The French really know how to do breakfasts. They manage to get huge amounts of chocolate into this one meal. The majority of breakfast cereals on the shelf in the supermarket have chocolate in them. I’ve just had a look at Auchan’s online shop for home deliveries (not in our part of rural France though) and it offers 34 different types of non-muesli and non-bio cereal. Of these 25 have chocolate in them. They have names such as Choc’o pétales, Chocopic and Chokella (and it’s a little unfortunate the first five letters of that last one spell ‘choke’). Out of their 25 cereal bars, 11 contain chocolate. If we leave the healthy Grany bar range out of that, that gives us out of 8 out of 13 being chocolatey. Around a third of their mueslis contain chocolate too. Our favourite muesli has not one or two, but three different sorts!

French people are eating more cereal, and also eat the biggest portions of it in Europe. In 2016 here in France we shoved 44g of flakey type cereals into our bowl each morning, 0.5g more than in Ireland, but over twice what restrained Swedish people had. Kelloggs dominates the cereal market, with an estimated 9.2 million consumers in 2016. This success is due in large part to its popular Trésor range. Our Rors certainly loved those for a while, but he’s moved on to muesli now. Nestlé come next, but quite a way behind at 5.8 million. But despite individuals eating more cereal than others in their breakfast bowl, per capita French people consume only 1.8kg of cereal per annum compared to 3kg in Western Europe and 8kg in the UK.

I decided not to pay 650€ for a far more detailed report on breakfast cereals in France, or 395€ for the next cheapest one. I hope you’ll forgive me.

Photo: chocceareal

One last thing before I move away from cereals. The last year or so has seen a frustrating move by many stores of putting muesli in thick, resealable plastic packaging, rather than in the thin plastic bag within a cardboard box. Yet at the same time there’s a groundswell movement against single-use packaging and against use of items you can’t recycle. With the bag-and-packet mueslis, the bag weighed around 7g and the cardboard box 16g. Thus two-thirds of the packaging could be recycled, provided the consumer isn’t too lazy to do so. These new, heavier bags weigh approximately 14g and that all has to go into landfill. Personally I think it’s irresponsible of the manufacturers. I avoid buying the muesli that is packaged like that as much as I can, but in some shops it’s the only way of getting the nutty muesli I enjoy as a treat now and again. I hope this fad in packaging will be short-lived and we’ll return to more eco-friendly cardboard.

Hot chocolate is the thing to drink first in the morning, and the Auchan online store gives you a choice of 20 to chose from. And a pain au chocolat (sometimes called a chocolatine or even a coque au chocolat) is the thing to dunk into your chocolately drink. Just in case you’re unaware, a pain au chocolat is a puff pastry-dough concoction (the official description is ‘yeast leavened laminated dough’, the same as a croissant), but in a double roll with two sausages of dark, sweet chocolate running through. And you can always put the ubiquitous chocolate-hazelnut spread on your pain au chocolat to make it even more chocolately!

But of course it’s the croissant that most of the world associates with a French breakfast. There’s a legend that Marie-Antoniette brought them to France with her when she came as a fourteen-year-old girl in 1769. However, the less fanciful truth is that croissants didn’t make an appearance in France until the late 1830s, when they were introduced by an Austrian baker August Zang. He sold a variety of Viennese specialities, including the crescent-shaped kipferl, later to become the croissant, and the name ‘Viennoiserie’ is often used to describe croissants, pain au chocolats and other yeast leavened laminated dough-based delights. By 1870 croissants were very popular in France. Recipes began appearing for them in 1906. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that they started to take over the breakfast table in other countries. In the UK they now outsell bagels and in 2017 sales were worth £61.6 million.

Photo: croissants

In 2016 Tesco made the transition to straight croissants. Apparently the British public struggled to spread jam and butter on the curvey variety. This ‘spreadability factor’ is all-important in the baking trade. Counter-intuitively, though, the name croissant, which means crescent, has been retained. They should really be renamed ‘droits’, which means ‘straights’.

And, as with every meal in France, you can have some baguette. In this country 320 baguettes are consumed every second, but not by the same person obviously. That’s a total of ten billion per year. The average French person eats 120g of baguette a day, which is three times less than what they ate in 1950, and five times less than at the beginning of the twentieth century. Linked to this fall in bread consumption is the decline in the number of boulangeries in France, from 45,500 in 1970 to 32,000 in 2015. And that’s still falling, and has included our local bakery at Nouzerines. Also linked to this latter decline is the rise in bread sales in supermarkets. That rose 4.5% in 2015 alone. However, I shan’t speculate on which causes which.

A favourite thing to spread on bread or croissants, straight or otherwise, is Nutella, that famous chocolatey-hazelnut spread, but I’ll deal with that in a separate chapter. Since one million pots of it per day are eaten and it’s been the subject of short-lived taxes and riots, there’s a lot to say about it.

Whilst it may be truly tasty, a typical French breakfast isn’t terribly healthy. It’s rather heavy in fat and sugar, particularly when partaking of Viennoiserie, and woefully lacking in protein. Add to it heavily sugared coffee or a large bowl of very sweet hot chocolate and that makes it even worse! Yet, the French are still well down the WHO’s list of fattest countries in terms of Body Mass Index, coming in at 122nd. However, in 2014 23.9% of French adults were clinically obese. Historically the country has been associated with slimness, healthy eating and longevity, but that could all be changing. This is another topic I’ll be returning to in due course.

But since it’s nearly Christmas, let’s not worry about unhealthy eating for the moment. Let’s coat our pain au chocolat with a liberal trowel-ful of Nutella and stuff it into our hot chocolate to soak up that sugary goodness for breakfast!