The Life & Love of a French Boulanger

The Life of a French Boulanger

Fresh bread is an essential ingredient to everyday life, and delivering consistent delicious baguettes is an art most people undervalue.  Here’s the latest instalment and early morning adventures from Beth, discovering the pleasures of traditional bread baking in southwest France. Until you can make it there and taste it in person, hopefully soon.

"D’you know, I’ve always wondered how French bakers produce such fantastic bread. I decided to try and find out. I plucked up courage to ask Malik, an award-winning local baker if he would allow me a peek behind the scenes.

He immediately agreed, although his response regarding timing was a tad extreme. I double-checked to make sure I’d understood his southwest French.

“Yes, that’s right, I start work at 4 am.”

“Ahem. Lovely, thank you,” I gushed, desperately wondering whether I had a functioning alarm clock, “I’ll … I’ll be there.”

“Don’t worry,” he grinned, “come at 5 am, that’ll be fine.”

I pulled up outside the bakery and opened the door to a deliciously enveloping ambience. That aromatic blend of coffee and fresh bread is a hard one to beat. I checked the café and retail areas for signs of life. The display cabinets for pâtisseries and bread shelves behind had evidently just been filled, but it was too early for clients.

Malik appeared from the back, waving ridiculously energetically.

“Here, coffee. And eat this croissant; it’s just out of the oven. Then we start work.”

It was precisely the perker I needed. Brushing an embarrassment of golden flakes off my jumper, I followed him through to the business end. First, I met Mikel, his fellow baker. He was hard at work, preparing loaves to go into the oven.

Malik pointed to a machine in the corner. 

“This is the mixer we use for making traditional French bread and Parisian baguettes. We will demonstrate the process of making the dough. After, you will see a different batch baked.”

As experienced bread makers (unlike me) will know, the process follows three different stages. Malik explained them in this way:

1. Frasage or fraisage is the slow mixing of the main ingredients.
2. Pétrir/pétrissage is the kneading/folding process. The temperature and humidity levels are all taken into account.
3. Lissage is the smoothing process. “It must be like the face of a baby,” said Malik.

I watched, mesmerised as the machine’s paddles slowly rotated the flour and water. When the mixture was resting, I asked if Malik had any tricks to ensure that his bread was top quality.

“Of course. The water, for example, must be cold, 4/5 degrees maximum. I have a machine that provides me water at exactly the right temperature. And just before the end of the preparation, I add 1½ litres of extra water, which makes the bread softer in the middle.”

“Interesting. Anything else?”

“Oui. The dough must be resting at 22/23 degrees centigrade before cooking. It’s important. Oh, and some bakers favour fine salt. Not me. I use gros sel de Guérande. This salt is unrefined and healthy. It makes my bread taste better.”

Malik showed me the oven, which had a series of deep shelves with intriguing steam-creating water jets. Spotting me looking clueless, he said they give the dough a kick start and help the crusts develop a sheen.

My pain traditionnel,” he said, “is cooked at a temperature of 260 degrees. In it goes, and after 18 minutes, voila! It’s ready.”

The timer dinged to signal that another batch was finished. I was dying to see it.

“Now, you will learn another trick. Humidity is critical. We open the oven shutters to allow the steam to escape. Sometimes we leave the loaves for five minutes, sometimes less. It depends on the weather. Our customers like crusty bread, so we must get this right.”

Malik stuck his head unreasonably close to the boiling hot oven. Nodding with satisfaction, he expertly slid the extra-long wooden shovel under a batch of loaves and drew them out.

“Come here. Listen! The bread is croquant (crisp). It is singing.”

 It was, the bread was making crackly sounds. I couldn’t believe it.

Two hundred crusty traditional French beauties are made here every morning. Most are sold before lunchtime, and some go later via Malik’s self-service vending machine! I had never seen one of these before, so watched him refuel his metal monster.

The machine’s capacity is 72 loaves. Malik opened to restock and found a couple wedged down one side. Tutting, he muttered to himself. Convinced I misheard, I asked him to repeat what he'd said.

“The engineer has not fixed my machine properly. I will pull his ears the next time I see him!”

By now, Malik was dashing between his ovens and the front to serve customers. It gave me a second to digest everything I had learned so far.

I had a basic grasp of how two uber-popular French loaves were made. But there were others which had been brewing during my lesson. Each was baked in an individual foil container. I asked Mikel what they were.

“We bake about 20 different varieties of bread here. This morning you can see the maise, wholemeal and malt loaves. Malt is the dark bread; it has a stronger flavour.”

They all looked too good to be true. As fast as Malik stocked his shelves, the bread was sold. Worried I was getting in the way, I decided it was my cue to leave. As I thanked them for their time, Malik wagged his finger.  “But you must come back. I want to show you how we make croissants.”

Thank you Beth for this new piece (and photo), we look forward to the croissants and pains au chocolat stories next month. Until then you can see Beth's lovely books and stories on her FatDogs website.