Culture

How I Learned to Bake French Bread in the South of France

Baker Jean Honorat taking fresh bread out of the oven. All photos by Howard Feldman.

For about three decades the Luberon area of southern France has enchanted me, inspiring regular returns. While the region and its customs, foods, and winemaking remain largely unchanged, they are not immutable and we are lucky when records survived and recipes passed on to apprentices, allowing us to duplicate what would otherwise have been lost forever.

Chef Pierre Hiely’s eggplant in Avignon was a dish that I, along with thousands of his patrons, adored. Several years ago, after Hiely sold his restaurant, I returned to find to my disappointment that the dish was no longer on the menu. Luckily others published the recipe so that it was not lost and you can duplicate it.  The version below is from The Independent. In brackets I have offered alternative suggestions by Simon Hopkinson who, in his book Roast Chicken and Other Storiesoffers up the recipe, too.

4 small aubergines, peeled and thickly sliced

fine sea salt

olive oil [about 2 oz worth]

50g butter[about 2 oz worth]

8 ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped[Hopkinson uses 5 chopped garlic cloves]

salt and pepper

3 pieces of pith-less lemon zest

2 heaped tbsp chopped fines herbes: tarragon, chives, chervil and parsley (you may include some basil too, although it isn’t strictly “fine”)

juice of half a lemon

400ml whipping cream [450 mil or ¾ pt crème fraiche—in which case you skip the lemon juice]

[snip]

[Fry the eggplant slices in hot olive oil until pale golden. Drain and cool.]

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375F.

Melt the butter in a roomy pan and add the tomatoes to it, together with the garlic, seasoning and lemon zest. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes, or until nicely thickened and mulchy, but not too dry. Remove the pieces of lemon zest and put to one side.

Lightly butter a shallow oven-proof dish, preferably oval in shape. Start to fill the dish, beginning with one slice of eggplant swiftly smeared with a spoonful of the tomato mulch. Slightly overlap with a second slice and smear with tomato once more. Continue in this fashion until the dish is full and neatly layered. Now pour the cream into the (unwashed) tomato pan, together with the chopped herbs. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until reduced in volume and showing signs of thickening to the consistency of custard. Whisk together to smooth and amalgamate and pour evenly over the eggplant. Shake the dish a bit to allow the cream and herbs to sink in, then slide into the oven and bake for about 25 minutes, until bubbling and blistered with little points of brown.

Another food I cherished over the years: the exquisite, savory tarts of Madam Dromer. I remember dreaming of their taste for months before a visit, arriving and telling our hosts, the hospitable Richard Perle and his wife Leslie Barr, that I had to have one. My heart shattered to learn she’d sold her lovely bakery in Cabrières-d’Avignon and there’d be no tarts that trip. Fortunately, once again, others shared my high opinion and she now sells them at the weekly market in Coustellet. I have not seen her recipes anywhere nor have I tasted their like, but now that her family is intimately engaged in the operation, I hope the tradition of her pastry making will continue.

While her bread is no longer available, we have found a very good substitute in Robion, where baker Jean Honorat makes, among other things, pain au levain using a 92-year-old recipe and a wood-burning stove. He was nice enough to allow me to observe and photograph his work, and I hope you will find the process as interesting as I did.

Here I am inquiring about the "levain."

About Pain au Levain: Mixing and Shaping the Dough

Pain au levain is traditional sourdough bread. The baker begins by making  “le chef,” a mixture of wheat and water, which he covers and leaves to sit at 20-25 degrees centigrade for three days until it triples in volume.

Next, he prepares the “levain” by combining the chef with flour and water and letting it sit at 20-25 degrees centigrade for another 12-14 hours.

Finally, he can prepare the bread for baking. He does this by combining the levain, the wheat, the water, and the sea salt. He shapes the dough, sets it on floured linen cloth (couche) he has pleated by hand to keep the baguettes’ shape as it rests, and sets the bread in a cool room.

The shaping of the baguettes begins at 3:00 each morning and by 5:00 he sets to work firing up the wood-burning oven. I arrive in time for the second baking at 7:00 am. Mr. Honorat tells me that in dry weather he can make a hot oven, and it keeps heat to bake throughout the day. But the day I visit is cold and rainy so he has to restart the fire when I arrive. The wood he uses is pine from Bordeaux. Other neighboring wood-fired bakeries use it too. A large pot-shaped piece of metal sits in the center of the oven and remains there until the baking begins. I’m told this is to assure that the floor of the oven heats evenly.

The bakery also makes and sells other products like croissants. Mr Honorat gave my husband and me some fresh and out-of-the-oven to fortify us during our visit. But baguettes are their major product. The day before our visit he baked 980 baguettes plus a smaller number of ficelles, compagnes, and assorted other breads. Sundays are his big days and he makes 50 liters more bread then. It is a matter of interest that there is such local variation on almost everything, even how one measures output. He explains that in Robion, bakers measure their output in liters  and in the next village by kilograms of flour. To give you an idea of how much that is, the formula for the baguettes is 100 kilograms of flour to 60 liters of water.

Photo by: Sheral Schowe

Baking the Bread

After the oven has maintained a 300 degree centigrade temperature for a while — this morning that point is at 7:35 — the baker closes the damper, removes the metal form from the center of the oven, and places a metal rail in the front. The bar holds a basket of flour the baker utilizes to dust the paddles he uses to place the bread in the oven. The paddles have handles about 10 feet long to reach to the back of the oven and when not in use sit across the ceiling beams. They are so large that when not overhead or propped against the metal bar, they stick outside the wrought iron window covering into the street. There are also two copper bowls with spigots underneath them, one on each side of the oven door. He pours a liter of water into each. The water injects into the oven, creating the steam which makes the outside of each loaf crusty.

The bread is brought from the cooler in large racks which he arranges close by to his side and back. Once the process starts, each loaf takes 20 minutes to bake, and to keep the process going without burning any of them requires an intricate choreography of removing loaves from the couches, placing them on floured paddles, slashing each four times with a straight-edge razor, and placing them in order in the oven. If the loaves are not slashed or placed seam side open, the dough cannot expand and the bread will not rise properly in the heat. The crumb (texture of the bread) will be too tight. At any one moment there are 75-80 loaves baking and they must be arranged from right to left in a pattern that permits him to remove baked loaves and put in raw ones over and again until the entire batch is done.

As each tray of loaves goes into the oven, he removes the couche they sat on and sets it on the rail to dry. As each batch of loaves bakes, Mr. Honorat extracts it by paddle and sets it into wicker baskets for sale.

The Assistants

Another baker makes the other types of breads and pastries sold here. Brioche, for example, which Mr. Honorat tells me they prepare much as I do, by mixing the dough, placing it in the refrigerator, and pulling off whatever is needed. The baguettes I think are far harder to do. He nods to a young man standing in the doorway and says that he is an apprentice and that he has told him that by Christmas he’ll have learned how to bake these baguettes. It is in this way that the traditional crafts survive to the good fortune of the residents and visitors alike.

Also in the shop are Mr. Honorat’s lovely wife and daughter who chat with the constant stream of customers, filling their orders with charm and grace. It is in these ordinary transactions everyday that the life of these towns and villages is so pleasant.


Baking Bread at Home            

The flour, salt, water, oven, and natural wild yeast or commercial yeast used cause enormous variations in the bread produced. If you care to try your hand at it, you might wish to start with simpler recipes than those used in Robion. Here are some suggestions.

I think the easiest, most delicious homemade bread is from the boule recipe by baker Jim Lahey, the owner of New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery who has devised an easier way to get a flavorful crusty bread—duplicating Mr. Honorat’s steam-injected oven—than anyone else has devised.  He has written a lovely book you might find interesting, and variations of this recipe and videos to help you make it are all over the internet.

If yours is a smaller home and you’d prefer to make smaller loaves using the same general method, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Hertzberg and Francois, and its companion books are for you.  The authors have a lively website which offers assistance. I am especially fond of their foolproof and delicious brioche dough recipe.

Should you feel even more adventurous, Chicago’s French Pastry School  offers the best recipe for Fougasse, a traditional provencal bread, filled with your choice of sun dried tomatoes or olives.

Finally, available online is baker Anis Bouabsa’s baguette formula which I have found to be the closest to the real thing for home bakers.

Click here for Part 2:

How to Shop for Wine in the South of France

And check out more on enjoying food and drink at PJ Lifestyle:

How to Make Beer: Our Family Discovers the Lost Art of Home-Brewing

9 Ways To Screw Up Your First Home Garden

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