Rethinking “Famine bread” in the late 18th century France and during the French Revolution

Richard Delerins

During the scarcity of 1770, Turgot was travelling as an Intendant through the remote Limousin province of France, where most peasants ate “chestnut bread” only. In his “Lettres sur le commerce des grains” (Letters on the corn trade) published in 1788 Turgot explains how he dealt with famine in Limousin and found the best ways to relieve people from hunger: “rethinking the bread” and mobilizing the resources of the art of cookery (“culinary creativity”) were critical to achieving this endeavor.

Turgot decided to publish new cooking recipes for the poor on “various inexpensive ways to prepare rice”, soups, carrots, beans, turnips and potatoes in order to propose a substitute to bread. By the same token, Parmentier’s experiments in Paris on the chemical properties of potatoes (“Examen chymique de la pomme de terre”, 1773) were conducted to understand how to make “potato bread” without flour. In 1772, Varenne de Béost published “La Cuisine des pauvres” (Cooking for the poor), the first French cookbook dedicated entirely to potatoes; de Béost also designed a machine to make a “potato dough”.

“Rethinking bread” (the French staple par excellence) in times of scarcity became an essential part of the French political agenda (before and during the French Revolution) ; philosophers, chemists, naturalists, physiocrats, bakers and chefs came up with a wealth of creative ideas, techniques, and exotic foods (“Breadfruit utopia”) to tackle this challenge.

In the 1770-80s the French Government funded naval expeditions (Dombey, 1775; Thouin, Lahaye, 1791) to South America and the Pacific to search and collect new nutritious exotic plants (for bread making) ; and to observe how native Americans prepare, store and cook their staple foods. A baker of Paris, M. Malisset invented a new grinding technique called “mouture économique” (Beguillet, “Discours sur la mouture economique”, 1775) which greatly increased the quality and the variety of flours extracted from grains ; bakers became “composers of flours” and bread making became an art and a science; as a consequence, the first Ecole de Boulangerie (School of Baking) was established in Paris in 1780.

During the Revolution, chefs or “cook citizens” contributed as well to this National endeavor with a new generation of cookbooks (e.g. Mme Merigot, “La Cuisinière republicaine”, 1792; citoyen Cointereaux, ” La Cuisine renversée”, 1796).
This paper examines those political creative responses in time of scarcity and also presents rare cooking recipes.

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