French Baker

21 July 2008


 
French Baker
 
The French baker arrived 3 days ago, and at this moment is sucking on a cigarette just past our property boundary. My family are excellent hosts but poor tolerators of cigarette smoke. We wave good bye to Simon as he seeks a spot downwind to attend to his addiction. Simon returns then asks for "alluminium" (translation = "foil") to laminate his smoldering butt, making several turns and folds before placing the silver package neatly in our kitchen bin.
 
At 24, Simon is a recent Master Baker graduate of the Institut National de la Boulangerie Pâtisserie (I.N.B.P). Most bakers in France leave school early and enter the baking trade as teenagers. But Simon finished High School before starting to train as a baker. Like another French baker I met, he believes the extra years of schooling provided a broader outlook and extends his baking practice.
 
I come from a holistic baking background and have in the past been apprehensive about about French yeast breads. However after only a few short days with Simon (including two practical baking sessions) I am happy to say that my prejudices have dissolved. It is clear that the most respected bakers in France are those who can bake autonomously with clean flour and a passion for their craft as well as the people they are baking for.
 
Yes, most French bread is prepared with the aid of ascorbic acid and commercial bakers yeast. However "traditional" flour (with no ascorbic acid) is available and is used by the most highly awarded French bakers. Additionally, long fermentation methods are used for even 'fast' breads like baguettes and ciabatta. Just about every bread contains either a piece of old yeast dough or a sourdough levain as an essential part of the recipe.
 
When a baker visits, I usually drag them straight to the closest bakery for a bit of fun (we leave when it starts to feel like work). Crystal Waters at Maleny were happy to have us, as was Metro College of Technology in Brisbane. Simon showed us how to mix by hand - French method - plus shape some baguettes, epi and 'volcano rolls'.
 
Simon explained that hand mixing on a bench can take 600 turns and throws of the dough. We gathered around and stood with smiles for 20 minutes while the dough was flung into the air, thrown on the bench, folded, turned and flung into the air again. About half way through Simon lost count and had to start again. No, not true! (I have just stolen someone else's joke). The process incorporates air and develops gluten but does not excessively oxidise the dough...unless you mix the dough too far, obviously.
 
According to Simon the 'rich creamy colour' is very much in favour in France and whiteness caused by oxidisation is not. I have seen this creamy colour in David Menard's traditional baguettes at Noisette, in Port Melbourne. The bread actually tastes and smells different, as if it has been enriched with butter or egg. Yes, you can use slow speed on a spiral mixer to achieve similar results: take control, use your own judgment and experiment with slow speed, cooler temperatures and quality flour. It is your bakery and you can distinguish your breads from the next baker by making the process yours.
 
Simon is now in Melbourne. He is preparing to work at Baker D. Chirico, in St Kilda. I think he will fit in just fine and have a great time working with Daniel. Farewell Simon. Take care.
 
Graham Prichard 2008

6 comments

I was watching The French Baker! I could take another 600 throws. Wow. Must try that some day..when I particularly feel the need for release or nice creamy dough/bread.

Thanks, Graham, and, Simon! TP
TP when you visit one day I will let you sit through the entire 20 minutes or so of uncut video. There's only a few of us who could stay fixated on a dough for that long and I think you are one. I tried this method of kneading yesterday and it sort of worked but the dough tended to stiffen up too quickly, making the fold on the bench harder, despite being a wet 75% hydration. More practice kneaded.
Graham,

Could you expand on the 3rd paragraph on how Simon dissolved your prejudices about French yeast breads?
French bread is 'showy' and this gave me the impression that the French were more interested in looks rather than integrity of process. This is a prejudice because integrity of process is actually very important for French bakers.

French bread is often designed to be eaten within a short time of it being baked. Immediate pleasure (crust, crumb, taste) for bread eaters is very important. Refined flour and commercial yeast ferments are (generally) more of a priority than Organics, wholegrains and 100% sourdough process. The later features are an important part of process for many holistic bakers in Australia (my own background). However French bakers have their own measure of what is important for integrity of process.

After spending time with Simon I now see that the best French bakers are indeed motivated by integrity of process...but their desired outcome at the end of process is not the same as a holistic baker in Australia. For example, when the French use commercial yeast, they use fresh yeast and they do so with the utmost respect for the (long) process of fermentation. These pre-ferment processes are respected and to vary the process is considered inferior baking practice.

Plus, at the end of the day, it is possible that a French person who eats half a white baguette with some blue-vein cheese and a glass of red wine is just as healthy as an Australian who eats wholegrain sourdough with tahini spread and a glass of apple juice. Being active and in good company when you eat and enjoying your eating experience is what counts. (just no synthetic trans-fats and other synthetic additives...please!)

BTW...I have red wine or beer with my sourdough...not apple juice.
Thanks for the response.  I'm glad you spent some time with Simon, so that he could explained the various processes to you.  Since Simon came to Australia, I hope one of these days you will make it to France and/or Germany to see how it is done there.  I think you will be like a kid in a toystore over there.
Thanks doughman. If I get to France I am expecting to find a movement of holistic French bakers, just like in OZ and in other parts of the world. I'll place a link here soon to a French bakery that Éric Duhamel is a part of, and I believe that organics and sourdough levain are a big part of.