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 did seem a bit 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 gulped, desperately wondering whether my alarm clock still worked. “I’ll…I’ll be there.” “Don’t worry,” he grinned, “come at around 5 am, that’ll be fine.”
I can’t tell you what time I arrived. My eyes wouldn’t focus on my watch. But it was horrifically early. I pulled up outside the bakery, which was bursting with homely cheer. Its lights shone like a beacon in the darkness, a haven welcoming insomniacs. And me.
Still bleary-eyed, I opened the door to a deliciously enveloping ambience. That aromatic blend of coffee and freshly baked bread is a hard one to beat. I checked the café and retail areas for signs of life. The display cabinets for pâtisseries and the 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.
Malik pointed to a machine in the corner, which Mikel was filling. “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. This is my interpretation of Malik's explanation.
1. Frasage/frasiage is the slow mixing of the main ingredients. The quantities must be correct using the best flour.
2. Pétrir/pétrissage is the kneading/folding process. The time, temperature and humidity are all taken into account at this stage.
3. Lissage is the smoothing process. “It must be like the face of a baby,” said Malik, brushing a digit across his stubbly cheek.
I watched, mesmerised as the machine’s ginormous paddles slowly rotated the flour and water. When the mixture was resting, I asked Malik if he 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 gives 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?” “Yes. The dough must be resting at 22/23 degrees before cooking. It’s important. Oh, and some bakers favour fine salt. Not me. I use gross sel 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. Apparently, 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 (which I’m sure has a special name) 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 some wedged down one side. Tutting, he muttered to himself. Convinced I had misheard, I asked him to repeat what he’s said.
“The engineer has not fixed my machine properly. I will pull his ears the next time I see him!”
Naturally, this has become one of my new favourite French phrases.
With so many loaves and pastries produced daily, I wondered about surplus food. He said there was very little, but any, such as the damaged loaves stuck in the machine, is given to farmers for their animals. Not a single slice is chucked away.
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.
Whilst some bits may have been lost in translation, 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 twenty 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 our croissants.”
It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse. I left with two loaves of traditional French bread and more croissants. Only one of the loaves made it home, and yes, it was yummy!
My next visit was at the altogether more social hour of 8 am. I arrived to find Mikel looking fresh as a daisy, busily brushing the floor. I asked him when he had started work.
“This morning, it was 3.30.” “Gosh, that’s so early, Mikel. Have you worked as a baker for a long time?” “Yes, since I was fourteen. I always wanted to be a baker. Look, this is why.”
Smiling bashfully, Mikel beckoned me over to the oven, where an infinite number of loaves were waiting for duty. He picked one up with great reverence.
“The aroma of freshly baked bread, there is nothing like it. To make the best bread is a wonderful thing.”
That fresh bready scent, it was cosy, huggable, comforting. It was evocative of all things nice. I understood exactly what he meant.
With that, he began to load the ovens with new batches of loaves. Flawlessly formed and snuggled in muslin cloths, he scooped them onto a special spatula and in they went for baking.
A different area had crates stacked with bread rolls and bags filled with loaves. Malik caught my eye.
“We have baked 1,000 rolls this morning. We supply five schools, so these will be delivered soon.”
Just in case there was any doubt about their versatility, Malik told me they make various cakes and pastries, including Viennoise, Tresses au chocolat, Chaussons aux pommes and Chocolatine (a chubby little pastry with dark chocolate in the middle). It was the latter I believed was shrouded in controversy.
“Just what is the difference between Pain au chocolat and Chocolatine? Isn’t it the same thing?”
Malik roared with laughter.
“This is a long story to this, but you must understand that Pain au chocolat is what the northerners bake. They are amateurs! Here, in the southwest of France, we bake Chocolatine. We are the professionals.”
So French! I was dying to know the history behind this but would have to find out another time. Now it was my croissant-making lesson. Mikel provided the demonstration. And it was a loud one. I had no idea there was so much violence and frenzied activity involved in making a croissant.
Mikel gently placed a lump of chilled butter on his work surface. And that’s where ‘gently’ ended. Grabbing his rolling pin, he repeatedly bashed it until it was flattish. Once satisfied, he reached for the dough he had prepared earlier.
A cloud of flour was fanned onto the work surface. Mikel rolled out a fat rectangular wodge and placed the belted butter on top. He folded the dough three times, completely enveloping the butter. The result was a neat parcel with an overlapped seam.
At this point, he told me he would usually refrigerate the pastry to allow the butter to cool down again, but today he continued. We had reached the le feuilletage (puff pastry) stage, and it was a speedy affair.
Using rapid, rhythmic movements, Mikel rolled and folded his mixture several times, creating many delicate layers. I stared in wonder at the multi-laminated result. Another flourish with the magic dust, and we were into the final stage.
The elasticity of pastry always amazes me. Still working quickly with his rolling pin, Mikel expertly stretched the dough and cut out triangles. Each one was hand-rolled into a perfectly formed croissant. All done, they would be left in a temperature-controlled room to ferment before baking.
“Before the croissants go in the oven, we wash them with an egg,” he said. “It gives them that golden colour. Et voila!”
As Mikel whisked away his newbies, I checked the time. Once again, it had flown. Despite feeling as though I needed to leave, I had a strong sense that Malik and Mikel were happy to continue sharing tricks of their beloved trade for as long as I liked.
The café side of the boulangerie now had new clients, chatting happily as they tucked into a warm pastry. With so many bakeries in our corner of France, it was a familiar scene. But what sets this little boulangerie apart is that all the products are freshly made by hand. There are only eight others who do that.
Malik has won several awards for his pain, and I’m not surprised. He and Mikel work incredibly hard, with a dedication and pride that is obvious for all to see. Baking different loaves, pastries, pizzas and cakes, their daily production rate seems endless.
I couldn’t have been more grateful for the time they gave me. I left with a million thank yous, and on my way out, I tried to buy some pastries. Malik refused with a hearty ‘Non!’ when I proffered my cents.
Later on, I savoured what was undoubtedly the best Pain au raisins I have ever tasted. My two visits had been a true privilege. For me, this really is le best boulangerie in our corner of France.