“For years I had watched the sensorial quality of French bread palpably deteriorate,” he told me. The decline first set in, he said, when bakers switched from levain to commercial yeast in order to shorten the bread-making process. Yeast could work as an acceptable substitute for levain, but instead of relying on minute amounts of yeast and letting the dough ferment over 24 hours— as Delmontel does with his baguettes—bakers added more yeast and cut the rise period to as little as one hour, “suppressing the first fermentation that is the source of all taste,” Kaplan said.
The situation worsened in the 1950s, when bakers started using intensive kneading machines that satisfied consumer desire for an ever-whiter crumb. They started sprinkling in additives such as vitamin C to spike fermentation, and heaps of salt to mask the absence of flavor. In short, while pursuing the promises of modernity—efficiency, speed, and whiter bread—what French bakers lost was the one indispensable ingredient: time.
“For me, bread was a crucial dimension of what the French proudly call their ‘cultural exception,’” or national identity, said Kaplan. “They did not seem to be aware that they were putting it in grave peril.” By the 1980s, the French ate less and less bread. Boulangeries folded; those that remained competed with supermarkets, which baked frozen baguettes and sold them as loss leaders.