I’ve been baking bread for our family since 2007. Once a week my routine involves making enough bread rolls for the week which then get frozen and defrosted as necessary. I like it. It’s quite therapeutic kneading dough and it’s been good for rebuilding strength and dexterity firstly after breaking my wrist and then after falling off my bike last year. Generally the bread I make has flour, yeast, salt and water in it. I’ve also dabbled with hot cross buns, olive bread sticks and we have pizza most Fridays with home made bread base. I’ve dabbled a bit with sourdough and recently found a mouldy old rye starter at the back of the fridge…..
Visiting my French friend Marianne and her family after our cycling trip I was delighted to find that her brother-in-law, Olivier, was an artisan baker and that the day after we arrived was baking day. He was quite happy for me to watch (and even help) but suggested I came to the bakery at 7am because he needed to concentrate for the first hour! Olivier and his family live in a converted barn next door to Marianne’s mother and father’s converted barn. Marianne’s father bought their barn and some land when he came back from the Ivory Coast in the 80’s. That land is now in use growing organic wheat for Olivier and fruits and vegetables and a few animals.
I stumbled into the bakery which had been made at one end of the barn at 7am and found the brioche well on its way and most of the rest of the dough being mixed and kneaded by a big machine. A spreadsheet showed the quantities of flour and other ingredients needed based on the number of loaves of different types required. Most of these were to meet regular orders and the rest would go on the village market. All the while the oven was being stoked with wood from their land (of course).
The brioche was made with yeast, the rest with a ‘levain’ – what we would call a starter. This is basically using the natural yeasts that are present on wheat grains and have been allowed to ferment to the extent that the bubbles produced are enough to raise a loaf of bread. The final mix of dough was using a wheat called petite epeuatre, an ancient variety which has less gluten in it and is genetically different such that some people with gluten intolerance could eat it without any problem. Of great interest to Sam.
The whole process was very carefully managed with exact quantities of flour and salt, etc being weighed to the gram and temperatures accurately measured. Olivier explained that when the 2016 wheat was available he would introduce it gradually to see how it behaved and adjust the quantities as needed. Each harvest has different properties because of the unique set of weather conditions it grew in affecting the amount of gluten and so on. Written on the master sheet of ingredients was 6h28 – the time the first mix of dough had started its first rise. It needed 4 hours which meant we had time for breakfast after we’d rolled out and plaited the brioche. Mine was noticeably more wrinkly than those done by Sophie, Olivier’s wife who’d come to help.
All the time we chatted and discussed the lifestyle he and his family had. They “work like slaves but eat like kings”. Olivier agreed they were very lucky and suggested that their business might not work so well were they not in a wealthy village with a decent sized town nearby. Artisan status is not necessarily anything to do with skill (although an unskilled baker would soon be out of business), more to do with the size and tax status of the trade being carried out. They were part of a group of organic manufacturers and could sell each other’s products, all within 50km radius.
Time for the next stage. By now the oven was hot enough for the brioche which gets baked at a slightly lower temperature than the bread so in it went.
We got to work shaping the rest of the dough. Big boxes of dough were emptied onto a floured worktop and stretched. Next a piece was cut off – 500g or 1000g – and shaped by rolling it whilst stretching out the surface or folding the edges under to make a round shape. Some were in tins, some were in the folds of some heavy cloth, some were baguette shaped, some were sprinkled with sesame seeds. By now Sam was helping and Olivier joked that he would be losing money because we were so slow. Once all the loaves were shaped the first ones were ready to go in the oven, the brioche was out and the temperature was up. The final flourish was to make a cut in the surface of the dough in a different pattern according to what shape or type of loaf it was.
So here’s the thing – Olivier bakes on a Thursday and goes to the village market then again on a Saturday. They have a farm shop, open only on a Thursday afternoon, where they sell jams and preserves that Sophie makes as well as produce from other local suppliers. That’s it. The rest of the time they are farming. I guess their overheads are low, their food bills are non-existent but I’m amazed that it works. Can you imagine that in the UK? Clearly the French value the skills of artisan food producers and the fact that the food is organic and completely traceable and they’re prepared to pay for it. Obviously it isn’t possible for everyone to live like this but for those that choose it the lifestyle appears amazing. Then again it was hot and sunny and we were on holiday!
I made some brioche as soon as I got home and it went down well. I’m working on the sourdough and getting a feel for it. I think it will be a while before I buy 8 hectares of land to grow my own wheat…..
On a related note, my cousin (bike designer of the Reiver) has started up a trouser business with a friend in Hebden Bridge. The town was known as trouser town and he found a barely functioning factory within 100m of his house and they’ve started making quality moleskin and cord trousers. The first batch of 176 sold out in 5 hours! Made in Britain using locally sourced fabrics. When I visited recently I helped pack some trousers for posting out to customers – accompanied by Bangra music chosen by the DJ. Sure there’s a process but basically the trousers go in a bag then in a sack which Brant carries through Hebden Bridge like Santa Claus to the post office. Other pairs are collected from a local bar (where customers can try on samples beforehand). Surely this is how it should be. It’s certainly made me think again about how I consume and what it’s worth paying for. Maybe this is what a post-Brexit UK will end up like – full of artisan bakers and trousermakers.