It’s 7.30am and I’m pouring with sweat as I knead 6 kilos of dough. Alongside, my diminutive tutor, Martine, is working a huge 20 kilo batch without breaking sweat. Her kneading technique is interesting and extremely hard to imitate: it consists of pushing her thumbs deep into the dough and then rolling it back towards her in a continuous movement. We are in a stone outhouse with its old wood burning oven in the tiny hamlet of Fréchendets, hidden away in the green, fertile area of Les Baronnies near the Pyrenees.
As a keen amateur baker who has been making sourdough at home for 12 years or so and done practical courses on it in England, I wanted to learn how it should be done from an artisan baker in France. Many French boulangeries, even those that describe themselves as artisanal, now buy in frozen dough to cook on the premises. So it’s getting harder to find the real deal.
In the small, slightly rundown spa town of Capvern-les-Bains where we are staying, I had come across a leaflet in the Office du Tourisme on local food producers which referred to her course: “Toccacieli, Martine – fabrication stage du pain de levain”.
I was intrigued, so we sought her out. The area is lush and wooded, crossed with streams and dotted with little hamlets hidden away along narrow, twisty roads by the folds in the hills and valleys. Unsurprisingly dairy farming is very big in this corner of France.
Fréchendets, we discover is in two parts: a single track road that comes to a dead end at the start of a dirt track, and which we then have to reverse back up; and a loose collection of houses scattered on the surrounding wooded hills. The Toccacieli smalholding is really difficult to find, but eventually we manage to stumble upon it. It consists of two stone buildings: one is their own house which includes two guest rooms for visitors (they run a small B&B); and an old stone outhouse. To the front of the house they have a large patch of land where they grow vegetables, and behind it fields.
Martine runs through what her day course covers: making sourdough from scratch, maintaining the leaven starter, the process of long fermentation and kneading, bulk proving, shaping and the final proof, then baking in a wood fired oven which they have restored. I’m hooked and sign up for the following day, her main weekly baking day.
So, even though we’re on holiday, the next day we’re up at 6.00am to get to Martine’s house in plenty of time for our start.
Martine doesn’t speak English and there’s no one else on the course so my knowledge of French baking vocabulary develops quickly as I am able to ask her lots of questions about her techniques and methods of baking. Here’s her refreshed leaven:
Geting stuck into mixing the 20kg:
Leaving the bread to bulk prove, we move across the courtyard into their renovated traditional kitchen. Over a wonderful breakfast of orange juice, coffee, their own bread (of course) and a selection of home-made jams, Martine and her husband, Franco, tell us how they came to this remote part of France.
“I was a textile salesman”, said Franco, “and my patch was the whole of the south of France. We had a house in the Lot region with 10 hectares of land, horses and a swimming pool. But all the travelling was too much. So we decided to downsize, move to this area and run our own smallholding.” Martine, born in Cherbourg, had been a primary school teacher.
The farm they bought was in a very bad state of repair and was owned by an old man who was no longer able to farm the land. There was electricity and water, but they had to do everything else themselves to restore it. The buildings date from the late eighteenth century and they first they had to dig out the straw and dung that had accumulated inside before they could even start any restoration work. In one of the old outhouses they discovered an old bread oven. Franco restored it for Martine when she showed an interest in breadbaking after some friends had shown her how to make ‘pain au levain’ (sourdough bread).
This is the old style of bread made in France (and of course elsewhere) before the ubiquitous baguette took over. We tend to forget that the baguette (along with the croissant) was only introduced into France in the 1890s by an Austrian baker. Baguettes made with yeast have faster proving times and can therefore be churned out in industrial quantities, in shorter timescales and at greater profit. For a country that has such a wonderful cuisine and a refined appreciation of food, the continued dominance of the baguette, not to mention the tasteless Granny Smith apple, is a great puzzle.
On the smallholding they keep goats, chickens, pigs, rabbits, bees, and a couple of donkeys (Vanille & Caramel). Though they have a long working day, 7.00am – 9.00pm every day, they enjoy the hard work.
Back to work after breakfast, we weigh out the dough, shape it into boules and place in proving baskets (normally described as bannetons, but which she calls paniers) to retain its shape on the final proof.
For the second proof she put the shaped boules into a homemade proofing cabinet regulated by a thermostat that keeps the temperature at a steady 25 degrees.
To make it easier to sell her bread she has set up a subscription club: the members pay a set amount each week and order the loaf of their choice from a fixed list – white, white with rye or seeded (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, linseed and poppy). Today she has to make and deliver 26 loaves for her members.
Martine uses all organic ingredients. She buys her flour (mainly white and rye) from an organic grower/miller who lives about 100kms away. The salt is granulated sea salt.
We fire the oven at midday (with wood from oaks and chestnuts Martine has gathered from local forests). Later in the afternoon when the oven has reached about 210o we rake out the hot cinders into a metal box and scrape the floor of the oven with a wet rage to clean it down before putting the loaves in. She sprinkles her peel with wheat germ before tipping the boules on it from their baskets and slashing them with a razor blade (held between her teeth when not in use!).
We bake the loaves for about an hour and the smell of bread baking in a wood-fired oven is irresistible. The finished loaves are put on racked shelves to cool off (ours retained its heat for a good two hours after we left) before she deliver them that evening.
Martine checking her own homemade goat’s cheese:
It has been a really enjoyable day in good company that has given me an insight into how traditional artisan sourdough bread is made in France and a rare opportunity to bake in a wood-fired oven.