The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

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Happy Holidays!

December 20, 2014 - 2:08pm
We are in the throes of kitchen renovation, which means we haven't had a sink or a stove since the first week of November. I have learned to make dinner on an induction cooktop in the garage (glum!), to scrub veggies and do the dishes in the bathroom sink (cramped!) and to eat out of paper plates (sorry, trees!). We were hoping everything would be finished by early December but it wasn't. Now I am hoping the kitchen will be mostly functional sometime next week. Meanwhile my hopes of baking something in time for a Christmas blogpost have been dashed. Unless I go for microwave baking like this guy? Just kidding...

Anyway I was sorting through old photos on an external hard drive when I happened upon this picture dating back to September 2008. I was in California (already!) visiting our youngest son and his family. We had brought back plums from the farmers market and I had made a tart. While I remember neither how it turned out (there are no post-baking pictures) nor how it tasted, I love the way it looks pre-oven.

To me it suggests an old mosaic gently swept with an archeologist's brush. Perhaps a tile found in the ruins of an ancient Roman kitchen. Buried in dust and ruble and unattended for centuries.

Suddenly brought to light and glowing from within, it speaks of the ages. It set me thinking of Christmases past, of the faces once gathered around the holiday table. I have always found it a sad comment on the human condition that the persons we love the most as grown-ups so rarely get to meet the ones that meant the most to us as children. There is little comfort in the image of Time as an endless chain of which each of us can only see so many links because it begins and ends in darkness. If a family could exist outside of Time, I like to think it would form a mosaic. The patterns might vary from one family member to the next and each of us might interpret the story differently but we would still all get the whole picture and be the richer -and maybe the wiser- for it.

Time being unescapable, we are left with the chain. Which will never make a mosaic no matter how many times we try to coil it upon itself.

Still some of the light is carried over from one generation to the next. Not so much in the stories we tell about a long departed great-grandparent -although the kids clearly love hearing them- but in the way we tell them or even in the simple fact we tell them at all. When my dad retired, he spent a couple of years writing the history of our family. What started as a simple memoir turned into three volumes plus a fourth one, a year later, in which he collected his and my mom's favorite recipes (always a passionate eater, he had turned into a passionate cook in his old age). He had the pages typed (he wrote in longhand), added scores of old photos and documents, had it all photocopied and collated and gave a copy to each of his children and grandchildren. It makes for very interesting reading and it illuminates a part of the chain that would now be in complete darkness were it not for his efforts.

I love it that he -and my mom who helped out- cared enough to do it.

There are no stories of Christmas in these memoirs. We did celebrate when we were kids. It just wasn't as major an event as today. It wasn't as commercial either. At least not in France. Not then.

Christmas acquired a different aura when I met my mother-in-law who was Danish and for whom December 24 was the most important day of the year. The Danes know a thing or two about light and she knew a thing or two about family. She had had a very interesting life (she was born in St. Petersburg to a Russian mom who died giving birth when she was three, was raised by a stepmom she loved, fled Russia at the time of the Revolution, spoke several languages, was so beautiful than men vied for her hand in marriage, married a foreigner, visited pre-Castro Cuba, moved to Switzerland, then after the war, to Paris, etc. ).  But although she shared a few details, she was the quiet type and not a born storyteller. Hers is a different kind of legacy. One I cherish very much.

The holiday season has become painful since Noah died. But the kids love it. So we make it a happy time for them. Some are still young enough to believe in Santa, others like to hold on to childhood a while longer by pretending they still do. Either way they clearly feel the magic and that's as should be.

As for me, having learned over the years that nothing is more important, I am content with spending time with family, friends, and pets, and grateful for our connected world which makes it possible to video-visit the ones who live far away.

And if the kitchen works out, I'll bake something. Not a plum tart (this is December after all) but maybe one of my mother-in-law's favorite holiday dish, a salmon koulibiac. My way to conjure her presence at the table. Plus our son's own mother-in-law loves koulibiac as well. As do we. Maybe one of our common grandkids will remember that one day and make it part of his or her Christmas lore.

See how the chain gets forged...

Happy holidays to all!































Categories: Blogs, The Bread Feed

Thank you...

December 15, 2014 - 8:38am
I was listening to the podcast Serial last week and in one of the most recent episodes, the mother of the murder victim, 17-year old Hae Min Lee, quoted a Korean proverb saying in essence that older people get buried in the ground but children are buried in your heart and that as long as you live, they do too. I am very grateful for your love and unwavering support but more than anything, I am glad that you are keeping Noah alive in your hearts. Thank you!
Categories: Blogs, The Bread Feed

Two years...

December 10, 2014 - 1:27pm
I have always loved these pictures of our grandson Noah: he was three and modeling a scarf I had just knit for him.
Less than three years later, he died in a hail of bullets in his first-grade classroom. He had just turned six. A therapist advised me not to think of his death in terms of murder or massacre as I was traumatizing myself all over again every time I used these words. She said it made it much harder to start the mourning process.

She also said that I should try to accept the fact that six years was all he ever had, that all the hopes he may have had or we may have had for him had been just that: hopes. Not based in reality. Six years. That was the reality. Clinging to what never was could only stoke the pain.

I tried. I did learn to stop using the m words and it helped. Like a cast helps walk with a broken leg. I got unstuck. Despair slowly morphed into grieving.

But no matter how long I mulled over the idea of the six years as the only reality, I could never make it mine. Noah was robbed of his life on December 14, 2012. The hopes and dreams lived on. They still do. And that reality is just as inescapable.

Noah's siblings have changed a lot in two years. Strangely, he has too. I no longer see him as a six-year old. In my mind's eyes he is taller, his face has lost some of its roundness, his voice has deepened a bit, he is strong and he does look older. Deep down he is still the same though: all at once thoughtful, mischievous, provocative and tender.

Although I rarely see him in my dreams nowadays, in daily life anything can bring him back: a look, a shock of lustrous hair, the width of a little hand, lashes fanning on a cheek.
Punches to the heart.

Noah adored his brother and sisters. On December 14, 2012, evil irrupted into their world. He was taken. They now live with the knowledge that anything can happen to anyone, anytime and anywhere, and that those closest to you can be torn away in the blink of an eye.
A Noah-shaped fault line. Shaky grounds to build young souls on.

But they also live with the memory of the bond they shared.
It may take years for their world to stop shuddering but I do believe that, because they were raised to love, one day it will. That, like Albert Camus, each of them will come to realize that in the midst of winter, they carry within themselves "an invincible summer."

Noah's legacy. His reality. Rock-solid.
The lone light in these dark days.

The ornament below was given to me when the memorials were dismantled, a reminder that our family shares its profoundly personal loss with twenty-five others. A fellowship of grief. Joined by many more since Newtown. What a heartbreak...
Categories: Blogs, The Bread Feed

Marseille: Boulangerie Dame Farine

December 1, 2014 - 4:16pm
I was planning to do a Meet the Baker post on my friend Marie-Christine Aractingi who recently opened a bakery in Marseille, France, but circumstances went against us. The Toussaint holiday weekend was around the corner and Marie had a hectic week. Both the lab and the shop were unusually busy and we couldn't do a proper interview. But the Man and I were in the city visiting friends who have two sons, age fifteen and nine. These kids have the proverbial growing boy appetite which means we brought home a lot of bread every time we stopped by...
...and bread is very eloquent at Dame Farine.
In fact it can't stop talking and it says a lot about the baker. So if you ever find yourself in Marseille, a city of mind-blowing contrasts which I personally find both hard to fall for and impossible to dismiss, make a beeline for 77 avenue de la Corse, not far from the Vieux Port and Palais du Pharo. and get a loaf or two. Your tastebuds will thank you. Plus you may meet la boulangère! If you do, please say hi! to her for me.
In the hands of a skilled baker, bread not only talks, it sings. Take Marie's petit-épeautre intégral (whole-grain einkorn) for instance. Buy a loaf and cut yourself a slice (or rip off a chunk if you can't wait), close your eyes, bring it to your mouth and bite.
Chances are you will find yourself transported to the hills of Haute-Provence, the very ones you roamed in your imagination if you ever read Marcel Pagnol's souvenirs or watched Jean de Florette or Manon des sources. I have had einkorn before but nothing that ever approached the flavor of this one, grown in a hardscrabble land where the sun is fierce and water elusive. The bread reminds me of pain d'épices (even though it contains no spices or sweetener)  but mostly, it brings back the drives south in the summers of my childhood when the first clue that the grandes vacances (summer vacation) had indeed arrived was the scent of the maquis (the pervasive Mediterranean scrubland) drifting in through the open car windows. However you don't need blasts from the past to love Marie's petit-épeautrethe aforementioned boys couldn't get enough of it. I was impressed. Especially because the bread is whole-grain and they are raised mostly on baguettes. Of course it helps that, despite their tender age, they are both erstwhile gourmets with a devouring interest (pun intended!) in experiencing new tastes.
Also strongly evocative of terroir is Marie's fougasse aux olives. While petit-épeautre takes you to Provence's fragrant and stony hills, the fougasse brings to mind cobblestoned streets lined with colorful market stalls and lazy lunches under the vine arbor. The olives are plump and plentiful (I love it when a baker is generous with ingredients) and the crumb-crust ratio is spot-on perfect, so that buying a couple of loaves (or more) is the only way to make sure there'll be some left at mealtime.

Baguettes au levain: one white, one wholegrain At Dame Farine, all flours and most ingredients are organic and locally sourced. The bread is hand-crafted in small batches. The levains are mild, the mixer is gentle, fermentation is long. Even though the bakery is located on a busy avenue, it feels like an old-fashioned village boulangerie: locals come in, greet the baker, leave with bread and brioche; kids examine the display of sweet rolls and carefully select their after-school snacks.
There is laughter and gossip. People linger and ask questions. The city isn't familiar yet with the flours Marie likes to use: kamut, spelt, rye, buckwheat, chestnut. Some customers are more daring than others but all look and wonder and you can see in the timid ones' eyes that they are sorely tempted and that, one day, they too might take a wild leap into the unknown.
It doesn't hurt that the baker is a poet and that her breads carry inspired names. The whole-grain kamut is miche Cléopâtre, the big rustic white loaf Petit-Poucet (Little Tom Thumb) and, in a stroke of genius, the whole-wheat is called Soleil Levain (soleil levant means "rising sun.") When I saw that, I couldn't resist brightening up our day by taking home a chunk.
On our last visit we left with half-a-dozen castagnous (Marie comes up with a different seasonal roll every week). Made from chestnut flour and whole chestnuts, they taste like an old-fashioned French Christmas. Guess who made short work of those!

Castagnous (chestnut rolls) There is a wonderful feeling of community around the new bakery. The neighborhood tradespeople threw a block party when it opened. The mayor gave a toast. Friends came from Aix. There were flowers and smiles. Tears of emotion too. Word of mouth is doing the rest with help from the media. Locals have started saying "tu" to Marie, to kiss her on both cheeks, to ask how she is doing. She is getting to know them, to remember who likes his or her baguette bien cuite (dark) and who deplores the crisp crust but still comes back for more. On Saturdays, some customers arrive in late afternoon and leave with armfuls of loaves, a sure sign they live in other boroughs or maybe in the suburbs and are stocking up for the week before heading home. She loves interacting with them all.
Delphine, one of Marie's new neighbors, runs a safranière (a saffron farm) in nearby Aubagne. We visited her on a gorgeous Saturday morning (more about that in an upcoming post) and were delighted to see that the bread used in the tasting came from Dame Farine. Bread made with local grains, spread with locally-grown-saffron-infused jams: we were eating the landscape. It tasted marvelous.
Categories: Blogs, The Bread Feed

Meet the Baker: Frédéric Pichard

November 21, 2014 - 2:03pm
I am filing this post under the Meet the Baker label but in fact the two hours of this time Frédéric Pichard so generously gave me on a recent Saturday morning were less about him than about his all-consuming passion, le pain français. Pain français means "French bread" of course but I won't use the translation in this post because Monsieur Pichard would have a fit if he could see what comes up when one googles "French bread," definitely not the kind of bread he is devoting his professional life to. He has no website and zero interest in the Internet, so hopefully he won't see these pictures but, out of respect, I'll stick to the original French. I first met Frédéric Pichard in a chapter of Sam Fromartz' excellent book, In Search of the Perfect Loaf, a Home Baker's Odyssey. Despite the fact that Pichard had won best croissant in Paris in 2011 and that his baguette had placed in the top ten in the 2009 Grand Prix de la Baguette, I hadn't really paid much attention before but when I read what Sam had to say about his methods, I knew I had to go see him. And even though I am not sure Monsieur Pichard knows what a blog is,  he was most welcoming when I called. And at the appointed time, we sat under a tree at a long table in the quiet courtyard behind the boulangerie. Madame Pichard came to say hello and brought me coffee and a croissant.
 I thought of Sam who described Pichard's baguette as almost floating in his hand as he held it. Well, that croissant was so crisp and light it practically levitated. Definitely worth crossing a continent AND an ocean but hard to eat elegantly: as it dwindled, it kept showering my open notebook with golden flakes which I tried to brush away with my right hand while still writing a mile a minute... Not an easy feat. Fortunately Monsieur Pichard paused long enough to let me catch up.

Croissant dough (made with milk levain) As you will see if you read on, what Frédéric Pichard gave me that morning was a treatise on pain français, complete with practical information and historical references, and because he was so intensely involved in his subject, listening to him was an unexpectedly moving experience. Monsieur Pichard knows full well that he is un oiseau rare (literally a rare bird) among French bakers. When I told him that he reminded me of Don Quixote, he laughed and he shrugged. Like all of us, he can only do his best, right?
If an eighteenth-century French baker time-traveled to Maison Pichard, 88 rue Cambronne in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris, he or she (were there women bakers then?) would feel at home almost immediately. The technology and equipment have evolved but the process has remained almost identical. They would find the flour and its sometimes erratic behavior eerily familiar as well. They used farines-mères, a flour whose only ingredient was wheat. Frédéric Pichard does too: no additive is ever allowed into his flour, not even malt. The grain is grown and milled to his specifications in his native Beauce, a region so fertile that, from time immemorial, its vast plains have been considered France's breadbasket. One of his grandfathers was a farmer and he used to say: "France is divided in two parts: one half is to the north of the Loire River, the other half to the south. Pain français comes from the northern part of France where wheat grows best." Today Mr. Pichard makes his baguettes with the very same high-protein wheat varieties that this grandfather used to grow: Capelle, Capitole, Hardi. Why high-protein? To prevent gluten degradation during fermentation.
Pichard bakes his baguettes in a wood-fired oven because falling heat makes for better development. The bread gets a bit chewier and therefore tastier. The cost of wood isn't an issue: "Because I use my own flour and don't pay a premium to a miller for putting in additives and test-developing recipes, I can afford wood and still sell my baguette at a very competitive price."

What follows is a synopsis of what Frédéric Pichard told me, based on a translation of my notes.

What is pain français?
  • "Le pain, ce n'est que de la fermentation;" (Bread is nothing but fermentation)
  • Pain français is bread made of pure T55 flour sublimated through the fermentation process (according to this article, the ash content for T55 flour is 0.50-0.62 and the extraction rate 75-78). The flour must contain no additives of any  kind: a baker who uses additives is alienating his or her profession. To use a wine-making metaphor,  it is like adding raspberries to Romanée-Conti
  • Pain français must taste lactic and its flavors be subtile; using a higher extraction flour would make for a stronger taste and the resulting bread wouldn't be pain français; 
  • There is no prescribed recipe for pain français; the baker must adjust to the flour: wheat has its vintages as does wine. Moreover, "les blés bougent à chaque écrasement" (wheat changes with each milling);
  • Pain français is all about the baker's savoir-faire (know-how);
  • When properly made, the baguette is the ultimate pain français.
In the eighteenth century, bakers of pain français:
  • Used farines-mères (literally "mother-flours", flours that were one-hundred percent wheat) with no additive;
  • Always worked en masses importantes (in large batches). The size of the batch was proportional to the oven capacity;
  • Used as much water as they possibly could and mixed until the dough started to look homogenous and the gluten network to develop; didn't work from a recipe (there was none);
  • Let the dough ferment for a while (sometimes up to ten hours) then added fresh flour and water to prevent pourriture (decay), i.e. the formation of undesirable acetic bacteria. These additions were called rafraîchis. Their object was to "launder out" the unwanted bacteria which routinely appeared because the bakers used wooden troughs (where germs tended to proliferate) and worked in labs that were not immaculate;
  • Let the dough ferment again and added the salt at the end of the mixing; then did the last rafraîchi, called tous points;
  • Worked in the room where the oven was, which means that there could be tremendous variations in ambient temperature. Typically the oven wasn't lit yet when the mixing began. The lab went from really cold at the beginning to really hot towards the end of the process. Such variations in temperature were detrimental to the yeast micro-organisms.
To make pain français today, Frédéric Pichard: 
  • Applies the CELFEL (Culture Endogène Longue/Fermentation Exogène Lente) method that he has developed over the  years (lengthy endogenous culture/slow exogenous fermentation);
  • Mixes flour, salt and water in stainless steel cuves (see picture below: the word is normally used for wine and means "vats") which are scrubbed and bleached between each batch and allows the mixture to rest for as long as needed to get the endogenous fermentation he is looking for. This fermentation differs from autolyse (whose function is to relax the gluten.) Here there is no prescribed duration: the process can take twenty hours, it can take more than thirty. The key is to add as much water as the flour can take. The more water, the more active the fermentation; no recipe can help the baker determine how much water to use. If a baker applying the CELFEL method underestimates the amount of water that the flour can absorb, then the baking goes south: there is less fermentation which means the development won't be optimal and the bouquet aromatique will be less complex;

Fermented baguette dough ready for the addition of yeast and for mixing
  • Adds a minute amount of fresh yeast (0.2 to 0.4% of flour weight, sometimes even less than 0.1%) at the time of the final mixing "pour imprimer au pain une poussée gazeuse" (to facilitate a gaseous thrust which, combined with the bulles sauvages or wild bubbles created during the long endogenous fermentation, will help give the crumb its honeycomb structure);
  • Mixes only as long as necessary to develop the dough;
  • Allows the dough to ferment again for four to seven hours after mixing; 
  • Doesn't proof his baguettes: once shaped, they are ready for the oven after one single long slash with a lame;
  • Uses a wood-fired oven in which he burns hornbeam wood (the young tree growing in his courtyard is a hornbeam which he planted to honor the wood that helps make his pain français);
  • Bakes his baguettes for 20 to 22 minutes or so;
  • Never uses his retarder for pain français, only for bulk viennoiserie and specialty doughs. 
A bit of history
  • Le pain français first appeared at the time of the First French EmpireTalleyrand, France's most important diplomat under several kings and one emperor, was a gastronome; his chef Antoine Carême made it his mission in life to refine French cuisine as a whole, bread-baking included. He had flour sifted so that only the white endosperm was retained. No longer able to rely on the strong taste of grain, French bakers learned to use fermentation to create flavorful and airy breads: they invented pain français;
  • Pain français became famous because it was the bread of the rich and powerful (lower classes ate miches which generated no interest). Almost every country in the world has a bread tradition, yet twenty years ago nobody talked about Italian breads or pita bread; multigrain loaves started appearing thirty-five years ago in Paris; Parisian bakers began using dried fruit in bread twenty years ago or so. These breads are tasty because they contain ingredients suitable for pastry. They are not to be confused with pain français.
Further remarks
  • One gram of flour contains thirty to forty yeast micro-organisms, one gram of baker's yeast contains one hundred billions. Most bakers use way too much baker's yeast with the result that no characteristic aroma is produced; that's why they use flour to which malt has been added;
  • The Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) bakers have considerably evolved over the years in terms of shaping and presentation. But bread must be judged based on both its esthetic and its organoleptic qualities and unfortunately only esthetics seem to matter today. The French no longer know how to taste their bread. If they did, they would know it isn't good. Aromas are what make bread interesting, the reason we get it day after day and never get tired. Combining aromas is an art, l'art du boulanger, the baker's art;
  • When the wheat varieties that Pichard uses were developed, there was no seed lobby, no studies. Only know-how. Money wasn't the only factor then: work ethics and honor were important values. Today two criteria enter into play when creating new seeds: resistance to disease and productivity. In the old days, organoleptic qualities were taken into account as well. Pain français was at his best from 1900 to 1960 because that's when wheat was at its best.
  • Nowadays, more often than not, pain français is an imposture. The fault lies with the millers who strive to normalize flour. In France, four milling companies produce 68% of the flour used by the bakers. They eliminate all possible variations, come up with a recipe and standardize the bread when there should be as many baguettes as there are bakers;
  • Learning how to make pain français takes ten years. Everything else (pastry, viennoiserie, specialty breads) can be learned in six months; 
  • The baguette is key to the survival of individual bakeries in France. In Germany where manufacturing plants are humongous, stores sell for more money a bread that costs less to make and bakeries are disappearing. The beauty of the baguette is that it must be eaten fresh, so that customers have to come in everyday. If all bakers made only miches, there would soon be no more bakeries in France;
  • Maison Pichard makes three to four thousand baguettes a day.

Brioche dough

Maison Pichard's laminated brioche Before leaving, I asked Monsieur Pichard what recommendations he would have for a serious home baker who wanted to make good baguettes. He sighed. He knew I live in the United States where access to a local bakery is more problematic than in France and I could see he was trying to come up with an encouraging answer. After a minute, he said: "Use nothing but pure wheat flour, water and salt and rely on fermentation alone to develop aromas. That should give you a good wheat bread." He didn't say pain français.
Categories: Blogs, The Bread Feed

Paris: Pâtisserie Boulangerie Liberté-Ménilmontant

November 11, 2014 - 6:53pm
As you can probably tell from the above photo, Pâtisserie Boulangerie Liberté isn't your typical Parisian bakery. You guess as much as you walk up rue de Ménilmontant in the twentieth arrondissement of Paris and get your first glimpse of the black-framed wall of glass that reflects the buildings across the street.
Here, no window display of shiny éclairs, airy meringues, elegant Opéra cakes, skinny tartlets or evanescent mille-feuilles, no romantic frontispiece picturing golden harvests, bakers loading hungry ovens or apprentices shouldering paunchy bags of flour down basement steps. No, at Liberté, what you see is what you get and it doesn't leave much to the imagination because you practically see everything including, before you even walk through the door, pillow-shaped loaves of Pain du coin, their signature bread (and in case you are wondering, yes, there is a stunning display of pastries but it is inside the store, in front of the bread, not in the window).
More than the lovely pastries - and Benoît Castel, the owner, being a star in the Paris pâtisserie firmament, the pastries are indeed spectacular (sorry, I was so mesmerized by the bread I forgot to photograph them but if you google the place, you should be able to see some pictures),  even more than the bread in fact, what attracted me to Liberté was the open lab concept I had heard about and the notion of the boulangerie as a neighborhood hub.
I was there at 9:30 morning (the only time Benoît Castel could see me). The flow of early birds seeking baguettes and croissants was slowly ebbing. The shop was hushed but, behind the stack of firewood, Didier Marchand, the baker, could be seen hard at work on gigantic granola loaves.
In the open kitchen, two assistants were getting ready to assemble sandwiches. Chef Castel emerged from the back (or the basement, I couldn't tell) and watched them for a minute or so. Then he moved trays around and re-arranged boxes. "You need to get organized. It makes no sense to walk across the lab every two minutes to fetch the same ingredient. Do your mise en place properly and your work will be much easier." There was a tired note to Castel's voice. I had the distinct feeling he had made the speech before. Utensils clattered. The young women resumed their work, looking sheepish and, was it only my imagination? a tad sulky.
Castel came out of the lab towards me (we had made an appointment the night before) and extended his hand for a firm handshake. He didn't have much time as he was expected in central Paris within the hour and had to stop at one of his other bakeries on the way. So we talked fast. I had looked him up a bit beforehand. I knew he had learned his trade in his native Brittany, gotten his brevet de maîtrise Pâtissier at a young age and, for years, only ever worked with and for the best: Jean-Claude VergneJean-Luc ValentinHélène DarrozeChristophe Felder. I knew that in the fall of 2012, he had opened Joséphine Bakery, a small pâtisserie boulangerie at 46 rue Jacob in the affluent sixth arrondissement of Paris. I had had a sandwich made with fougasse aux olives from his Liberté-Lafayette bakery (opened in September 2014 as part of the new and jaw-dropping Lafayette Maison et Gourmet)...
 ...and last but not last, I had bought a baguette Tradition, a chunk of Pain du coin and a couple of pastries, including a marvelous tarte au citron at his first Liberté pâtisserie boulangerie (opened in late 2013), 39 rue des Vinaigriers in the très bobo Canal St-Martin neighborhood. So, even though the sampling had been limited, I had some familiarity with Liberté's offerings.
From what I understand, the main difference between Liberté Vinaigriers and Liberté Ménilmontant lies in the size of the premises and in the magnificent Llopis wood-fired oven. Other than that, the idea is the same: there are no walls, the customer can see the product in the making, check out the ingredients, observe the techniques, even watch the dishes being washed. The name of the boulangerie is well chosen: for the baker and pastry chef, liberty to innovate, invent and be playful with his or her creation - the bobo-au-rhum (I love the name) is a case in point; for the customer, liberty to sit down and enjoy tea, bread, cookies, pastries or sandwiches right on the premises, breathing in the fragrances and taking in the life of the neighborhood.
"Liberté et partage (freedom and sharing), that's what this is all about," says Benoît Castel who remembers vividly how lovely it had felt to be greeted like an old friend  by his Josephine Bakery customers when he came back from his first summer vacation as the owner of a commerce de proximité (a local shop). The feeling of belonging triggered a reflexion on the role of the boulangerie-pâtisserie as an essential hub in the life of a neighborhood: after all, most Parisians get fresh bread everyday of their lives, sometimes two or three times a day, and often buy pastries as well.
Castel found he wanted to open other and more spacious pâtisseries boulangeries where people would feel welcome to stay a while and maybe chat with other customers. Rue des Vinaigriers came first: the premises had housed a bakery before. The first floor had featured both the shop and living space for the owner; as is often the case in Paris, the basement had held the lab. Castel knocked down walls and opened up the whole first floor; he installed a huge marble counter, visible from everywhere; he renovated the painted glass ceilings, re-used existing materials whenever possible, had shelves installed all around, including against some of the windows. Past and present were artfully knit together and the effect was strikingly effective, more Brooklyn or Soho than Paris. The social media went beserk.
Ménilmontant was even more of a find: the premises had housed the famous boulangerie Ganachaud. It was larger and it came complete with a 1974 wood-fired oven. "Les fours à bois, c'est très compliqué à Paris!" Wood-fired ovens are very complicated in Paris.You can't just install a new one whenever and wherever you want.
First and foremost a pastry chef (as evidenced by the fact that Liberté is a pâtisserie boulangerie, not a boulangerie pâtisserie as is customary), Benoît Castel doesn't pretend to be a bread baker: "Je suis très sensible à la maîtrise des techniques mais je ne suis pas sensible au niveau pâte (Mastering the techniques is hugely important to me but I don't have a feel for bread dough)," and he favors bakers who are also pastry chefs: "Their approach is different. They are more technique-oriented." But the place of bread in the urban fabric fascinates him and on a personal level, he is on a never-ending quest for new tastes and flavors. The story of pain du coin is a good example. The name of the bread is a pun: in colloquial French to be du coin means to be a local but a coing (pronounced exactly the same way as coin because the final g is mute) is a quince. As it happens, the levain used to leaven this bread was originally quince-based. The double-entendre remains even though, as Benoît Castel readily admits, nowadays one would be hard-put to distinguish the aroma of quince. Castel sent me home with a chunk, saying "I know you already tasted it but try this one, it was baked in our wood-fired oven and you'll see, the flavor will be very different." Actually both the flavor and the texture were. Truth be told, I can wax as romantic as the next bread head about the poetry of wood-fired ovens but if you had asked me before this Paris trip if I could truly taste the difference between a bread baked in a wood-fired oven and a bread baked in a regular oven, in all honesty, I would have had to say that I couldn't. Well, now I can. Pain du coin Ménilmontant is definitely a better bread than pain du Coin Vinaigriers (I haven't tried the Joséphine Bakery's or Liberté Lafayette's versions. That could be on the agenda for another trip.)
The fact is that crust was tastier and the crumb lighter. Were it not for the slightly smoky taste, it was the very bread I like to imagine my ancestors eating a hundred years ago...
 I asked Castel about the smokiness (which I had detected in the chunk previously bought at Vinaigriers) and he said that he had been looking for a way to decrease the percentage of salt (in line with the European Union recommendations that salt be kept at 18 g per kilo of flour by the end of this year) without compromising flavor. Through a friend who owns an épicerie fine (gourmet grocery store), he had discovered Salish salt, an alderwood-smoked salt from Washington State and fallen in love with it. Castel explained it took him and his bakers eight months to develop the recipe to the point where he felt comfortable going to production with it: besides Salish salt, the bread calls for regular salt, levain, rye flour, stone-ground wheat flour and miel des forêts (forest honey).
Since I hadn't been entirely persuaded by the chunk of pain du coin bought at Vinaigriers, I wasn't expecting an epiphany this time around either. But in fact the thick and crunchy crust added a whole new level of subtlety to the crumb and to my utter astonishment, not only was the bread better but it improved as days went by. The hint of smokiness progressively disappeared and all that was left was a glorious, old-fashioned tasting loaf. Definitely rustic, definitely traditional despite the imported salt. A time-travel bread. One that pairs magnificently with a thick layer of good salted butter. It became our breakfast fare for as long as the big chunk lasted. Not a crumb went to waste.
Liberté has another cult bread that I was curious about: la Tradition chocolat. Based on the same dough as the bakery's airy baguette Tradition...
...it becomes a completely different bread with the addition of dark cocoa powder (64% cocoa) and drops of white and dark chocolate. There is no shaping: after dividing and scaling, the pâtons (chunks of dough) are left to proof undisturbed. They are egg-washed before going into the oven and washed again with a syrup when they come out. I have heard grown men choke up at the mere mention of this bread.
The way Castel sees it, creativity is the rule of the game. "This job is so much fun. I love it." And of course timing is everything. In France as in the United States, everyone seems to be obsessed with food, cooking shows have never been more popular, cookbooks fly off the shelves. He can smell the breeze coming from across the Ocean and he finds deeply invigorating: "I am more and more interested in what's being done in the United States: I love bagels for instance. I love working with a code and changing things around. I visit New York regularly and each time my dream of opening a pâtisserie boulangerie in the city becomes a little more vivid. It might yet happen!" I hope it does. I'd love to see what Benoît Castel could do on an American theme and with American ingredients other than Salish salt.
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