Flour Mills on the Seine, Paris

Image of a flour mill floating on the Seine circa late 18th century
A boat water mill floating on the Seine in the 18th century towards the back of Notre Dame Cathedral

This is an eighteenth-century print of a flour mill floating on the Seine with Notre Dame in the background. Until well into the nineteenth century mills were attached  bridges that crossed the Seine and smaller mills, like the one in this print, were actually small boats, or barges, attached to shore or anchored in the river. The infrastructure for producing bread was everywhere.

Paris, in 1800 had a population of 540,000 compared to today’s 2,300,000. This refers to the city itself, not environs If you estimate per capita bread consumption in 1800 at 900g per person and use today’s figure of 130g per person it would seem that approximately 40% more bread was consumed in Paris some two-hundred years ago —490 230 000 grams versus 299 000 000 grams today. Just accepting these as rough figures it suggests the huge number of vehicles — on land and water — that must have been needed to move the grain, the flour, and the breads.

Paris did not produce all of its own bread. Demand from Paris fostered a plethora of bakeries in villages circling Paris, with Gonesse, now a suburb of Paris more or less between the two airports, Orly and Charles de Gaulle, being the most famous of the supplier villages. It is known for the quality of its white bread. Even English-language atlases tie Gonesse to its bread.

Here is a text sent to me by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, founder of the extraordinary Facebook Group, Universalbread, and editor of the Dictionnaire universal du pain (2010) from his dictionary. This was written by Jean-Pierre Blazy, the current mayor of Gonesse.

“Le pain de marché, qui était en grande partie le pain des forains, assurait les deux tiers des ventes de pain consommé à Paris en 1727, un peu moins six ans plus tard, selon les registres Delalande conservés à la bibliothèque de l’Institut. Les boutiques progressent sans menacer la prépondérance des marchés. Les estimations concernant le nombre des boulangers forains dits de deuxième classe, ceux qui transformaient les blés qui n’étaient pas entrés à Paris avant d’être convertis en pain, demeurent incertaines. En recoupant les différentes sources (Traité de la Police de Nicolas Delamare et registres Delalande), Steven L. Kaplan estime qu’il y avait au total une majorité de boulangers de marchés sur les 2 000 boulangers qui s’activaient dans la capitale, mais les chiffres très variables du seul corps des forains (900, 850, 650…) lui paraissent excessifs. En 1727, sur les 927 boulangers fournissant les
douze marchés (et non plus quinze), il y avait 369 forains, soit près de 40 % ; et sur 747 enregistrés en 1733, on relève 298 forains, soit toujours près de 40 %. La boulangerie foraine s’inscrivait dans une couronne d’approvisionnement s’étendant de Saint-Germain-en-Laye et de Versailles à l’ouest, de Sceaux et de Villejuif au sud, de Créteil et de Vincennes à l’est jusqu’à Goussainville et Roissy-en-France au nord. Les boulangers du Pays de France, ceux de Gonesse et du village voisin de Bonneuil-en-France étaient alors les plus nombreux et les plus actifs en quantités de pain vendu.”

From Dictionnaire universel du pain, Bouquins Laffont 2010

Jean-Pierre Blazy is also the author of “Gonsesse, la terre et les homes: Des origines a la Revolution” (1982)

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