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Baking Bread in France: Boulangerie Les Copains Part II

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BREAD
Ross Woodhall

Once we had settled in to Boulangerie Les Copains, it came time to bake bread. The philosophy of the Boulangerie rests on timeworn traditions in French bread-making: the day starts at four o'clock in the morning, when the oven is fed dry logs. Once the bottom chamber is full and roaring with flames, a metal contraption called un gueulard (a "screamer") directs the fire from the bottom chamber into the mouth of the oven, heating it to around 250 degres C (~500 degrees F). Every drop of morning dew is chased out of the baking room and, once the temperature drops to a reasonable 200 degrees C (~400 degrees F), the bread is ready for the heat.

Most commercial bread nowadays, even in Paris, is made with machines and industrial ingredients-- standardized flours with high gluten content for elasticity and regularity, and yeast for quick rising and increased yields. One other method, a much older one, uses levain to help the dough rise. A natural leavening agent, levain is the by-product of water and flour. When left overnight, the mixture attracts bacteria which slowly eat away at the sugars in the dough, triggering fermentation and releasing carbon dioxide in the process. The end product is a marshmallow-like puff that smells faintly of alcohol and vinegar.

One handful of levain is all that is needed for a "small" 20-30 kilo batch of dough. The rest is flour, water, and several pinches of grey sea salt (Brittany, a region famous for its salt flats, is nearby). Flour here can be white, complet (whole wheat, with bran), demi-complet (half-wheat), cinq céréales (five-grain), épautres (spelt), or petites épautres (Einkorn wheat, an ancient grain cultivated in 7500 BC in Mesopotamia and Anatolia).

Each enfournement, loading of the oven, handles between 60 and 80 kilos of dough which are kneaded and shaped into baguettes and various pains de campagne (country breads). Shaping bread by hand is a learned skill: move too quickly and the dough will break, but move too slowly and it will stick. The ideal shape has considerable surface tension and a clé, or key, which acts as a seam to keep it all together. The bakers at the Boulangerie -- Seth, Erik, Thierry, and Manu -- are experts in not only the science of bread making, but the subtlety of its art as well.

Défournement, or de-ovening, comes next. It is intimidating. Peering into the mouth of a wood-burning oven is not an instinctual behavior. Neither is using a long wooden stick (une pelle) to fish out heavy, piping hot loaves of bread. Things crackle and hiss. Beads of sweat form on your brow. The flames advance, turning each loaf from cuit (cooked) to brûlé (burned) in a matter of moments. And if (when) a baguette rolls off la pelle and onto the ground below you, you will curse.

Five hours and two défournements later, the sun is shining. Golden loaves of bread look beautiful in the morning light.

And as the first shift comes to an end, each bread box is packed and prepared for delivery. Here, in the village of Saint-Auban-sur-Algot, bread making is a community affair. And so as warm loaves depart, other local wares enter: goat cheese, apple cider, baskets of cherries and bouquets of radishes. Lunch begins at half past one and although we are tired, it's easy to say that we're quite satisfied. C'est une belle journée.

Thank you to the boulangers Erik, Seth, Manu, and Thierry for their extensive knowledge in bread baking that helped inform this post.

Practicalities:
Boulangerie Les Copains (and their book, Boulange with Antoine Cazin)

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For more of Sarah's writing, visit her website.