The word itself was not used to refer to a type of bread until apparently 1920, but what is now known as “baguette” may have existed well before that. Though the baguette today is often considered one of the symbols of French culture viewed from abroad, the association of France with long loaves predates any mention of it. Long, if wide, loaves had been made since the time of Louis XIV, long thin ones since the mid-eighteenth century and in fact by the nineteenth century some were far longer than the baguette: “loaves of bread six feet long that look like crowbars!” (1862); “Housemaids were hurrying homewards with their purchases for various Gallic breakfasts, and the long sticks of bread, a yard or two in length, carried under their arms, made an odd impression upon me.” (1898)
A less direct link can be made however with deck ovens, or steam ovens. Deck/steam ovens are a combination of a gas-fired traditional oven and a brick oven, a thick “deck” of stone or firebrick heated by natural gas instead of wood. The first steam oven was brought (in the early nineteenth century) to Paris by the Austrian officer August Zang, who also introduced the pain viennois (and the croissant) and whom some French sources thus credit with originating the baguette.
Deck ovens use steam injection, through various methods, to create the proper baguette. The oven is typically well over 205 °C (400 °F). The steam allows the crust to expand before setting, thus creating a lighter, more airy loaf. It also melts the dextrose on the bread’s surface, giving a slightly glazed effect.
An article in The Economist states that in October 1920 a law prevented bakers from working before 4am, making it impossible to make the traditional, round loaf in time for customers’ breakfasts. The slender baguette, the article claims, solved the problem because it could be prepared and baked much more rapidly. Unfortunately, the article is not sourced and at any rate France had already had long thin breads for over a century at that point.
The law in question appears in fact to be one from March 1919, though some say it took effect on October 1920: “It is forbidden to employ workers at bread and pastry making between ten in the evening and four in the morning.” The rest of the account remains to be verified, but the use of the word for a long thin bread does appear to be a twentieth century innovation.
French Bread Pizza Recipe
- Homemade Italian Sauce (I used my immersion blender once cooked for a smooth sauce)
- 4 links of mild Italian sausage; casing removed, cooked, and cooled, nice and tiny
- Fresh Basil leaves, coarsely chopped
- 1 cup of shredded Italian cheeses, per pizza
- French Loaf
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Begin by cutting a french load in half, then lengthwise, allowing you two french bread pizzas. Remove a bit of the bread from the center. Place these on a baking sheet. Ladle in a lot of sauce, making sure you cover the entire base of the loaf. Top with the cheese, then the cooked Italian sausage. Bake in the oven for 13-16 minutes until the cheese is nice and bubbly and the sausage has a bit of crust. Sprinkle with some fresh, chopped basil, and serve.