In France, where ‘bread is life’, what happens when traditional bakeries die?

In a country known for its baguette and pastry-eating ways, baked goods are a way of life. Norimitsu Onishi investigates what happens when there is no more dough to be made

Wednesday 13 November 2019 17:18 GMT
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Without bakeries, small French villages say they are ‘dying’
Without bakeries, small French villages say they are ‘dying’

The lights inside the village bakery used to come on before dawn, an hour or so before the smell of baking bread would waft into neighbours’ homes. The storefront door would soon be heard, opening and closing, the rhythm as predictable as the life stirring awake across the French countryside. But everything changes.

“Without bread, there is no more life,” says Gerard Vigot, standing in his driveway across the street from the now-shuttered bakery. “This is a dead village.”

Two years ago, the 650 residents of La Chapelle-en-Juger lost their bakery, the last local business where they could meet one another, chitchat and gossip while waiting in line for their daily baguette or their weekend eclairs. For the community, the closing of the bakery was “un drame”, as one newspaper put it, or a tragedy, one that is being repeated in countless French villages.

Young people are no longer drawn to the lengthy hours of the traditional bakers who live above their store. Shopping malls have taken root on the periphery of rural areas, drawing in people who are content to buy at supermarkets or chains. Customers, especially the young, are not eating as much bread.

Vending machines have popped up in towns where bakeries have closed

Travelling in rural France these days means spotting closed bakeries, the faded paint on old windows and doors giving an indication of when the lights went out. It means encountering people mentioning with visible relief that their village still has one. Like in La Chapelle-en-Juger, the bakery is very often the one business that clings on after the disappearance of the butcher shop, the grocer or cafe.

The vanishing of traditional bakeries has come to symbolise the waning of the country’s rich village life

Given the centrality of bread in France, and its links to its religious practices and political history, the vanishing of traditional bakeries has also come to symbolise the waning of the country’s rich village life – one with the kinds of characters and stories that yielded the material for novels like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, set in a fictional village in Normandy, where La Chapelle-en-Juger is.

La Chapelle-en-Juger lies in the coastal department of Manche, where American flags can often be seen flying to commemorate the Allied invasion of the Second World War.

Since the start of the decade, about 50 traditional bakeries have closed in Manche, leaving about 370, and 20 more are expected to disappear in the next year, according to the Chamber of Trades and Crafts in the department.

“An unprecedented wave of bakery closures,” one local newspaper says with alarm. But a quick scan of the headlines in local newspapers reveals similar “tragedies” in many corners:

A village near Dieppe is “desperately looking for a baker”.

Thriving bakeries are a rarity in much of the French countryside now

“Baker in Preignac seeks a buyer.”

In Lozère, a “village rendered destitute without its bakery”.

In Loire, “a collection to save the only bakery in Jonzieux”.

In Prisches, “the mayor does not want a village without a bakery”.

In Lot-et-Garonne, “a bakery in the hot seat”.

Or simply: “The village without a baker.”

Vending machines have sometimes popped up in towns where bakeries have closed. In Gratot, a red machine sat in a quiet parking lot on a recent morning.

The tradition of buying fresh bread dates back centuries in France

A few miles away, on the side of a busy country road in La Vendelée, Vincent Lenoir’s daughter hopped out of their minivan to get a premade baguette from a machine that resembled a telephone booth.

“It’s the best,” Lenoir says of the bread’s taste. But the vanishing bakeries, he adds, are “killing our villages”.

Without a bakery, La Chapelle-en-Juger is turning into a lifeless bedroom town, some residents say.

“Our little village is dying,” says Hélène Collard, whose family has lived in the village for four generations. “We’re no longer in contact with the other inhabitants. It was the only meeting point left.”

The number of bakeries overall is increasing in France, especially in big cities. In Paris, people walking home at the end of the day, munching on a bit of baguette, remains a part of the cityscape. But traditional mom-and-pop bakeries in rural areas are disappearing quickly – sometimes at a rate of 4 per cent, or even higher, within a single year.

Few countries keep such extensive data about bakeries as France does. Half the nation lives within 1.4 miles of a bakery, “as the crow flies”, according to a 2017 government report. In cities, 73 per cent of the population lives within less than a half-mile.

When villages lose their bakery, they cry that it is a tragedy... But they have to be willing to walk the talk

How long do the French take to reach their bakery? According to the national bakery and confectionery association, the average trip to a bakery takes just over 7 minutes on foot, by car or with another mode of transportation. To be more precise, it’s five minutes in a city or just over 9 minutes in the countryside.

In La Chapelle-en-Juger, Vigot used to cross the street to the bakery. Now, he drives about two and a half miles to the small town of Marigny-le-Lozon, where he always buys two boules and a sliced loaf.

“I always add a little brié,” he says, referring to a traditional Normandy bread, “and on my way back, I eat it like a cake.”

Cities like Paris still enjoy the bakery tradition 

Between 30 and 40 residents of La Chapelle-en-Juger now buy their bread at Jeannot and Valérie Culeron’s bakery in Marigny-le-Lozon. Despite the positive effects on his business, Culeron, who began his career as an apprentice at age 15, worries about the overall trends.

“When villages lose their bakery, they cry, ‘What a tragedy!’” Culeron says. “But they have to be willing to walk the talk.”

Many now go to their local bakery only on weekends, he says, while they used to shop every day. Customers were more loyal, he says, in part because bakers played an important role in celebrating major life events.

Bakeries have a longstanding tradition of being the go-to for French people’s biggest personal events

“We were there for baptisms, communions, weddings, and we made their yule logs,” Culeron says.

On Sundays, people were taught that Jesus was the bread of life. At home, they carved the sign of the cross into bread crust before the start of the meal. Children were admonished never to put a loaf on its back because “you don’t earn your bread while lying on your back”.

“That’s how I was raised, and how I’ve raised my children,” says Fabien Rose, who lives within a stone’s throw of the old bakery in La Chapelle-en-Juger. “That’s why the bakery has an enormous place in a village – because bread is life.”

After everything in La Chapelle-en-Juger, except for the church tower, was razed during the Second World War, it was rebuilt with two grocery stores, a butcher shop and a bakery.

When the couple who had owned the bakery for nearly two decades called it quits in late 2017, Nelly Villedieu, the mayor since 2001, sprang into action.

In the country where bread shortages helped trigger a revolution, Villedieu was aware of bread’s sensitivities: she herself had never purchased bread outside La Chapelle-en-Juger.

“Politically, it wasn’t possible,” she says.

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A worker was hired, at 30 hours a week, to deliver bread to the village where it was sold between 8:30 am and 12:30 pm. The service was discontinued a year later because of the cost and criticism that the hours were inconvenient.

The municipality spent €130,000 euros, or about £111,000, to buy the building that had once housed the bakery. Now it is considering loans of as much as €40,000 (£34,000) for the purchase of a used oven and other baking equipment, Villedieu says, as well as low rent.

Without public assistance, a bakery would not be viable in such a small village, the mayor says. But La Chapelle-en-Juger is still studying the feasibility of the project, conscious that many other villages had spent money to resurrect bakeries only to see them rapidly wither away.

The tourist-friendly bakery is being favoured over the family-run one

“It’s a gamble for us,” Villedieu says. But it was a gamble that she felt she had to take. “In the French spirit, for a long time, we had to provide bread,” Villedieu says of elected officials.

Fresh bread continues to be seen as a staple of French life, but little understand what’s going on behind the scenes

Two months ago, some 80 people gathered in front of the old bakery to call for its reopening. The group’s leader, Nicolas Bourdier, says that the mayor’s office was moving too slowly – a charge that annoyed Villedieu.

Some villagers stayed away from the demonstration for fear of offending the mayor. “Things got a little tense,” says Monique Vigot, who is married to Gerard Vigot.

Bourdier agreed with the mayor on at least one point. “We consider the bakery a municipal service,” he says. “We feel that it’s something that’s owed to us.”

© New York Times

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