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.