I discovered a little secret the other day about the pâtisseries you see in a typical French boulangerie. All those lovely tarts, the fruity slices and the sensual rum babas, perfectly centred in little paper wrappers – do you know who buys them? Certainly, there are lots of them sold in beautiful cardboard boxes to elegant ladies dressed to within an inch of their lives, and of course, others go out the door in the clutches of small children, but to my surprise I learnt that very few go home with bored housewives. Of course, no French woman touches anything outside of a meal-time; we know that. So where do these pâtisseries go?
Many are apparently bought by men. The men who, with that famous “Chérie, n’oublies pas le pain!” ringing in their ears, drop in on their way home from work to fetch a baguette for dinner, and yes, why not, a little rum baba s’il vous plait, and they’ll exchange a cheeky knowing look with the girl behind the counter and then, on the way home, secretly devour the snack. Before you laugh, I learnt this straight from the mouth of a young stunningly pretty French baker who makes a vast amount of them each day. Fact or fiction? I’m not sure, but this is certainly her belief!
I think I’d better explain! David, the master technician from our village bakery, has departed. We knew all summer he was going, off to an interior region of France to pursue a career involving the march of the baguette-machine across the nation. The boulangerie now has a new baker and normality has returned, but in the interim we were forced to buy our bread elsewhere and by chance we stopped at a little bakery one morning on the way home from the Île d’Oléron. Here, a girl I have come to know quite well makes dozens of exquisite mouth-watering pâtisseries every day while her husband slaves over the roaring oven, the two of them in a race to make a mark on their new profession.
Franck and Amélie are a dynamic couple who once had a profitable media agency in Bordeaux, but after the big stock market crash of 2008 they lost a host of clients and had to close the business shortly after. To make ends meet while they re-planned their lives, Franck worked nights for two years in the LU biscuit factory and it was during this period that he developed a taste for baking. Deciding it was a metier worth pursuing he went off for a year’s course in the fine art of transforming flour into bread while Amélie downed her graphic design tools and went to do a similar undertaking in the arcane arts of pâtisserie, building upon her life-long love of cooking. The two of them then went property-hunting, certificates in hand, and finally found the little run-down bakery they now call home.
They spent twelve months refurbishing the premises in which time they rebuilt the oven, replaced most of the machinery and tidied up as best as they could before opening for business just over a year ago, bringing back to vibrant life a bakery that has stood on the same spot for over a hundred years. The bread they produce is excellent, reinforced by Franck’s insistence on using a one and a half hour resting period for his dough each time the mixer stirs into life with another 25 kilo sack of flour. Very few bakers in France now use this traditional resting period, and the growing amount of customers through the front door would seem to indicate the two of them are making their mark in the area.
Each and every loaf is decorated in some style, a nod to the artist deep within Franck’s soul, for he once did fine art at the Université de Bordeaux. His application to his bread is matched by Amélie’s dedication to her pâtisseries. Being an artist as well, her imagination produces small works of art that are keenly sought after by her band of homeward-bound commuters.
Franck’s days begin at 4.00am when he opens the oven-door for the first batch of baguettes, kneaded and left to rise overnight in his proving cupboards; they’re destined to be set out for sale at 6.00am, when the first customers arrive specifically for some bread still warm from the oven. It’s noticeable when one enters the shop that this is a special boulangerie. There are indeed baguettes in racks as normal, but there’s more variety, and it’s those other loaves that create the most interest. Round, square, oblong and hob-shaped, they sit on the top shelf or on the counter, advertising by colour and texture that they might be made of rye flour, or spelt, or maize, or wholewheat, or a mix of any of the many flours that Franck has delivered each Wednesday, a process that involves a large lorry, a very narrow lane, much gesticulating of fists from other drivers and clothes covered in a fine white haze. He shrugs his shoulders at the thought of a problem, “If they want proper bread, then they have to suffer for five minutes and at least it is not frozen dough,” he said, and with that comment came the revelation that so many of the bakeries he knows have now fallen to, in his opinion, the lowest of a baking low-point; frozen dough.
At this, I ask innocently how many ingredients he has in a standard baguette – une tradition (a loaf in development for over 400 years) – the reply came back, just three – salt, yeast and flour (and of course water, but he doesn’t consider this an ingredient as such). The flours vary, of course, and sometimes there is a dried fruit or two added, but the basic ingredient in everything is flour, and the magic is the steam oven for which the French bakery is so famous. Without it, the loaves would not be crisp outside and doughy within. Of course, even the flour itself has variations. Some is milled traditionally on a stone, and small particles of the grain remain in the grind, producing loaves that have a little shadow of colour, while the standard white flour he also uses is nowadays ground under huge steel rollers and nothing remains of any interest to a lover of whole grains.
The variety of breads is broad for such a small operation, particularly when Franck also makes half-sized loaves for various applications – the demi baguette being just one. Pain, in its broadest term, is a fat loaf made with the modern white flour, which Franks buys in medium or high quality varieties. The same flour is used for the baguette and the demi. For the baguette de tradition, Franck pulls out the stone-milled flour, which also goes into any bread with campagne in its name. The baguette de tradition has its nose out in front as the best-selling bread in the shop, which is no surprise. But what did amaze me was that the pain complet (wholewheat bread) and pain d’épautre (spelt bread) are still simply regarded by many French people as a medical aid to those with digestive problems.
As I said my goodbyes and turned to leave I learnt a final fact about these two relative newcomers; they have a competitor up the road in a larger, newer premises. I asked Franck if they are still riding a wave of optimism, and he grins. “Mais oui, within three years I will buy the other bakery,” he says confidently. “Then I can make more bread for more people, and as for Amélie,” and he turned to look at his wife in the shop, busy serving a client, “she can have a bigger pâtisserie counter!”