Tuesday, 6 October 2015

French bread

As I approach my 60th birthday, and the prospect of a little foreign holiday to celebrate it, I hope you will forgive a little wander down memory lane. Bread is never far away down there, you can be sure!

This is a photo of me as a little tike, the colour almost completely faded after years in the sun. It must date from the early to middle 60s judging by the milk teeth -

I remember that jumper very well. I wore a little metal stud badge pushed through the wool for ages. The badge was in the shape of the number "67" and my auntie Ada brought it back from her travels to Canada, where she visited Expo 67 in Montreal. But the picture was taken earlier than 1967 because there is no badge showing.

That photo has been part of the furniture in my room for ever, so you can imagine that when my daughter saw this next photo on a birthday card, she snapped it up for me on the spot.

This delightful little chap, as well as being a dead ringer for my younger self, is clearly having a great time getting the bread in. And it looks like it really ought to be his birthday too. That baguette has been immortalised at the very peak of its brief existence, bringing a moment of simple, timeless joy to the heart of the little lad. You just know it is crisp, warm, salty and delicious.

Whenever I see really nice bread like that, it starts me off looking for bread pictures, and thinking about the places I've found champion bread in the past. The French connection of that picture set me looking for a picture of the yellow corn and linseed baguettes I had on a cycling holiday one year at Donnery, next to the Canal d'Orléans. I found the baker's shop on Google Maps' Street View, with the canal bridge in the background -

But there doesn't seem to be anything showing the bread unfortunately. This internet thingummy is so disappointing! I did find out that there have been two owners in recent times, Stephane Touche and Christophe Chalon so it would probably be different if I went back now. This is always the big decision - to remember it as it was, or to search it out again and risk being disappointed.

The baguettes here were really, really yellow, like Bouran's biscuits. And this time I'm sure it wasn't turmeric or any spice at all - just the flour, which must have had an injection of the corn that grows everywhere round Orléans.

And by the way, the shop is part of a chain called "Banette" and lists banette as one of the types of bread that it sells. Can you imagine having a bread chain in the UK that people remembered as a quality high spot on their holidays? "Ah, mon dieu - Greggs - c'est parfait". It just isn't going to happen, is it? Even the bigger French chains like "Paul", which I honestly thought was a family bakery when I hit my first one in Aix, can be really good in France. Paul unfortunately suffers by being anglicised, and I wouldn't recommend the one at St Pancras International. 

But what is a banette? I first had one at Chaumont-sur-Loire, but that is another story. Suffice it to say that it is a shorter, broader and more substantial beast than a baguette. Well worth getting to know, I think. And persistence is repaid, because when I looked this up, I found a reference to a "banette o'mais" which is that mixture of wheat and corn that I was talking about at Donnery.

While I was searching for the Donnery bakery, I found this picture of the Maureille bakery at St Jean de Braye, which is on the Orléans side of Donnery. I think you'll agree that there is clearly someone baking there who knows what they are doing.

That's proper sourdough, and more fougasse than you can shake a stick at. And according to one of the customer reviews, they also offer -

"gâteaux pour lesquels les clients forment 1 longue file d'attente sur le trottoir le dimanche matin"

Need I say more?

It's impossible to get started anywhere round the subject of bread without ending up dreaming about sourdough. Nell told me that Aidan Monks warns against using anti-bacterial hand wash round sourdough, and strongly encourages organic flour. I have to admit I haven't stuck rigidly to organic flour. Once the culture is established, I figured it should be able to fend for itself. But really, why wouldn't you give it the benefit of flour that is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I will have to pull my socks up on this, I can see. But what about French sourdough?


At Bread of Heron we like to keep each other informed about what's going on breadwise, and last week one baker brought in this article about sourdough. The article is fine so far as it goes, but it was a bit naughty to use a picture of the signature Poilane loaf without mentioning the great man in the article.

Poilane is a legend in the sourdough world, and I dragged my long suffering wife to the Paris shop on holiday one year. The shop basically sells sourdough and biscuits. The biscuits are called "punitions" because it is a punishment to have to stop after one. They have a cunning plan to get you to buy more: they keep you in the shop by leaving a basket of punitions on the counter, and then you have to keep buying bread because you want another biscuit. Clever. Very.

Andrew Whitley quotes Poilane in his book "Bread Matters" -

In other words, baking bread together with other people is good for you. That's why we enjoy the Bread of Heron community!

I get occasional mail shots from Poilane, such as this one. If you see this in French, and you use the Chrome browser, you can get Google to translate it for you if you go to Menu | Settings | Advanced | Languages and check "Offer to translate pages that aren't in a language you read". You need never see another foreign language page ever again.

And I can say with confidence that Poilane has managed to stay true to its roots despite setting up in London. The Poilane shop I went to near Sloane Square is very much like the Paris original, and the bread is really good. Although it is quite a lot more expensive in the UK than in France (9 euros 10 cents for a 2 kg loaf in France, and £4.95 a kg if I remember right in the UK), I have only a moment's hesitation in saying it's worth every penny of the asking price.