In the Middle Ages bread was often used in lieu of plates

On the menu

As a tradition, the practice of bringing a pre-meal bread basket to the table in Paris is up there with the tooting of horns in the Place de la Concorde and taking four weeks off in August. It is so ingrained, it is almost a reflex action: sit down at a brasserie, order your drinks and then out comes the bread, usually a baguette, hopefully cut into big chunks. Inevitably the quality varies – at one place in the Marais, where I spent part of this week, I would have quailed before feeding the bread to a passing mallard – but still, should you want to, you can fill up on pre-dinner starch to your heart’s content.

It is, of course, not an unusual practice, serving bread with dinner, but in France it reaches the peaks of obsession. Having been there for a week, I would guess that I consumed about half of the 10 billion baguettes that are sold in the country each year. I have never felt so happy or so bloated.

I was, bien sûr, doing it all wrong. As any fool knows, the bread may have come before my meals but it was very much for eating with my main plat. What better way to mop up all that beurre blanc or the last few drops of espagnole sauce? The thing is, though, what we do with our slice of baguette or sourdough morsel is very much dictated by our culinary culture; it might be the simplest of dishes, but it comes with a whole lot of cultural baggage.

When I was growing up in the North, it was very much à la mode to serve bread with a little bowl of olive oil on which would be poured a slick of balsamic vinegar. It was a sort of pre-starter and, as we were often told, the way “nonna does it”. Though, as a Florentine friend once said to me in to-the-point tones, not only would nonna not do it, no Italian would either: balsamic is too precious and bread is for fare la scarpetta – literally, do the little shoe – the action of mopping up sauces.

Here in Britain, the practice of giving “free” bread as a pre-starter – it is, in fact, factored in to the price of the other dishes – is evidently well established (witness the scenes when people expecting it don’t get it). But, in a uniquely strange and very British contortion, the eating of it has come to be a mark of social class. The cutting of a roll down the middle and buttering both sides in one fell swoop would be frowned upon by the pernickety Julian Fellowes-types. One must tear a bit of thumb-sized bread from the roll and butter it just before one eats it and, heaven forefend, that anyone should use it to mop up soup here – it is a pre-meal sweetener. This is an absurd affectation, of course, and a relatively recent one at that. In the Middle Ages, we should remember, bread, in the form of trenchers – hollowed out loaves – was often used in lieu of plates, a fact that may have Lord Fellowes reaching for the smelling salts.

Aside from the cultural nuances, there is a bigger question to consider, and one that, after five days of gorging, is at the forefront of my mind: do we really need it? The answer that I give you from the depths of my gluten coma is that we do not. I went, I saw and I ate loads of bread in Paris. But like the second tub of ice cream eaten while watching a romcom, it ain’t ever going to make you happy. You don’t need that and you don’t need half a loaf before dinner. Just say no.

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