The Fresh Loaf

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The Generosity of Bakers

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proth5's picture
proth5

The Generosity of Bakers

For those of you who have not read it, Mr. Hamelman blogged quite movingly about how the fraternity of bakers who had participated in La Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie became and remained friends despite their positions as competitors.

Of course, not all of us travel in such exalted circles. Some of us soldier on in the trenches trying to be of service to the Bread Bakers Guild of America (BBGA). Since I am (as our chief conspirator Laverne tells me) one of the few members who both speak French and are crazy enough to spend mornings dragging people around Paris, I volunteered to be a guide for some of the Guild’s Paris bakery tours.

These were not famous bakeries by any means – these were places where one or two people labored daily to turn out a lot of bread six or seven days a week.

My first stop – at La XXX - was a bit a surprise to the people staffing it that day.  They had been told about the BBGA, but had not been expecting us that morning.  Nevertheless, the baker who was in charge that day took us to every corner of the bakery, answering detailed questions about his techniques and formulas (although he slyly told us that he had his secrets which he would never tell) letting us stick fingers into his levain to taste it and letting us handle dough to understand its consistency.  When a question was asked about how he did the lamination for his croissants, he weighed out a piece of dough and laminated it for us. All this was done in a space where the baker and his assistants could barely move, let alone accommodate a group of nosy Americans who asked him to stop work every few minutes to snap pictures. He gave us samples of anything where we showed interest. He collected a number of cards and promised to visit us in the USA someday. Although I doubt that he wants to visit my personal “bakery”, I am sure that the pro bakers on the tour would give him the same warm welcome.

Our next stop will remain nameless, but even though they had never heard of the BBGA and had no idea why we would want to see their bakery, the person in charge of the front of the house let us all go in to their subterranean bake shop. (Yes, we are all going to have a little sit down and figure out how we do this whole tour thing better next time.) Generous of them, I must say. I had already brought shame upon myself by getting lost in Paris, but now thinking about it, I believe the universe was trying to keep me away from this bakery.  It seemed eerily familiar and as we rounded the corner to the sweltering area containing the oven and the shaping machine, I knew I had been there before. There was the Naked Baker – clad only in an apron (below the waist) and flip flops. I had toured this place at the last Coupe du Monde and the proprietor had described him as “Le Vrai Boulanger Français!” He stood impassively feeding dough into the shaper (and in case you were wondering most of the baguettes you find in Paris – even the better ones - are fed through a shaping machine – not hand formed) unconcerned with our presence. But still, those of you who work in places that actually make things – would you let strangers on to your factory floor?

Since I was starting to get the feeling that things had not been arranged as well as they could have been, I decided to go in person to check out the stops on the next day’s tour.

The folks at Boulangerie de XXX told me that they had never heard of the BBGA and were just too busy to accommodate a tour. When I persisted, they agreed to host us on a tour at 10:30AM the next day. After negotiating all of this (and after checking out the action at the Coupe) I had to retire to my hotel for a martini. I had the feeling that it would be a bumpy day.

Our first stop on that morning was a bakery who was the winner of the 20xx “Best Baguette in Paris” contest.

They were expecting us, and in the midst of their morning production jammed us in to their tiny, tiny production area where the more than busy baker patiently answered every question that the group asked. He told us the formula, the mix schedule, the dough temperature, the fermentation schedule and the bake parameters. He posed for pictures, paused his loading routine to show us how to score and then. And then. He thanked us for coming to visit him. That almost made me melt and I was starting to fray just a bit with the translation duties.

Now Wednesday was the ceremony to name the winners at the Coupe and the tour of Boulangerie de XXX had a good chance of causing us to miss it. We determined that we would like a quick tour – but as we found out – that wasn’t possible. The sole/head baker (who had suffered the breakdown of his shaping machine that morning) was just too generous with his humor and information.  Then he started slicing bread and giving us samples (and the bread was quite delicious!) – well, not just samples, but entire loaves of bread – for free – for us to take. I was chatting away with his wife about how we might get a much better tour next time and who we should contact when one of my tour members tugged at my sleeve.  “He’s cutting up more bread – tell him to stop.” I nearly had to throw myself in front of the slicer – he wanted us to taste a few more breads and he wanted to give them to us. (And yes, we got back to the Coupe exactly one minute before the announcements were made.)

I have seen no more generous people than when bakers deal with bakers. It is, the best that I can understand, a fraternity/sorority of people who face such similar challenges that they cannot help but be kind to each other. (For you Star Trek the Next Generation fans, you will remember the episode “Darmok” where the commander of an “alien” ship decided that shared danger and sacrifice with Picard would create understanding where none had been possible before.) I have now seen enough of these French bakeries to know that there is nothing we haven’t seen in the US. The equipment is the same – even though it is crammed into spaces so small that most of us would say we couldn’t put a bakery in them. It is the hands and the heart of the baker that make the difference, but the hands and the heart of artisan bakers are more alike across the big waters than they are different. Heart to heart – this is what happens when bakers come together. Of all the experiences this week in Paris (and I do love Paris, make no mistake, and I can misbehave here pretty good) it was the coming together of people with similar passions that I will remember best from this trip. I even had a good time at our Guild gathering – the kind of event that usually has this little introvert running for the door.  There was some small talk, some chit chat, but then the subject quickly became “tell me about your bread.” When we can talk from those places in the heart, we truly communicate.

As I put this into final edit, I realized that this would go out to the “interwebs” and that all sorts of people would know where we had been and perhaps try to take advantage of this incredible generosity and I cannot bear that, so I took out the names of the bakeries. For those of you who must know – because you will actually be going to Paris in the near future -  use a PM, and if I feel I “know” you well enough I will supply the details.

Comments

Salilah's picture
Salilah

Thank you for a lovely update - and yes, I really "get" the idea of the fraternity of bakers...  Great to hear that professional bakers are still happy to explain what they are doing - I think so often we amateurs are enthusiastic but a bit embarrassed about sharing!!

proth5's picture
proth5

for your kind words.  Never be afraid to share. 

Elagins's picture
Elagins

and what a beautiful experience. I remember standing outside of a bakery window near the Place de l'Opera and admiring those incredible breads ... didn't have the nerve at that time to go inside and ask for a peek.  Je t'admire!

Stan

proth5's picture
proth5

to admire.  Remember, I wss equipped with a command of the language beyond "schoolboy French" and was motivated by the fear of delivering less than a great tour. 

Next time...

Besides, I think you already have an excellent "Bread Guide."

Pat

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

Thanks for sharing, Pat!

I wish I could have been there! (And yes, I did join the BBGA last year, grâce à toi!)

David

proth5's picture
proth5

you know of the class that is in your neck of the woods this Summer.  If you can make it - do make it - Mike Zakowski makes beautiful and delicious breads.

And when there is a class, they try to have a Guildhall Gathering...

Pat

Janetcook's picture
Janetcook

Pat,

Your stories of the bakeries you visited evoke wonderful images - better than a photo could reproduce but....I really would have loved a picture of the 'apron only' clad baker!

Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences here for us to read.  You did a great job of expressing not only what was happening but what was being shared heart to heart.  You are a skilled writer and I really appreciate that.

Take Care,

Janet 

proth5's picture
proth5

One of my tour members did take a picture and promised to send it to various people.  This being a family website, I may have to give a big miss on posting it.

There are parts of this trip that I am still processing.  I have a lot of writing obligations when I travel, but I hope to put together another post.  We'll see.

Meanwhile, I must quickly run and jam things in my suitcases (perhaps I did a little shopping - things don't seem to be fitting) and say goodbye to the city I love so much....

Pat

davidg618's picture
davidg618

Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe the same fraternity and generosity is often seen among chefs, brewers and vintners. I think it comes from their common passion to take our basic need for nurishment to an edible art form. Thank you for sharing your entertaining tale.

David G

proth5's picture
proth5

there are many generous people in many professions - but I have not personally encountered them for no other reason than I'm mostly a baker.

I have been thinking a great deal lately about the saying that"You are the average of the 5 people with whom you spend the most time." Makes me want to spend more time around bakers.

Thank you for your kind words...

Pat

loydb's picture
loydb

I don't know about vintners, but I do know that I have never met a brewer -- commercial or homebrew -- who would not gleefully natter on for hours about the subject.

LindyD's picture
LindyD

Imagine that by the time you read this, you'll be back home - or close.

Great stories - especially the baker who kept feeding you bread - and, of course, the Naked Baker!  Guess that's one way to keep cool.  Wonderful memories, for certain.  

Yes, bakers love to talk about their craft.  A few weeks ago I took a class at an artisan bakery about an hour's drive away.  I had taken a sourdough class there a couple years ago and it's a nice place to hang out.  Plus, I learn a lot just handling  his dough.  Anyway, we got to chatting and I learned that he had attended the same grain conference you did at KAF and wants to return for the next rye class with Chef Hamelman.  He's a wonderful baker and I noticed he recently joined the BBGA.  

Small world.  Thank you for keeping us posted on the goings-on in Paris!

proth5's picture
proth5

a small world, indeed.

I'm nursing my jet lagged self (I really don't get jet lag too badly - I have the ability to sleep anytime I'm allowed to sleep) and trying to get back into the swing.  Hopefully when the fog lifts - and no matter how experienced a traveller one is a trip across the big waters takes it out of one - I can get to finihing some of the tales...

RobynNZ's picture
RobynNZ

Hi Pat

I have really enjoyed following your reports from Paris and encourage you to continue with them, as you have hinted you might. 

In April I'm heading to Japan and will have some free time so hope to be able to taste bread from some of the bakeries I've learned about over there since joining TFL. It'll be interesting to see how the Japan team's win is marketed there. I know I will be made very welcome back at my old neighbourhood bakery, the levain based breads they make are considered some of the best in Tokyo. I hope I will find the same generosity you met in Paris, at bakeries new to me.

Here's to a safe journey home.

Robyn

proth5's picture
proth5

with nothing more than a very long and rough stretch of turbulance - for which the airline sent an apology email - like it was their fault!Now, I just need to return to reality after some heady days, indeed. (And get re-used to a different climate, altitude and time zone...)

I wish I could head to Japan with you, but this is not my year for that.  I realized that the last time I was to Paris was the last Coupe (4 years ago) and have given myself a stern lecture about getting my travel plans bettter organized. However, as much as needed to get back home after my time in Okinawa, I find there is much to miss from life there...

I'm sure the bakers in Japan will greet you warmly.

Take care!

Pat

tn gabe's picture
tn gabe

Thanks, this is the best post I've read on here. There is something about the comradery between people who have dedicated their professional (and personal) lives to a particular food that can't quite be explained!

proth5's picture
proth5

for your kind words.

Mebake's picture
Mebake

This is really touching, Pat! Lovely poetic experience you had in Paris. There are few things inlife that are as romantic as bread baking, that could tie up people from across the globe, and unify their passion.

I hail from the arab world, and i regret to say that bread baking here has lost its romantic attributes, is has become a commercial industry rather than a craft, and passion. Ohh well, at least i have thefreshloaf!

Welcome back!

proth5's picture
proth5

is that each time a baker was asked the secret to good bread, they answered "Passion"  ("Time" was the first runner up.)  Again, these were men (and they were all men) laboring in tiny, basement bakeries.  No one said flour or special ingredients.  Passion and time.

I think about this from time to time.

Thanks for your kind words...

Janetcook's picture
Janetcook

Khalid,

You never know who YOU may inspire in your corner of our world :-)  I say this from having read a lot of your blogs and viewing the wonderful breads you make and share here with us.  I, for one, am glad for your participation here and my children now know where Dubai is because of you.  (My bread baking/geography school at home :-)

You just never know what the future holds.....

Take Care,

Janet

Mebake's picture
Mebake

Thanks for the heads up, Janet! Though iam only an expatriate who lives dubai, i am glad that you introduce me to your children. Pls. Send my greetings to them.

As to the inspiration, i have not gone beyond the family borders with my bread passion. Most people in dubai seem to be content with commercial breads that remain soft and unmoldy for days and days. There is alot yet to be done to convince people of the significance of healthy homemade bread.