"What time will you go get the bread?" is the standard question all Mexico's workingclass youths put to a girl for the chance to court her a moment or two away from the workplace. The question also reflects another standard procedure here in Mexico: that of serving fresh bread, hopefully still warm from the bakery, with meals.

The names for different types of bread rolls, buns and cookies are imginative. There are picones (jabbers), trenzas (braids), corbatas (neckties), bigotes (moustaches), ladrillos and piedras (bricks and stones), orejas (ears), besos de novia (bride's kisses), rejas (grilles), borrachitos (lushes), roscas (rings) and cuernos (horns).

Not enough selection, you say? How about churros, polvorones, mantecadas, campechanas, chilindrinas, duques, semitas, cocoles, volcanes, rehiletes, garibaldis, rosquillas de San Isidro, palitos de manteca.

Trayfuls of these and more are on display at any corner bakery.

But our daily bread hasn't always been as varied, or as tasty either.

Word has it, and some historians suspect, that the bread the Spaniards used to bake in the early days of the Colonization was a sort of insipid uninteresting lump. Fortunately, with a little local flair it was gradually doctored up into something more appetizing, starting from the time when one obviously very bored viceroy innovated the uncouth but tasty habit of dunking his bread in chocolate.

The end of the Viceregency (1821) gave rise to the long power struggle between liberals and conservatives, each with irreconcilable differences but coinciding in one thing: both factions wanted to Gallicize the nation, and for a while they managed to. The country was invaded by Parisian boulangeries and patisseries. Salted baguette loaves and other shapes all much tastier than the Spanish version, plus flaky pastries, appeared on the dining tables.

Napoleon III's subjets literally seized the bread market. By the second half of the 19th century they had flooded Mexico City and other large towns throughout the country with flour marts, bakeries and pastry, chocolate and candy shops. Such storming success was shortlived however. After a bitter lesson learned in the outskirts of Puebla (when the lost a battle to the Mexicans at Loreto and Guadalupe forts in May 1862), the French literally had the bread taken out of their mouths and were forced to head back home to the City of Light.

Today only two traditional French patisseries still exist in Mexico.

Interestingly enough, the French left us two legacies: an ingrained taste for good pastries and the recipe for Chantilly whipped crea. Spanish and Creole bakers, with the help of their Mexican employees, thenceforth made it their business to be inventive with bread and sweet roll shapes (today the selection numbers around two thousand), constantly improving flavors, textures and presentation.

What is known here as "pan blanco" enjoys strepitous popularity among foreign visitors to Mexico.

They can't wait to pluck a bolillo from the bread basket the moment it is placed on their lunch table.