Traveling 30 miles from central Paris will easily take you deep into French farm country, with its golden fields and picturesque stone villages. Many people — including those from Île-de-France itself — do not imagine Paris surrounded by waving fields of wheat and barley. Yet urban areas make up only 25 percent of the Paris region, while farms compose nearly 50 percent, and forests and waterways inhabit the rest.
Even with all this farmland, many romanticize agriculture and think little about how urbanization devours this mythic part of French culture. Now, another iconic element of French life — the humble baguette — is taking a small but notable stance against the urban encroachment that threatens people’s way of life and touches on hot-button issues such as eating local products, earning a fair wage, and competing in a global marketplace.
At the Moulins Fouché in La Ferté-Alais — in Essonne, one of eight departments in the Île-de-France — a squat office building is part of a hodgepodge of structures that now make up the mill after a 3-million-euro renovation wrapped up in 2003, replacing antiquated buildings, one of which dated to the 18th century.
Vincent Fouché, 41, a sixth-generation miller, heads up his family’s old business, though he is no longer “chez lui,” as he puts it. A holding company now owns the business, though he has a 25 percent stake. That he is not the principal owner does not seem to have dampened his energetic, voluble nature. With a full beard and dressed in a blue button-down shirt and beige-colored jeans, he seems eager to please and not beyond exaggerating slightly to recount a good yarn.
The way he tells it, he was born in the courtyard of the mill, when the premises still held his parents’ apartment. “I was rocked to sleep by the mill’s vibrations and the trucks when they left the courtyard in the morning,” he says. His playground was also the mill. “I always loved the milling business — not milling in itself, but the place, because it was picturesque and part of the family.”
Over the years, his family’s business has been buffeted by changes in French eating habits. Though the French are still serious bread eaters, their consumption has dropped to a third of what it was in 1950. Recently, Fouché has noticed changes in the market that have been beneficial to his business: His customers, even large manufacturing clients, are interested in quality, local products.
Though the French are still serious bread eaters, their consumption has dropped to a third of what it was in 1950.
“Before, the industries that worked in the Île-de-France were looking for the cheapest price,” he says. “Today the population wants to eat local, they want to know what they’re eating.…For us, that’s a good development, because we’re not just delivering 20 or 30 little bags of flour to an artisan. Here we’re delivering a full 11-ton truck [to industrial customers].”
In line with these new consumer demands is his latest project, L’Essonnienne, a 100-percent local French baguette, made from local flour — from the Essonne department — with wheat grown by 60 farmers within a 50-km radius of his mill. His mill — which has trademarked the name L’Essonnienne — selects several varieties of wheat for the baguette — a crusty “tradition” baguette, with norms laid out in French law. Fouché says he can trace the wheat down to the parcel of farmland.
The turquoise packaging of the baguette proclaims, “100% local, 100% fair trade,” the latter phrase referring to a three-year contract agreed upon between the mill and the farmers and bakers who sign on to the Essonnienne project. Though the baguette was launched officially last October, agreements with farmers to grow specific varieties of wheat had to be reached well in advance. In these agreements, the mill buys a certain quantity of wheat from co-op farmers at an agreed-upon price, grinds it into flour, then sells the flour at a stable price to the boulanger. This removes these small farmers (who have farms of 250 or 350 acres) from the ups and downs of the world market and offers them a living wage. The consumer pays the usual price of a “tradition” baguette — often about 1.10 euros, or $1.20.
“Two years ago, we could have bought wheat 15 percent cheaper but we respected the contract,” Fouché says. “Last year the [world market] price went above the contract price, but the farmers had to deliver at the fixed price.” In the end, everyone was satisfied and new contracts will be re-upped at the same price established three years ago.
Hervé Courte, director of the agricultural cooperative Île-de-France Sud, a partner in the project, notes that rather than determining farmers’ pay based on the international market, the fair-trade contract approaches it from the opposite direction. “We see how much it costs the producers” — for seeds, fertilizer, equipment, gasoline, he says, “and from there we determine a price. We say that the farmers must make at least minimum wage, so it gives a value to their work. As a result, the farmers are very interested in this way of working.”
What could substantially impact the future of L’Essonnienne — as well as that of La Baguette des Franciliens, a similar baguette from the entire Île-de-France region — is a food law passed last October. The law will require that public catering contracts be fulfilled with 50 percent local products by 2022; 20 percent of that amount must be organic. Wheat and flour used in France today may come from Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, or even as far away as Canada and Argentina.
What could substantially impact the future of L’Essonnienne is a food law passed last October that will require that public catering contracts be fulfilled with 50 percent local products by 2022.
The $7.7 billion spent serving meals to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, universities, public administrations, as well as the armed services and prisons, represents an enormous potential goldmine for Fouché and other purveyors of local and organic products. French schoolchildren are served multicourse meals in their school cafeterias, which alone accounts for 1 billion meals per year. (The Moulins Fouché will produce flour for both L’Essonnienne and La Baguette des Franciliens. Because Essonne is within the Île-de-France department, Fouché’s flour fulfills specifications for both.)
Another boon, as Fouché notes, is that local elections are coming, and the idea of L’Essonnienne — good for the environment, good for local farmers, good food — just might please consumers.
“Consumers, you have to remember, are voters, and politicians all think about one thing: the next elections. So in being attentive to consumers, they’re above all being attentive to the next elections. But it’s favorable for our commerce,” Fouché says.
But is L’Essonnienne good bread? In his bakery located right across from the agricultural cooperative, in Morigny-Champigny, Philippe Thilloux slices an Essonnienne in half, lengthwise, proudly displaying the attributes of his star product. One of the early adherents to the Essonnienne concept, Thilloux explains, “When you cut a baguette, there are beautiful alvéoles [air pockets]. ‘Normal’ bread is just like a piece of foam. The ‘tradition’ baguette is a little yellow inside and golden outside. It looks good,” he says.
A “normal” baguette — or, heaven help us, industrial bread — comes from dough that’s made quickly, that’s not allowed to ferment (fermentation gives the bread taste), and is baked (or frozen) in five hours or less. A “tradition” baguette may take a full day or to mix, fold, and proof the dough.
Those industrial breads are served in school cafeterias, the agricultural co-op’s Courte notes. And it’s “generally of very bad quality. Often it’s frozen and, paradoxically, imported from Spain, Romania, or Turkey. It’s so bad that it’s the food that school kids most frequently throw away.”
Fouché likes to poke fun at local politicians who conspicuously carry an Essonnienne under their arms when they go to the National Assembly but don’t push its use in their local cafeterias. Nevertheless, there are some politicians who have taken notice.
“We’ll get there because it doesn’t cost more to eat well and locally,” he says. “But it’s taking a while….We’re in France.”
Sono Motoyama is an American journalist living in Toronto; she blogs at parischow.com.