Brioche: The Powerful History of a Buttery Pastry

The history of brioche, the sweet, buttery French bread, is long and filled with remarkable encounters. While modern restaurants proclaim the merits of brioche buns for use as hamburger platforms, the brioche has been enjoyed for hundreds of years as a Viennoiserie, a cross between pastry and bread made with a yeast dough enriched with butter, eggs, and milk. Centuries of Parisians, from queens to philosophers, have enjoyed brioche as a status symbol as well as a delicacy. Indeed, brioche may have helped cause the downfall of a monarchy plagued by symbols of its inflated status. What better way to satiate a craving for a buttery confection than by learning about the havoc it wreaked?

Chardin, Still Life With Brioche
Chardin, Still Life With Brioche

The first brioche was likely created by the Norman Vikings, who brought their own breed of cows to Northern France. The Normandy Cows, still renowned for their butter, produced a large amount of cream. Farmers would churn a form of butter somewhere between modern day butter and cheese; it was fermented because there was no refrigeration. In fact, “brioche” shares roots in Old French with “brie”, because the butter in brioche would have been not dissimilar from a cheese. Brioche was most likely eaten by peasants; butter was considered a byproduct of the dairy farm, and was consumed almost exclusively by the people who produced it.

This changed in the 16th century. The seat of the Archdiocese in Normandy, Rounen Cathedral, needed a new tower in 1509. The archbishop came up with a brilliant plan: the prohibition on consumption of the local Normandy butter during Lent  would be lifted for a fee of six deniers. Eating butter became a symbol of wealth and power, and butter was consumed in large amounts by the rich during Lent (the tower later became known as the Tour de Buerre). Brioche, made with the indulgent butter as well as eggs (which have been symbols of the resurrection since before the First Council of Nicaea), became a popular bread eaten at Eastertide, and soon throughout the year. Brioche, with its religious overtones, was the precursor to the Pain Benit (blessed bread), which was the term for an enriched bread blessed in a Catholic Church. Recipes for the sweet bread were often titled “Pain Benit and Brioche”, such as a recipe by Francois Pierre La Varenne in his landmark Le Cuisiner Francois of 1651. The 18th century historian Pierre Jean-Baptiste Legrand d’Aussy later wrote that Brioche was being used as Pain Benit. The practice of Pain Benit spread to the Francophone Canadian province of Quebec, introducing brioche to the international bakers’ consciousness.

Fou Dubulube, Le Pain Benit
Fou Dubulube, Le Pain Benit

The great philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his posthumous autobiography “Confessions”, quotes a “great princess” , after having been told that the peasants had no bread, as saying “qu’ils mangent de la brioche”. This phrase, in truth meaning “let them eat brioche”, was misinterpreted and mistranslated to mean “let them eat cake”. Equally disastrously, the quote’s unspecified author was assumed to be the unpopular Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, who reigned during years of famine (for more on the relationship of Marie Antoinette and bread, see this blog’s post on the French Revolution here). But the truth was simpler and less piggish. Though “Confessions” was published in 1782, it was written in 1769, when Marie Antoinette was nine years old. The speaker was actually the earlier Maria Theresa, wife of Louis XIV, who ruled a hundred years before Marie Antoinette. The intention itself was beneficent: recall d’Aussy’s observation that Pain Benit and brioche were used interchangeably. Maria Theresa was referring to the Pain Benit given as charity to the poor by priests. But the damage was done. The quote became popular in the years after 1782, when France was in the midst of social foment. In 1789, anti-monarchical tensions exploded into the monumental French Revolution, egged on by the widespread belief that the Queen did not care about the peasants, and epitomized by those infamous four words: Let them eat cake.

Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette
Maria Theresa
Maria Theresa

And so, brioche, a seemingly insignificant blip on the wide scope of history, played a larger-than-life role; it directly contributed to the downfall of the Ancien Regime. The brioche we eat today is delicious, but more importantly, revels in a history richer than its dough. How wonderful an innocuous roll tastes when spread with a narrative!

Brioche photo
Courtesy of “The Three Sisters” blog

In keeping with its tradition, I bake brioche using a sourdough starter, much as it would have been made prior to the Industrial Revolution. “Tartine Bread” is my source; Chad Robertson offers two versions. One is the traditional Norman butter brioche, and another is a version native to the South of France, made with olive oil as an enrichment. It can be found here.

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