|The Best Bread in France|
It’s taken me several attempts to start to write. I suppose having taken the whole summer off I feel almost rusty. My fingers feel slightly out of touch with the keyboard and as I am writing about both my summer in France and my childhood experiences in a French bakery. For some reason I am feeling oddly vulnerable sharing both my holiday and my childhood helping in a bakery in France. It feels deeply personal to be writing about a place that is a large part of who I am.
I read Paul Hollywood’s vivid account of his very first memory baking bread in this week’s Telegraph. I am sorry to say I have no such memory. Bread is so much part of my childhood it is as though it was always there, so I am afraid there is no such first time account.
|Boulangerie Janet in Nadaillac, France|
When my parents bought a house in the Dordogne I was just nine. It was late spring and I remember looking in delight at the yellow cowslips peeking out from the verges as we drove into the village. We didn’t go the house as we first arrived weary and hungry after a fourteen hour drive. We went to the hotel, where Jeano, the Frenchest of Frenchmen and his family welcomed us. The restaurant was full of locals eating delicious smelling food, drinking Pernod and red wine. The potage, the juice from the steaks and the cheese were scooped up with crusty white sourdough bread from baskets piled high on the tables. The bread smelt slightly of woodsmoke. I remember eating the bread thinking that the soft white interior was the best bread I'd ever had. My brother and I fed carrots to the rabbits in cages, little realising their final destany
It got dark quickly and a slim dark boy called Bertrand showed me the tree in the square. He chatted to me in the most beautiful language. I hadn't a clue what he was saying but we stood under a huge oak tree outside the church, which is sadly no longer there, but I was captivated by all things french from that moment to this day.
I soon made friends with Noel, who has four strapping boys. Perhaps because she had no daughter, or perhaps because I was so interested in everything she did in her kitchen she spent hours teaching me to speak French. I affectionately call her my French mum and her youngest son Eric I call my cousin. I love her wry humour, patience and affection. (We've been scouting around al the brocontes together buying French treasure, visiting the market at Terrasson an generally laughing, gossiping and eating - it's been so good to catch up. )
|The bakery is known to be 150 years old but it probably older|
Thinking back now I would have been about eleven when I first woke up and decided to crept out of bed and down to the bakery. The baker was happy to let me help and I spent every summer until he left when I was about fifteen.
I swept the floor, brushed the croissants with egg and milk and brushed the hot loaves off as they came out of the oven, and as I got older helped knead and shape the bread. The smell was heavenly and the warmth of the bakery was enough to make me brave walking down the black unlit alleyway to get there. The church clock would chime, just as it does now, and I’d while away from 3am until the morning when the sun would come up and I was allowed to serve the villagers their bread.
|The same recipe has been used since the 1950's as Laurent passed his recipe on to Herve in 1988|
Thirty years on I relived waking to the smell of wood smoke. I crept out of the house in the early hours, only this time it was my children I was trying not to wake. The same irrational fear sat in the pit of my stomach, even though cows a long gone, as I walked along the black alleyway again, and the same feeling of absolute joy was there as I walked under the orange street lights and into the warmth of the bakery.
|The alley way isn't scary during the day .. but when it's dark, trust me, it's spooky.|
Herve still uses the same sourdough recipe for his bread and bakes it in the same oven that has been used since 1950. He's an amazing baker. Nowadays most of the business is hotels and restaurants, although some of the older residents still buy their bread early in the morning. The hotel is now the distribution point for the bread and Herve delivers bread all over the area as he bakes over 200 large loaves a night.
I can’t thank Herve enough for having me back, sharing his sourdough method, recipe, techniques and advice. Of course I have brought back the “chef,” starter so I’m now baking my bread with my French starter from the bakery. I will spend rest of the year making sourdough and telling my students about the bakery and return to the village again next year for the summer .. and treasure the time I spent there.