Recently I decided that this year's new venture should be bread baking! I started last weekend with a recipe for brioche. It's a wonderful bread, and for a first attempt, it came out tasty, though it did not raise up into anything glorious. So, I will try again. Meanwhile, I will tell you about brioche and the 18th Century:
The first use of the word, on record, is from France in 1404. It was featured in Cotgrave's "A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues" in 1611, indicating a Norman origin. In the 17th Century, it was introduced as "pate a tarte brioche" as a lighter and cheaper version of blessed bread, the bread used for communion.
In the 18th Century, however, the bread became richer, tastier as more butter and milk were added. The blessed bread was replaced by the brioche we know. The great butter markets of Gisors and Gournay played a role here, promoting the use of their product. And, butter is the secret to good brioche!
It is documented that "Gisors, on market days, they produce up to 250 or 300 kg of brioches. The dough is made the evening before (1 kg of farine, a quarter of which for the starter, 10 g of yeast, 7 or 8 eggs; one mixes this together with the starter and 800 g of butter, breaking up the dough, which 'uses up the butter'. The dough is kept in a terrine, and one puts it in a mold just at the moment of baking. Thus prepared, the brioche remains light, keeps well, maintains the flavour of butter, without the stench of the starter. Brioche of varying degrees of richness from the rich man's with a flour to butter ratio of 3:2 to the cheaper pain brioché with a ratio of 4:1 existed at the same time."
In his autobiography "Confessions" published 1782, Jean-Jacques Rousseau tells the story of a great princess said to have advised the peasants, the poor folk, who had no bread, to "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche", or "let them eat cake". This translation is inaccurate, but none-the-less, the princess was referring to giving out the cheaper brioche. It was still an expense as there were 40,000 parishes in the kingdom where blessed bread was distributed.