There is something magical about bakers and bread-making. How is it possible that a bland mixture of flour and water can be turned overnight into the delicious, still-warm loaf I get each day? After years of dreaming, I finally asked our own baker if I could watch him as he worked in the early hours. As befits someone involved in magic, following some negotiation with his wife, Alain suddenly appeared at the the door at the back of the shop in flour-covered whites. To my delight, he agreed. If I knocked on the bake-house door at 5.00am on Monday – in four days’ time – he would welcome me in and show me what he did. I could hardly wait.
The shop itself is small; indeed there is so little space for customers that when I arrive to buy our crusty, pointy-ended ‘baguette de tradition’, I often join the end of a queue that has wound its way into the street. Despite all the hustle and bustle at the counter, there is time to greet local customers by their first names. For me it is a « Bonjour Joe » and, in response, the traditional « Bonjour Vero » (Alain’s wife) or « Chantal » or « Fanny » or « José », depending. While there is something special about the shop, it is nothing compared to the feeling I had that next Monday morning.
Alain had arrived at his usual 3.00 am and, after changing into his work clothes, had turned on the ovens, prepared the work surfaces and eaten his petit déjeuner. By the time I appeared, baking was already underway, as too was preparation of bread for the next day. While Alain was working the ovens, his assistant Jean-Charles, was mixing, weighing out and then shaping by hand, Tuesday’s fare.
Just in front of Alain were a bank of four ovens each around two metres wide and three metres deep. Dotted through the room were mixing machines, dough cutters, bags of flour and salt, and a tub of yeast. High up on the wall was a tap providing filtered water at a constant 4°C. All was ordered.
Alain talked as he worked, taking uncooked loaves from cool draws and putting them in one of the ovens, and never once losing concentration. Depending on the final form of the loaf, and there were countless varieties, some would be baked in tins, others put directly on the oven floor. After a set time, depending on the loaf’s size, the particular flour mix and the weather, baking would stop. Next, came the magical moment when the cooked loaves were removed using flat ‘paddles’ with three-metre long handles. With a deft squeeze of a sample loaf he checked to see if the bread was done; baking time can vary by up to five minutes depending on the humidity! Once he had decided that all was in order, one-by-one the loaves were put in a wicker basket to be taken to the shop.
While Alain was baking he patiently responded to my questions and told me about himself; with his beguiling smile, his twinkly eyes and his modest manner, being with him and listening was a delight. At fifteen he became apprenticed to his father who had himself been taught by his father and so on. His family have been millers or bakers since the revolution – so since 1789! Alain himself has now been a baker for almost forty years. There in front of me was an proud artisan whose hands and mind had baking experience accumulated over 200 years; it was awe-inspiring.
After almost two hours, and knowing I would soon have to leave, Alain asked which was my favourite loaf and soon an uncooked baguette de tradition was in front of me ready for the oven. He invited me to make cuts in its surface to create its typical crust. To make sure that I would know it was mine, at one end, rather than make a single diagonal cut I made an ‘X’. He put it in the oven and, saying that we now had 20 minutes, led me down a wiggly corridor to a room where cakes and croissants were made. I watched an apprentice preparing croissant dough and a young artisan decorating and dedicating one of the day’s birthday cake orders. Everything there was smaller and more delicate than in the bakery, but the care was the same.
I returned to the bake-room just as Alain removed my loaf with its wonderfully golden, crusty surface. This, together with two croissants, he gave me as a present. As I left, he shook my hand firmly and, with a big smile invited back whenever I wished – a treasured moment. When I arrived at the bakery it was pitch black; now heading for home and breakfast, it was a bright summer’s morning and the baker’s spell was broken.
The illustration shows the loaf and the croissant given me by Alain set out to be eaten. An indecipherable ‘cross’ is on the left.
For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Alain, Annie, Rohan and Vivien
12 thoughts on “A Baker and a Magician”
Lovely blog, Joe – I can smell that baguette! And so typically French; long may such bakeries last – this kind of indigenous culture which you often so eloquently evoke is a thing to treasure. We have something similar in Dorset – https://www.dorsetecho.co.uk/news/9366400.balson-and-sons-of-bridport-is-britains-oldest-family-business/
Dear Merrily, Thank you for your kind comment. It is wonderful being somewhere where such culture is preserved and valued. I suspect that I am the only person – French or otherwise – who has spent the early morning with Alain. I think that, at first, he was suspicious. His final handshake and invitation back was, I suspect, a statement of relief and pleasure that someone might be genuinely interested. Have you ever spent the small hours with your local baker? Love, Joe
Actually yes! At 3am on a black, dirty, wet November night in Dublin – as a Simon Community volunteer reconnoitring derelict houses for rough sleepers to bring them food… A brilliant golden light shone out of the darkness from one single building, and as we looked in the windows we saw white-clad figures gliding about, and everything gilded with the angel-dust of floating flour. It was a vision of heaven deep in the mean streets of 1970s Dublin. Magic where it was needed.
Dear Merrily, Your experience in 1970s Dublin is, indeed, the stuff of magic. A Dorset bakery in the 2019s will be rather different but surely worth a try! Love,Joe
How delightful Joe, I may now have to rush out to the Rye Bakery stall at our monthly Frome Independent market to buy a croissant – maybe nearly as good as Alain’s. Great to have that living picture of your local boulangerie. Makes me nostalgic about Tony’s bread baking at home – that aroma!! Glad you are enjoying your summer. Love to you and Rohan
Dear Dianne, Thank you for your kind comment. Don’t just go to the Rye Bakery stall, see if you can have a peep at the bakery in the early hours. For me it was wonderful. Love, Joe
Wonderful read on a Sunday morning Joe, made me hungry for freshly baked bread.
I note there is only one croissant in the picture, maybe the baker’s temporary assistant ate it warm from the oven on the way home?!
Dear Carolyn, I very rarely eat croissants, but the one in the picture I ate as a treat. Rohan’s croissant was already on her plate when I took the photo. For info, the croissant in the photo is on a ‘bird’ plate, which was given to me around two years ago and I use whenever I can. Love, Joe
Dear Joe, What a lovely life-enhancing story! I love the way you decide you will pursue the story of how somethings is made to its beginning! I think the next step is to visit a flour mill!
Dear Robin, Visiting the bakery was certainly a wonderful two-and-a-bit hours. Around us is a bread making environment . We walk along paths surrounded by fields of wheat although, since harvesting – mainly through the night – it is more of stubble. We have visited two working water mills nearby, each with slightly different mechanisms. Alain and his bakery thus completed the story. Since childhood I have loved watching artisans create. If I could find a traditional cobbler or blacksmith, a day with him or her would be fun.
Another lovely story, Joe, of how your curiosity takes you to magical places to find the key to unlock the box of mysteries and wonders. Like others, I could feel the heat of the ovens, imagine the orderliness of the bake-house, smell the freshly baked bread & my jaws were aching slightly with the worthwhile effort of chewing through the crusty baguette. And I wasn’t even there!
Thanks for another great blog Joe. Long may you be guided by your curiosity!
JJ Fruitbat xx
Dear JJ Fruitbat,
It was, indeed, a very special early morning and from your comments it was as though you were there too. Writing is the oddest of things. Love, Joe