The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What I'm Learning Abroad: The Difficulties and Delights of Learning to Bake in France

nate9289's picture

What I'm Learning Abroad: The Difficulties and Delights of Learning to Bake in France

I've been reading TFL and the countless blogs of its contributors for a while now and finally have decided to jump on board!  I figured this first post would be sort of an introduction, a get-to-know-me page.  

So, during the past 8 months I've spent my first year post-college teaching English at a high school and middle school in the Lorraine region of France.  I live in a shabby apartment inside the high school, ill-equipped for any kind of cooking or baking that's not of the microwave variety.  Hence the "difficulties" part of this post.

My "oven" is a toaster oven with the timer dial missing:

 Toaster oven


The only measuring utensil - much less scale - is a large plastic 1L cup with markings for water, sugar, flour, and rice:


I have random old pots to double as bowls; no whisks or wooden spoons; and no counter tops, just a small kitchen table (with an unforgivable tablecloth) and a cutting board: have you tried to keep 1kg of wet dough in the confines of a tiny wooden rectangle?  I assure you, it's not easy. 


Now, to the "delights" of learning to bake in France:

Organic T65 flour available for about 80 cents a kilo:


Nice Levure Boulangère, although I doubt this is much different than instant yeast found in the USA:

Great examples to follow from just down the street!!:


So far, the difficulties would seem to outweight the delights, except for one fact.  For the past three months I've been fortunate enought to be doing an apprenticeship at an award-winning boulangerie in my town.  Usually 2-3 mornings per week before teaching my classes I walk down the street to the boulangerie help with everything there is concerning bread: mixing the different doughs, shaping the breads, scoring, loading and unloading the breads in the oven, and getting them ready for sale in the store or delivery.  We make about 180 different breads and pastries daily, and I'd say about 30 of these are strictly variations on bread.

I'm going to bring my camera in with me one morning since there's only a couple weeks left and take pictures of my boulangerie and the different processes we use, since every one does them differently. 

In the past couple weeks I've tried to adapt what I've learned to baking at home, although as can be seen from above, this is not nearly as easy as I'd thought.  I'll be posting my attempts online from the two weeks I have left in my shoddy apartment, and then hopefully continuing from my home kitchen back in the USA.

Bon appétit et bon pain!





varda's picture

If you can bake like that in a toaster oven I can't wait to see what you come up with when you get real equipment.   Welcome to TFL!  Looking forward to seeing your bakery shots.  -Varda

nate9289's picture

Hi Varda,

Unfortunately, that baguette isn't my own interpretation of the bakery's example - in fact, it's the example I try to emulate!  I can say that I scored it and baked it, however, this morning at the bakery.  As for my home baking, I'm working on the Baguette à la Anis Bouabsa via SteveB at Bread Cetera right now.  My first "real" posts soon!


Barbara Krauss's picture
Barbara Krauss

Hi Nate,

Thanks for posting.  Just remember, the greater the challenge, the more satisfying the conquest. At least you have the advantage of working in a real boulangerie, a unique and valuable experience that will likely pay dividends in the long run.  Best of luck to you and I am eagerly awaiting the pictures!



ehanner's picture

Hey Nate, thanks for sharing your experiences from across the pond. Too bad you can't stay a while longer and work at the bakery. Great life experience.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Give it a big hug!  And photograph or describe the inside.   Do the other knobs pull off to use on the timer?  I think you could pick up a knob easy enough... recycle center nearby?  Head for the pile of similar knobbed appliances and pull a knob off.  

No counter tops?  Pick up a large shallow plastic bowl, the kind they sell for hand washing laundry that sits comfortably on your knees.  You can do a lot of mixing and folding and the dough can't run away.  A shower cap for a lid to cover.  Cut up some cardboard boxes to use as peels or to park parchment before it goes into the oven.  A bunch of shallow stackable boxes can actually be used as counter space while dough is proofing.  :)

nate9289's picture

You know, it's not that bad to have to use a mini oven, it's just so difficult because of the size.  That, and the fact that its temperature is usually wildly off - I just turn it up all the way and let it go.  I dream of the days I can bake baguettes on a baking stone - now I'm limited to boules and short bâtards in my tart pan.  The timer knob isn't a problem as long as I remember to check the oven!  

Thanks for the tips on the bowl and cardboard counter tops.  I do have linen for a couche, but the cardboard box idea spread out on the table will help my space immensely!  Great ideas.

RuthieG's picture

Nate what fun to read your post and how exciting that you managed such a wonderful apprenticeship.  Are you excited about coming back to US or disappointed not to stay longer in France. 


I am excited to see future posts from your new home and your new baking experiences.



Syd's picture

What a great opportunity!  I am sure you will get invaluable experience there which is going to help you so much when you get back home.  Look forward to following your blog!


ww's picture

how nice that you got to do an apprenticeship! must be tiring but hope you are having fun.

did you have prior baking experience, or have you been baking long at home? How did you get the apprenticeship? from what i understand, boulangeries sometimes take in apprentices but mostly under very structured programmes - students from baking schools, for example. That said, some boulangeries are also closing up because of the lack of interest.

nate9289's picture

First, @RuthieG, leaving here will be bittersweet - I've become so engrained in the culture and way of life that it will be hard to leave, but I dearly love the USA and am excited to return.  I'll be moving to San Francisco this summer, which won't be too far off from the pleasures I enjoy here.

As far as prior experience, I've been into cooking for a while but not as much baking.  I'd only baked one loaf of bread before coming to France.  When I moved here though and found a reliable boulangerie to frequent - an important process for the French - I got to know the owner, and a few months ago asked if I could begin a stage (internship/apprenticeship) there.  They were proud that I held French bread on a higher pedestal than typical American bread, and were totally fine with me working there.  Otherwise, you begin the apprenticeship program at the age of 16.

dmsnyder's picture

Hi, Nate.

Welcome to TFL!

I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts.

Are there any breads that are typical of Lorraine?


nate9289's picture

Hi David,

You know what, I've been meaning to ask about the specialty breads of Lorraine - this week I definitely will.  I know there are a couple regional breads, and there are definitely regional dishes: quiche Lorraine being the most famous, as well as the mirabelle, or golden plum, used in tarts and jams.  I'll get back to you about the breads soon!


Evgeny's picture

Hi, Nate,

Could You, please, recommend, how can I come to the same bakery in France, which You worked at in 2011?

Or find another apprenticeship opportunities in France?

I am from Russia, have basic home experience in bakering, speak English, no French.

thanks for any advises & hints in this aspect.

Kind regards, Evgeny