Benoit Fradette is a master baker, arguably the best in this Provençal city.
He starts his workday shortly after 2 a.m. so that he can make bread with a minimal amount of yeast (meaning it rises more slowly) and the maximum amount of taste. At his bakery, Le Farinoman Fou, he uses only flour made from organic wheat. He never refrigerates his bread in the process of making it. And he takes great pride in every detail of its quality.
That quality is as evident in the taste as it is from the lines that snake out his bakery door into the street near Place des Precheurs each market day. That's why I couldn't resist when Fradette invited me by his bakery after work for what he called a "bread taste." My responsibility was to bring five loaves of bread from different bakeries. I hoped to eat some of his bread, too, as part of the bargain.
But first a bit of context. Bread is part of a bubbling crise, or crisis, in French cuisine these days, as more of the French seem willing to sacrifice quality for speed and lower costs. Fradette, in turn, is part of a relatively select but growing number of French bakers who are pushing back, baking their breads in full view of customers and stripping away the pastries and other extras that distract from the art of making the best bread. Call it bakery basics.
Though a purist, Fradette isn't actually French. Nor did he bake his first loaf of bread until he was 20. Canadian born, he moved to France from Montreal a decade ago. He opened his Aix bakery in 2009. (Its name, by the way, is pretty whimsical: farine is flour and fou is crazy, so the hybrid French-English name Farinoman Fou might be translated "the crazy flour man.")
With his early hours you'd think Fradette would look both bleary-eyed and crazy. But he's extraordinarily fit and youthful looking; his permanent home is at the base of Mount Ventoux, about 75 miles away from Aix. For fun, he likes to bike up and down this 6,300-foot mountain, the highest in Provence.
If biking is one or his passions, bread is another; he writes a blog and speaks passionately about bread, too.
"The quality of French bread is awful," he said when I first met him while reporting an article on bread for the Christian Science Monitor.
"It's a jungle out there," he added after our bread taste.
But for all his strong words, he's usually smiling, as he was when I showed up with my assigned five loaves.
"I sold my last loaf at 4 o'clock today," he said. "You've tasted my bread anyway." I had, but...
And then our bread taste began, if you could call it that. Because Fradette put nothing in his mouth. As I stood at his shoulder he lined up my five breads on a wooden counter top. I'd bought different types from different places and wrapped them all in his bags in an effort to throw him off course. Not a chance.
First he looked at each bread. Then he touched each bread. Then he smelled each bread. He told me what each one would look like inside and why -- how dense, how many air pockets -- and what I could expect from their taste. Then he cut them open, horizontally, to make his point.
"C'est impossible, c'est impossible, c'est impossible," he muttered after looking, from left to right at the first three loaves. But if they were "impossible," the fourth loaf was "le pire" -- the worst -- so loaded with yeast to make it rise fast that it would have no taste, he said.
Only the fifth bread, a $2 petit compagnes from an independent bakery called Jean-Pierre Vignes sort of passed muster. It had a decent crust and was reasonably well-baked, he said.
For the record, the worst was a baguette tradition, a name French law reserves for baguettes baked without additives. It came from an independent Aix baker. Of the other three, one was from the Aix market and two were from French bread chains -- Paul, with 449 outlets in 27 countries, and Joseph, a Marseille-based bread company. But while both of the chains discount their baguettes to draw customers, I had bought their more expensive breads for Fradette's taste -- a $2.80 six-grain bread in the case of Paul, which pushes three baguettes for the same amount. (That's only about 85 cents more than Fradette charges for one.)
In the end, Fradette had proven his point: France's once-famous bakery bread often doesn't measure up to expectation or reputation anymore. But I, alas, went home with just the one loaf he said was pretty good -- and, given his empty shelves, none of his.
Fradette sells about three dozen types of bread in his bakery, baking some of these only once every couple of weeks. We particularly like his baguette; his l'Olympique, sort of an oversized version of the baguette; his raisin and nut bread, and his apricot bread. Most of his breads are sold by the kilogram, and it's possible to ask for a half or quarter of a loaf. The store is at 5 Rue Mignet and is open Tuesday through Saturday.