The French take their bread, and the way it’s made, very seriously. And for good reason. Ten billion baguettes are enjoyed every year in France, and are considered a standard accompaniment to every meal.
So much so, that boulangerie proprietors once had to apply for permission to go on holidays, for fear they’d leave locals without their daily staple.
So what makes French bread so tasty? The answer lies in the simplicity of its ingredients, and the care and time a baker takes to roll the dough and cook it.
Nestled in the picturesque town of Mauvezin, under the watchful eye of the Cistercian abbey of Escaladieu, lies an old mill, Moulin de la Ribere.
One of just five working mills left in France, it’s a beautifully restored building, run by Pierre, and his wife, Alice. As part of Pierre’s enthusiasm for the mill and its produce, breadmaking schools are run throughout the year.
It’s here, where artisanal breadmaker, and our teacher, Frederic Davoine, (whose surname suitably translates as “oats”) kneads more than 150kg of dough every week to provide the locals with their favourite daily bread.
The secret in creating the perfect bread is in a constant and perfect temperature, in the room you prepare the dough, and the oven you use to bake the bread.
Frederic uses the French-government prescribed ingredients for his bread: leven (a vinegary-selling homemade type yeast), salt, organic flour (from the mill of course), and water.
After combining all the ingredients into a metal bowel, a cloth is placed over it and secured, to allow the bread to rise.
After 30 minutes or so, he pours the dough into a wooden trough, perfect for keeping the temperature of the dough consistent.
A linen cloth is draped over the trough and set aside. Allowed to sit for a couple of hours, the mill owner Pierre, then takes the baking students on a tour of the mill.
Originally owned by Pierre’s family, the mill was once also in use by the nearby abbey, before returning to his full ownership. It’s a fascinating, and meticulously restored building, set over, and beside a bubbling stream.
The local grain milled is all organic, from the farms of the northern Pyrenees, hence the mill’s recent organic certification. (It’s thought that using organic flour may help those who have an intolerance to wheat to still enjoy their baguettes).
The flint wheel, driven by the force of the water passing underneath the mechanism, grinds the wheat, which then transfers into a sifter.
From here, three types of wheat flour are made, which vary according to the level the wheat is ground down into.
After a brief lunch, the hard work begins! Kneading the bread is a lengthy process, which involves a lot of strength and patience.
Finally, bread is kneaded and shaped to Frederic’s satisfaction, and, after a quick dusting of flour, placed in the oven.
While the bread is rising, we head to the stream for a wonderfully meditative walk, to breathe in the scent of the riverside flowers, listen to the calls of the birds, and anticipate the tasty treat awaiting our return.
And it’s well worth it.
The air is filled with the aroma or our morning’s work. Beautifully risen, each round of bread is unique in shape, and all the more attractive for it. Cut open, steam rises, bringing with it the scent of fields and fresh air. We slather our slice with local butter and savour every mouthful.