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Historians think Marie Antoinette probably did not say, `Let them eat cake,' when informed that French peasants were starving. The guillotine got her anyway. On this day, Bastille Day, we note that a frivolous remark should never come between the French and their bread. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says in France, bread is raised to an art form.

SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:

Imagine opening the doors of a museum and smelling bread.

(Soundbite of people at museum)

STAMBERG: Last fall in Paris, visitors got just that delicious odoriferous welcome at the Fondation Cartier at a show called Pain Couture or `Bread Fashion,' dresses, gowns, purses, even umbrellas, all created by designer Jean-Paul Gaultier using not fabric but baked goods.

Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)

STAMBERG: There was a '20s-style flapper dress, but the fringe was made with rows of ladyfingers, long, slim cookies Gaultier got to shimmy on a dress mannequin.

OK. Now here, the body is made of a bread basket, and it's filled with baguettes, and the baguettes spill down below the bottom of the basket and form the skirt. But at the top of the basket it's filled with round boules and they become her breasts.

Vive la France!

(Soundbite of voices)

STAMBERG: The art of bread baking is practiced so well at Eric Kazer's (pronounced er-ic kay-zer) Bakery(ph)--they say Eric Kazer (pronounced ah-rik kay-zair) there--that Parisians line up at 4 in the afternoon to buy it; boules, baguettes and some 40 other kinds of bread sold warm right out of the oven.

Oh, it smells wonderful in here.

The breads of Eric Kazer start out as little globs of dough, floury and pretty unimpressive.

This is going to be bread?

Mr. ERIC KAZER (Bakery Owner): Yes, yes.

(Soundbite of squeaking noise)

STAMBERG: And racks and racks and racks of it.

Mr. KAZER: So we'll bake 1,000 baguettes now from 4:00 to 8:00.

STAMBERG: A busy baker. The Kazers have been baking for five generations, grueling work; the boulanger getting up every four hours through the night to work the dough and keep the starter fermenting properly, and then at the crack of dawn, exhausted, sleep-deprived, firing up the ovens so the hungry masses might eat.

So why would anyone ever become a boulanger?

Mr. KAZER: Good question. Difficult.

STAMBERG: How hard was it? Cornell University historian Steven Kaplan may be the world's greatest expert on French bread. Kaplan says to Karl Marx, baking was proof of the brutal exploitation of capitalism. To George Sand, 19th-century bakers were prisoners, living underground with their relentless preparations of dough. No wonder young people today have second thoughts about becoming boulangers.

Professor STEVEN KAPLAN (Cornell University Historian): And the older bakers say, `I'm not taking any more apprentices.' The apprentice wants to come at 9:00 in the morning and not 5:00 in the morning. His parents arrive and say, `Where is the shower? Where will my son wash?'

STAMBERG: Eric Kazer to the rescue. A few years ago, he and a handful of other ambitious young bakers decided to simplify their lives and put great bread back in French mouths.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Bread in France had gone from bad to worse after World War II. Instead of starting from scratch, bakers used mass-produced frozen and factory-made dough. Baguettes tasted like cotton. This was bad for business. In 1960, there were 55,000 bakeries in France. Today there are 33,000.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: To stem the decline, Eric Kazer and Hermes got the prime minister to pass a law saying a bakery can't be called a bakery unless every bit of the baking is done on-site. The government's repression of frauds department conducts regular inspections and fines are imposed on fishy loaves. Also, Kazer invented a machine that keeps the bread's starter liquid, not solid. So bakers don't have to keep getting up all night to attend to it.

(Soundbite of voices)

STAMBERG: You can still get bad bread in France, but not at Kazer's Bakery. In his book, "Cherchez le pain: The 100 Best Bakeries In Paris," bread historian Steve Kaplan puts Kazer at the top of his list. Professor Kaplan finds this crust a crunchy, crisp perfection, the mix of big and small cavities in the bread just right.

Prof. KAPLAN: And then when you bring it to your nose...

(Soundbite of Kaplan smelling the bread)

STAMBERG: Professor Kaplan is burying his nose in the cut baguette as you would nuzzle the neck of a lover.

Prof. KAPLAN: ...there's an extraordinary kind of geyser of aromas.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Prof. KAPLAN: And for me, this is hot cereal, this is toasted flour, this is buttery and, of course, you want to eat it now.

(Soundbite of people eating)

STAMBERG: Oh, this is wonderful.

Prof. KAPLAN: Yeah. It is wonderful, isn't it?

STAMBERG: Because the crust is so crusty.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Prof. KAPLAN: That's right.

STAMBERG: And the inside is...

Prof. KAPLAN: And yet, it's what the French call moelleux.

STAMBERG: Moelleux, a little runny.

Prof. KAPLAN: ...the extraordinary--it has a kind of voluptuous quality to it. It has a soft and, yet at the same time, engaging texture.

(Soundbite of people eating)

Prof. KAPLAN: Mmm.

STAMBERG: Oh, it's wonderful bread.

Prof. KAPLAN: Yeah. Yeah. It's the best.

STAMBERG: You'd have to be a Dr. Atkins to disagree, or someone so devoted to his low-carb--i.e., no bread--principles that they can't see the ficelle(ph) for the forest. Bread-lover, Francophile and Cornell Professor Steve Kaplan has an opinion on that.

Prof. KAPLAN: This is confirmation from the French that Americans are Meshugeneh, as we used to say when I was a kid. I mean, this is the same policy that brought us disaster in Iraq. It's nonsense. The French regard it as being silly. The French eat carbohydrates of a certain kind, what they call slow sugars--that's what bread is--as being perfectly important and balanced to eat, and something like the Atkins here would last about a nanosecond.

STAMBERG: It takes slightly more time to enjoy a fine baguette. In France, shoppers can't wait to get home with their bread. The moment they leave the bakery, they break off an end and chew it as they walk, and on a chilly day, that carefully crafted, just-baked baguette warms your chest as you hold it going home from the boulanger.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And for those of you who can't quite visualize bread as fashion, you can see the results at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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