So, a whole week in France! What a fabulous opportunity to sample some real bread and talk to French bakers. A quick vocab review and I was ready to question the ingredients and methods that they used. If I dared, when push came to shove, and didn't just scuttle out clutching the nearest baguette without having said anything...
In the first boulangerie I visited, I explained that I liked to make bread at home, and would it be OK if I asked a few questions. It was, so I did. I asked if there was any rye bread - there wasn't. I asked if they used any sourdough or if it was all bog standard yeast - all bog standard. They were baked in an electric oven with injections of steam at appropriate moments. I bought a baguette and a pain de campagne but didn't think to photograph them, and I was rather disappointed that they weren't amazing.
In the next boulangerie, which boasted its artisanal credentials in big letters above the door, I had my spiel down pat and was again allowed to ask my questions by a puzzled boulanger. No, they didn't use any sourdough starter, just normal yeast. No, they didn't have a rye loaf. They did have some huge round rustic looking bread, which was much more attractive than the regimented ranks in the first boulangerie. I didn't really fancy any of it though, apart from one bread, which I knew I had to have as soon as I saw it - an epi, and not just any epi but one made with granary type flour. It was very very good, and sustained me after my long walk up the hill as I sat outside the house I was staying in, waiting for the owner to come back from the village lunch. Waiting, and waiting. And then waiting a bit more. A few chunks of epi, some figs and a beautiful ripe peach plucked from the garden, and a swig or two of water, sat in the sunshine. Heaven!
In the final one, faced once more with a slightly bemused boulanger, I again requested information. Why yes, they did use a sourdough starter for some of their breads. And yes, here was a rye sourdough loaf. And they had a wood-fired oven. Perfect! I bought a rye loaf - it was the most bizarre shape I think I've ever seen - and a pain whose name I forget. It had the most incredible crust, crumb and taste. It was so wonderful that even now I am saddened by the hundreds of miles which lie between me and my next opportunity to have some. The boulangerie is Le Fournil Talludéen, and if you find yourself passing it, stop, turn around, reverse, whatever. You need to go in there.
I also scoured every bookshop I could, and bought a couple of books. The first one offered me the secrets of home-made bread (les secrets du pain « maison » by Hélène Pasquiet), and the second is all about sourdough, including lengthy poetic discourses on the elements that go into making your dough (Apprendre à faire son pain au levain naturel by Henri Granier). It's got some nifty scoring pictures in it too.
It was brilliant to bound into these shops with a feeling of anticipation and excitement, knowing I was going to see new sights and discover new things. The daily experience of buying bread is so different there - there is so much direct contact with the people who actually make the bread, with people who know what goes into it and how it's made. It's so much more tactile too, and if it does get wrapped, it's most likely to be in a quick twist of paper or a paper bag which doesn't seal your bread away from you. And Richard Bertinet is right (but don't tell him, or he'll be smug), I defy anyone to handle a beautiful pain without giving it a squeeze and appreciating the sound the crust makes as it yields, without bringing it up to their nose and breathing in the wonderful scent, without examining it for the first bit they will break off, without trying to resist a little then giving in to the inevitable and taking their first taste.
And the title? Well, yes. I'm sorry it was so painful...