Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

20 December 2000 - Let Them Eat Cake

I once saw a FarSide cartoon that showed Marie-Antoinette on the scaffold leading to the guillotine trying to explain to the mob that what she really said was "Let them eat cake AND ice-cream." But bread is no joking matter in France. Perhaps it lacks the glamour of wine but it is more basic to the French soul. Many people believe that it was the popularity and subsequent scarcity of bread that led to the French Revolution. Early in the eighteenth century, the bakers in France started forming corporations to standardize the fabrication and sale of bread. One of these corporations became large enough to create a monopoly and manipulate the price of wheat. Bread became so expensive, that only the aristocracy could afford it. When the people started complaining, someone in Marie-Antoinette's circle made the famous statement: "Ils n'ont plus de pain, qu'ils mangent de la brioche" (Let them eat cake). No matter who actually uttered these words, they are today attributed to Marie-Antoinette and are a symbol of the perceived attitude of the aristocracy toward the common people. During the revolution, mobs routinely attacked, killed and dismembered bakers or anyone else deemed responsible for the lack of bread.

French bread as we know it today is an invention of the French Revolution. The traditional recipe for French bread dates from this period. The idea was to create one bread for everyone - rich or poor. After the terror, the National Assemble eventally banned the corporations and began regulating bread. Even today the production and sale of bread is strictly regulated. The price of bread is the same in every bakery in France. The only exception to the standardized price is where an artisan does something special like kneading by hand or baking in an ancient oven with wood. However, every deviation in price must be strictly justified to the government.

The village baker in Lavardin told me last summer that he would spend a day with me and show me how to make bread when things slowed down a little. When we got back to France last week, Philippe Débrée, the boulanger, told Aprille and I to show up at 5:00 a.m. on Friday for our lesson. In the winter when business is slow, he starts his working day at 5:00 a.m. In the busy summer season, he starts at 3:00 a.m.. Philippe explained that he generally works up to about noon. After lunch he might take a short nap but most of the time he is too busy to rest. There is not much leisure time for the bakers in France. He jokes that French bakers hardly have any time to see their wives and have to contract with the postmen if they want to have children.

We start with a quick tour of the building. Like most buildings in Lavardin it is very old. It is a sixteenth century structure with large exposed wooden beams and stucco on the outside facade. Inside there is a shop where customers come in to by bread and pastries, a room for baking (le fournil) and a room for making the patisseries(la patisserie or laboratoire) There is also a small kitchen on the ground floor which is a part of the upstairs apartment. We begin our day in the baking room which Philippe calls the fournil. This room contains an oven and a large locker for controlling the fermentation of the bread.

The oven is important but it is the fermentation locker that Philippe loves best. Bread is made with flour, water, salt and yeast. It is a very simple and healthy concoction. After the ingredients are mixed and kneaded, it is normally necessary to wait about five to six hours for the bread to ferment(rise). Fermentation depends on the temperature and humidity. The fermentation locker gives the baker some control over the time of fermentation. Otherwise, the baker would have to work all night to make his dough and bake the bread for his seven o'clock customers. To a layman like myself, it looks like a walk-in refrigerator with a much more elaborate control panel

Philippe begins by placing croissants and pain aux chocolast from his beloved locker into his huge four-chambered oven. He uses a wooden paddle just like you see sometimes on old-fashioned bread labels. The oven which didn't seem that interesting on the outside is facinating when he opens it. Each of the four oven doors are stacked like an oversized wedding cake. Also, each compartment is narrow across but exceptionally long and deep. We peer in at the pasteries and retire to the kitchen to take a petit café. I notice that Philippe does not use a timer. He says that he has one but he just keeps better time in his head. This seems to work fairly well because after about twenty minutes he suddenly jumps up and says it is time to check the croissants. We go to the huge oven and pull out the golden brown croissants and pain aux chocolats.

Now it is time to get serious and start baking the bread. The uncooked bread that we are pulling out of the fermentation locker was actually made yesterday. It is stacked on rippled canvass sheets on pull-out shelves. The canvass is wet from the fermentation process. Philippe has already warmed up the oven so the bread is ready for baking. When he opens an oven door to check the temperature steams screams out of the front. He explains that the steam is very important because it slows the carbonic gases that escape from the fermented bread as it cooks. This is why it is very difficult to make authentic French bread in a household oven. Philippe lines the ficelles and baguettes on a long manual conveyor belt in rows of ten. He takes a razor blade and slices long diagonal lines across the top of each piece of bread. He lets Aprille and I try the cutting but we are way too slow. The slices are important to help the gases escape from the bread while still keeping the traditional shape. He slides the bread into each of the four long chambers and the baking commences. It takes about twenty minutes for each batch and Philippe continues to keep time in his head

After about twenty minutes, we head back to the fournil to take out the first batch of bread. The sound is incredible. It is cracking and popping from the escaping gas and the room fills with the aroma of warm, fresh bread. Philippe laughs and calls the crackling the song of the baguette. Philippe pours us a glass of wine to celebrate the success. Aprille declines her wine for juice but I have my reputation.

Over wine, Phillip explains that this is a very slow time of the year and so he is only making 230 baguettes, 100 pains and a couple dozen ficelles. He is also baking some pain de compagne and some pain rond. Since the population of Lavardin is only about 250 people, this seems like a lot of bread. He explains that he also sells to some surrounding farms. The baking takes about three hours. I keep trying to take pictures but the light is low and Philippe is in constant motion even when we are waiting for the bread to bake. We are constantly running between the fournil and the patisserie to take advantage every minute of time. Most of my pictures are blurred from the motion.

I ask when does he make the dough for tomorrow's bread. Philippe tells me that he normally begins immediately after baking the bread but he is out of flour. He is waiting for the arrival of the meunier(miller). His flour is delivered about once a month and stored in a large container in the attic. The flour pours down a round flexible duct into a huge vat for mixing. When the miller arrives and fills his container from a large tanker truck, Phillip pours flour into a mixing bowl larger than washing machine and lets the flour rest for fifteen minutes to make sure it is at room temperature. Although bread has only a few basic ingredients it is very important that the temperature is exactly right when mixing. Philippe says that there is only a margin of four degrees for good bread. If the water or flour are too hot or cold, the bread loses its flavor. Philippe adds water, yeast and salt to the flour and a giant mixer kneads the dough. Then he weighs out equal amounts of the dough and places each batch in a machine that divides it precisely. He explains that there is a significant fine if each baguette and pain is not exactly the weight required by law. The specter of the Revolution still hangs over the French bakeries.

The carefully cut batches are rolled into ficelles, baguettes and pains. They are placed on the canvass lined shelves for storage in the fermentation locker. The shelves are rolled in to the fermentation locker and stored for tomorrow's bread. The whole process is complete by about 10:30 a.m. but the day is not yet over. We go from the fournil to the patisserie to begin making tomorrow's croissants, pain aux chocolats, eclairs, gateaux, tartes, religieuses etc. After watching Philippe mix thirty-two eggs and a forklift load of butter with sugar and chocolate, I begin to understand why those creamy fillings taste so good. I think the pastry is a story by itself. My arteries are clogging up by just watching the fabrication of these delights. Thank God for the French Paradox. We share a bottle of wine to cleanse our arteries and feed our spirits. All is finished by one o'clock in the afternoon. Philippe is all grins. He says that he loves his work even though it is a hard life. He is only thirty-eight years old but he has already been baking bread for twenty-four years. Although the young people of France are gradually acquiring the restless discontent of Americans, most of the French still seem sincerely content with their lives. After breaking off a hunk of my baguette, I am quite content with mine.

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December, 13 2000 - Back to France
November 29, 2000 -Beignets Aux Fleurs d'Acacia
November 15, Thanksgiving
November 8, Pouse D'Epine
November 1, 2000 Col de Vence: A day on the Moon
October 25, 2000 Cult of the Black Virgin
October 18, 2000 Harvesting Grapes by Hand
October 4, 2000 Provence: All Good Things

 

 

       

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