakers and confectioners association. This does not mirror the decline seen in some other countries, but is still fewer than a decade ago.
However, given current economic problems the French body has leapt into action. "We have initiated a programme to go into all the schools; kids just love baking and want to know how things are made," says Crouzet.
French craft breads are certainly one of the delights of visiting France, but how is the recession hitting bakers? "The main problem is the average basket is smaller," says Crouzet. "We have 15 million consumers a day and they are spending a few cents less; that adds up to a lot per day and makes a difference to cash flow for individual bakers."
But in other ways, boulangers are flourishing. So how exactly is the association proactive for its members? "We are always lobbying," explains Crouzet. "Every business belongs to a chamber of commerce. There are several chambers in a region and they listen to us.
"It is their job to represent commerce and the livelihoods of members to government; we make sure the bakers’ voice is clearly heard. We are a vital part of the business community and we make that known and heard."
It is certainly a different set-up to the UK. Indeed, French boulangers took to the streets a few years ago to protest about the retention of standards and their identity in the face of growing supermarkets and frozen dough.
When he hears that, in the UK, most of the lobbying takes place through the British Retail Consortium, whose primary activity is for supermarkets, Crouzet says: "The supermarkets [in France] have no special concessions.You need special planning permission for anything over 1,000sq m and councils look at other shops in the area and the impact of a large outlet," says Crouzet.
What about frozen bread? The question is hardly out, before Crouzet responds: "It’s forbidden! No craft baker who calls himself a boulanger can make or sell frozen bread or bread with additives." He explains that ’Article 121’ permits boulangers to use only wheat, water, salt and natural yeast. "There is a fashion now for cereals, nuts and seeds, so bakers have a set brief on other components.
"Bakers are designers," says Crouzet. "The success of French bakers stems from the starter dough; it needs to be slow in development at least 24 hours, but usually much longer. We really value good bread and remind everyone politicians, the people, the schools of its value.
"In the second week in May, we have a Fête du Pain (Festival of Bread) and on 16 May, we plan events in schools, churches, everywhere to celebrate St Honoré, the patron saint of bakers. We heavily involve children and tell them ’all kids are bakers’."
He continues: "Our contribution is also at point-of-sale and on posters. We have produced leaflets for every boulanger, which says: ’You buy me on a daily basis, but do you really know me?’ But as a trade we have had to adapt. Our members’ turnover is 60% bread and 40% pastries, sandwiches, biscuits and chocolates. We are starting to experience the problem of not having enough bakers, so we are particularly targeting girls. In the towns, our bakers open at 6.30am and, in the country, at 7.30am. They also close later, so shoppers can pick up a fresh loaf on the way home."
Lobbying councils and government, setting strict rules for breadmaking, being proactive with publicity, adapting to new products and opening hours this is the evolving face of craft bakery in France and forms an identity and heritage they manage to protect.
But it does help to have planners and governments that listen.
Protecting the craft
In French law, Article 121 states that professionals who are not involved in the kneading, fermenting and shaping of their own dough from chosen raw ingredients or in the baking process for the sale of bread to consumers must not use the term ’baker’. Neither can their commercial premises be called a ’bakery’. Neither may they use any other term or advertising that could be confusing in a retail environment. Products can at no stage of their production or sale be frozen or part-baked.