The deep Anglo-French discord as to the propriety of using bread to clean dinner plate in much the same way as a mop is applied to kitchen floor may also be explained by the contrasting nature of, and the differing roles assigned to this mutually staple food. For the baguette is totally fatless with a light, crispy crust surrounding a soft, airy crumb, and just a soupçon of floury taste, while the presence of milk and eggs in the traditional tin-baked English loaf produces a thicker, more flaccid crust, a heavier, more densely-structured crumb; and the use of stronger Canadian flour imparts a more pronounced flavour. But, above all, depending on which side of the Channel you’re on, bread has a totally different part to play. In England, eating it with a meal is – like inviting a plain-looking girl to dance – considered to be more of a filler-in when nothing more tempting is at hand. Admittedly, its relative absence at English mealtimes can also be explained by the fact that, traditionally, the main dish is copiously provided with vegetables (usually three or even more); and it is perhaps significant that the only occasions when bread is called upon to play a more than minor mealtime role is when served pre-buttered (in England bread and butter are as inseparable as tea and milk), in compensatory accompaniment to a meal of reduced vegetable content such as the national dish of fish and chips. In France, on the other hand, so essential a part of eating is ordinary, unbuttered bread that the lack of anything less than a full basket of sliced baguette on the restaurant table (as well as its systematic replenishment during the meal) would be as shamefully incomplete as going on a tour of Paris and being deprived of the Tour Eiffel.
What’s more, French and English attitudes towards the crust could not be more diametrically opposed. While the former are convinced that both crumb and crust play an inseparable part in producing a deliciously complementary soft and crunchy whole, the wilting, unappetizing crust of tin-baked English bread makes it not much more tempting to eat than bacon rind. I still remember the dubious incitements (‘It’ll make your hair curl!’ was her favourite) resorted to by my Grandma to persuade the young English boy I then was to eat the ‘heel’ of her otherwise delicious home-baked bread. And the cucumber and potted-meat sandwiches traditionally served with four o’clock tea in English cafés and restaurants are only considered refined enough for human consumption when the bread has been relieved of its vulgar crust.
Is it the same coarse, flabbily-uninviting nature of the crust, along with the intrusive floury taste of the crumb, which causes bread to be conspicuous by its absence at the cheese course in England? For the only real occasion when the two come anywhere near to harmonious union is when brought together in a Ploughman’s Lunch. As a substitute for bread, the English systematically resort to a wide variety of crisp, lightly-flavoured (frequently with cheese itself) cracker-type biscuits to bring out the taste of their after-meal cheese. And what is more normal in a country where plain, unadorned bread is only deemed fit to be thrown out for the sparrows that these receive a liberal coating of butter? In France, on the contrary, the only possible accompaniment to cheese is plain, unbuttered bread. How could it be otherwise when marriage between the two provides such an ideally complementary match? For the delicately–flavoured, crispy charm of the baguette remains discreet enough to bring out all that is best in the cheese, while retaining enough of its own character as never to be submerged by even the most commanding cheesy presence. Hélas, the subtle delights of French bread are of an all too fleeting nature, and freeze into ice-like hardness in half the time it takes for mortar to set.