At the beginning of March, now that travel restrictions around the world have eased, my boyfriend and I decided to take a trip to Paris. The weather was turning to spring, and despite the fading sunlight, on the walk from the Gare du Nord to our hotel, hearing French voices, peering through unfamiliar shop windows and the smell of fresh bread filling the air was borderline idyllic. On a street not too far from our hotel in Pigalle, we saw people queuing for a tiny bakery. Each time we passed by during our stay, there remained a steady queue of patrons outside.
I loved it. Seeing such a typical French stereotype almost immediately as we set foot in the country confirmed we were officially out of the UK. London, where I’m from, is not usually associated with the idea of the local boulangerie. It is a thoroughly French notion, usually accompanied in our minds with an image of a beautiful brunette, maybe riding a bike, definitely wearing a striped top and a beret, whilst of course, not forgetting the iconic baguette sticking out of her bag as an accessory (a stereotype reinforced for me and many other twenty-somethings thanks to the love-it-or-hate-it Netflix hit Emily in Paris).
Hop over the English channel, however, to my neighborhood of north London, and you’ll be able to find three bakeries within a 15-minute walking radius of each other. When I say bakery, to be clear, I mean establishments that bake their own goods—not those that sell pre-bought items at a marked-up premium. They serve not just bread but sausage rolls, toasties, coffees, pastries and other sweet treats. And every weekend, sometimes on weekdays too, you’ll find snaking queues curling out their doors and around street corners—not unlike what I described seeing on my recent trip to Paris.
These bakeries are ubiquitous on the lips of my fellow north Londoners. Most of these establishments have started small and local but are now household names with a following of cult customers who wouldn’t dream of getting their coffee and croissant fix from anywhere else.
One of the bakeries—Pophams —also happens to be less than a 30-second walk from my flat. You may think this is uber convenient when you want a weekend treat (or more likely, in my case, having no food in the house and in search of a perfect excuse for a trip over the road). But, in reality, it can be impossible to get served (forget getting a seat) without queuing for at least 20 minutes.
Is this a new thing? How has what we perceive as this very French cliche started happening in London? Have Londoners always queued for bread and I’m only just noticing?
Delving into the history of bread, there is a huge amount of information to hand—so much so, it’s difficult to know where to start. Less documented seems to be how bread ties into London’s culture, but there’s more evidence about how bread itself has changed throughout time. From the accusations of bone being used a substitute for flour to standing in line for rations (not quite the same as queuing for une baguette in Paris) to the Americanisation of bread by way of being factory made, sliced and put in a plastic bag, we’ve come full circle to what north London society seems to think is bread in its original form: the artisan loaf.
Part of the reason for the popularity of these bakeries is undeniably social media. It puts food spots on the map, and not just bakeries, but cafes, restaurants and bars that therefore become a destination. People seek out places they’ve spotted on their various social feeds and set out on their Saturday morning to find the perfect pastry—or more likely, the perfect shot for their Instagram.
The pandemic has likely influenced this trend too. If you lived through 2020, you wouldn’t have been able to avoid the influx of baked goods that filled both our screens and kitchens. Whether it was banana bread or sourdough loaves, most of us either made or bore witness to this phenomenon when we were all trapped inside with nothing else to do. COVID-19, for a while anyway, made us appreciate the simple things in life: the beauty of a barista-made coffee, a walk in the park and taking the time to prove our own focaccia. Now that our lives are picking up pace again, queuing for a loaf of bread is arguably just our new way of revisiting this pastime.
A key piece of the puzzle is the fact that these types of bakeries also often cater to a specific aesthetic: a minimal “artisan” vibe that is often associated with the upper middle class. Pophams, for example, has a shop where you can purchase like-for-like crockery from their cafe—but for one of their plates, you’ll pay £30. If you consider that it also sets you back about £3.50 for a loaf of bread (compared to the average supermarket loaf that is, on average, £1.14 in the UK), it’s an expensive trip to the bakery. Just like having a photo of the trendiest spots on your Instagram is a status symbol, it’s also a symbol of your class status if you’ve got half an hour to spare queuing for a loaf of bread and an oat milk flat white.
To me, it seems clear that the culture of London bakeries intersects at the point where sliced bread fell out of fashion and in came the vegan, organic, gluten-free and wellness clan. We’ve been told for so long that bread is bad for you and makes you fat, but since the middle class have reclaimed it through the guise of “natural” ingredients, it’s okay. Meanwhile, the working class are stigmatized for consuming “processed” bread, which may not look as good but still fills you up and is substantially cheaper too.
This is why I can’t see this trend truly becoming part of London’s culture, like it is so ingrained in the French. Buying bread just isn’t an everyday occurrence in London—the countless Instagram posts of people showing off their loaves proves this. Therefore, I’m not sure if these bakeries have real cult followers that’ll stick with them to the end, or if those who currently flock there on weekend mornings will just move onto the next food fad as soon as Instagram tells them to. I hope so, as I might then be in with a chance of getting Pophams pastry on a Sunday morning…