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