Fantasy Bakin’ Boy

Bakery exterior

It’s just gone five o’clock on a cool, dark morning in late August and I have been waiting at the bakery now for nearly half an hour. I’ve knocked on the door, walked round the back and inspected closed shutters with my torch, but there’s no sign of life. Perhaps I got the day or the time wrong.

Then just as I am about to give up, M. Meynard arrives. He’s running about an hour behind. Full of energy in his light t-shirt, cargo shorts and trainers, he opens up the bakery and off we go.

I am spending a few hours working with an artisan baker in a small village called St Magne de Castillon in the lower Dordogne valley. I am a home sourdough baker and part-time fantasist about the delights of baking for a living.

M Meynard

No time to lose, my son and I are pressed into service, rolling black dustbins full of proving dough into the bakery. Kneeling in front of the firebox, the baker uses newspaper and pine kindling uses using paper and pine kindling from trees grown in the nearby Landes area to get the fire going. The flames are soon roaring, but it will take another 1½ hours and frequent stoking to get the oven hot enough to bake. As the oven heats up M. Meynard removes a couple of bricks from the front of the hearth and replaces them with a shaped metal gueulat  (mouth) so the flames start flicking out from it and heating the surface of the hearth itself.

By the flickering light of the oven, M. Meynard talks almost mystically about baking: “It is an art and it’s also about feeling. You have to watch the dough and the oven carefully. If the wind is coming from the north or west, the oven behaves differently and every day the dough is different too.”


But this is not the time for a deep discussion, we are rushing to catch up. Now I’m weighing and shaping the dough into loaves and first up is a sourdough mixture of wholewheat and white (T65) flour. “These are going to be cèpes de vignes,” he tells me, “so called because they look like vine branches”.


I tense the dough by folding it, rounding it to a ball with cupped hands then rolling out it to a baguette shape. Well, that’s the theory. Under my hands, they end up like misshapen sausages. M. Meynard picks them up and with a few deft movements sorts them out before putting them on a couche made of coarse linen that’s over 80 years old and has never been washed.

“Many bakers in France now buy in the dough for their bread, but I mix my own”, he says. “With the white baguettes, you have to make sure that the dough is firm when you shape it. You put the bread in the couche with the seam side up so that when you turn it over you can slash the top.”


I ask him how he made his own levain: “I use a liquid levain with wholemeal flour at 100% hydration. I refresh it then store it at 11o C and leave for 18 hours so it’s ready to use to make the dough at 2.00-3.00 am.”

Next we’re on to white and seeded boules, and then baguettes proper. He handles the dough confidently without it sticking to either his hands or the bench. It’s this finesse, especially in shaping, that separates artisan professional from clumsy amateur.

Wood fired oven

M. Meynard comes from a line of bakers going back 140-150 years. “In France it tends to run in the family.When people do repetitive work it somehow gets into the genes. I trained as a baker, but I had worked with my dad. In France it tends to run in the family and go from one generation to the next. Once you are old enough you are put to work in the bakery. It was my great grandfather who had this oven installed in 1898 when he married the girl across the road and opened the bakery. Before that this building, which dates back to the eighteenth century, had been a winery.” In his turn he was the son of a baker in a small village on the other side of the Dordogne called St Pez de Castet.

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I have always slightly romanticised the life of an artisan baker, but talking to him, I realise how hard it can be, and not well paid. He remembers what it was like working with his grandfather: “ We started work at about midnight to make up the dough and then slept on sacks of flour in the bakery while we waited a long time for the oven to heat up. We also had the vineyard to look after in the afternoons.”

Such unsociable hours are not good for family life or for health: “When I was 10 I was helping my grandfather in the bakery here load the oven at Christmas when he had a heart attack and died in front of me.” His father also had a heart attack in the bakery at the age of 51 and when M. Meynard was 36 he too had a heart attack on the tennis court.

At the moment he is one worker short, which means that he has to work long hours to keep both bakeries going. “I went to bed at 10.00 last night and this morning I woke up at 1.30am. I’ll probably have a couple of hours sleep this afternoon. It’s like this every day.” I couldn’t possibly function sensibly with this degree of sleep deprivation, so I am amazed at his energy and good humour.


As the bell for 7.00 am Mass rings, M.Meynard cleans the hearth with a wet rag on stick before we start the first bake. Then, turning the shaped and proved loaves onto a long-handled wooden peel and slashing them with a razor blade, he reaches into the depths of the oven and deftly shugs them onto the hearth. The larger loaves go at the back of the oven as they take longer to cook and the smaller baguettes at the front.

As a reward for rolling loaves onto the peel, I’m allowed to load the last few into the oven. It’s much harder than it looks. Top tip: never stand behind a baker wielding a five metre peel – it really hurts when he hits you with it.

He managed to escape his baking destiny for a while, becoming a mason, working his way up to Commercial Director of a company and then as a sales rep for a flour mill. But he felt that he needed a complete change of direction and was planning to run a hotel on the Mediterranean, until one night: “I had a dream in which I saw my father again – he’d been dead a long time by then – and he was repairing the oven. I had the idea of opening the bakery just on a Sunday. But quickly it became impossible just to bake on a Sunday because there was such a demand for bread that was out of the ordinary.”

People still come from 20-30 km away to buy his bread, but he is aware that in general people are now much less loyal to their local baker than they used to be. They tend to buy bread from near where they work or when they are shopping in the supermarket.

I’ve sometimes toyed with the idea of baking for a living, but could never get the business maths to stack up and I wondered how he found it. “To make it work you need a small business. I used to have a business with 4 bakeries that employed 18 people and I lost money because in France there are so many overheads. Then I came down to 3 bakeries and 13 people, and now I have 2 bakeries and 9 people. I’m now in the process of selling the other bakery and keeping this one with three people, and that will be great. It’s the way to make money. The problem with industrial bakeries – apart from the staff issues – is that you have to get large customers, retirement homes, schools, hospitals and hotels who all buy on prices. So you are working on very fine margins.”


Soon it’s all hands on deck to get the finished bread out of the oven and into baskets to cool off before going on display. The loaves have that wonderful aroma and golden colour that only come from being baked in a wood fired oven. Impossible, alas, to reproduce it in a domestic electric oven, as I can testify from my endless attempts.


The T65 flour he uses has the Label rouge, which designates it as a superior quality product. The flour is a delicate yellow colour, but if you mix it for too long it tends to go whiter. I’ve always wondered what the numbers in French flour types mean. He tells me that they indicate the level of ash in the flour once 1 kg of flour has been heated at 900C for 12 hours.  So for the T65 flour, it contains 65gm of mineral contents that were not burnt.

In the old days the flour the family used came from local mills, and it was very ‘rough’. “It was not very resistant, so we had to use a lot of levain or yeast in order to make firm dough. Bakers used to say that you had to put a lot of energy into the dough because the dough is not elastic. Now modern flour mills use high gluten flours that give a good rise, but the downside is that more and more people are getting gluten allergies.”

Tastes have changed over the years: “After the war people wanted white bread, because they’d eaten lots of brown bread during the war. But gradually over the past 15 years, we’ve been coming back to less aerated breads with more taste. So in addition to white and wholemeal I use other flours such as spelt, buckwheat, maize, kamut and barley – especially for customers with gluten allergies.”

His own favourite bread varies with the season of the year. “Breads are like wine. I advise people to serve different breads with different courses. Certain breads improve the taste of the food, just as certain wines do. For example, with foie gras, thinly sliced and lightly toasted ‘sarments’ go with it very well. With red meats breads which are crisp and a bit stale bring out the flavour more. At Christmas I make a fig bread with lime that goes very well with smoked salmon. Rye bread goes very well with oysters because it has a depth of flavour to match the oysters. And walnut bread goes very well with cheese.”


The wood fired oven and the baking bread mingle to create an enticing and comforting aroma. As people come in to buy their bread and patisserie for breakfast, little jokes are exchanged. They smile, lingering a little in the warmth and savouring the appetising smells of baking bread and patisseries, before carrying on with their lives. Not a bad way to make a living after all.

Bakery goods

But there’s no time to stop, we have to get the second bake of the morning going.



The tears of the winemaker

M Ley's vineyard

Along the lower Dordogne valley gnarled vines trained on wires stretch out as far as the eye can see like so many fields of hedges. In recent years I’ve lost touch with French wine, my taste buds bludgeoned by supermarket new world offers. Here I’m overwhelmed here by the choice of wines available and the scale of production.

M Ley chateau

Out walking near the village of Lamothe-Montravel where we are staying, I meet Monsieur Jean-René Ley a passionate winemaker, with a dry wit and sprightliness that belies his 89 years. He was born at his vineyard, Domaine des Templiers, which has been in the family for generations. Perched on a plateau above the Bordeaux to Bergerac road on land once owned by the Knights Templar, it’s next to a late thirteenth century Templar chapel, lovingly restored by the inhabitants of the hamlet of Bonnefare.

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The stone and flint peppered chalk soil is not fertile enough for anything other than vine growing. The English occupation of Aquitaine in the Middle Ages stimulated wine production and, when they withdrew, it took until after the Second World War for wine production to reach the same levels as in the early 1300s. We’re 10 kilometres here from St Emilion and its grands crus , but the Bonnefare soil produces wines of a similar quality. Singlehanded, M Ley looks after 60 hectares of vineyard and works 12 hours a day seven days a week, only taking on another three people at harvest time.

M Ley winery-3


“To make good wine, you need three things: a good grape, a good wine maker and you need to have luck.” Winemaking is a risky business: “We have what we call ‘capital risks’. Everything is outside and anything can happen right up to the harvest.” Vineyard owners are expert weather watchers, fearing the hailstorms that can devastate their delicate crops.

M Ley winery M Ley winery-2

“This year the grapes are looking good, but we’ll have to wait and see,” he says, “The harvest won’t start until 5 October, three weeks later than normal because of the cold spring.” The white wine juice ferments at 160 C for about 2 weeks and red at 25-280 for 25 days. The red wine needs a higher temperature and longer initial fermentation period to give the wine its tannin content and richness. It’s only at this stage that M Ley can get a sense of the quality of wine that he has, and even then he can’t be sure of what the finished wine will taste like. The wines then matures in tall metal vats (each holding 45,000 bottles) or, if it’s very good quality, in oak barrels.

M Ley-2

He pours a 2010 red, one of his better recent vintages, a mix of Merlot and Cabinet Sauvignon grapes. Swirling the wine in his glass, he holds it up to the light: “Can you see the tears? It’s a sign of a good wine rich in glycerol.”

M Ley

The quality of his wine made me fall in love with French wine all over again.

Reading the world – visiting Montaigne’s Tower

Montaigne's Tower

How to live? We all have to find our own answer to that question, but part of the enjoyment of the journey is looking at how others deal with it.

The sixteenth century French writer Michel de Montaigne is an interesting case. Withdrawing from public life to his estate near Bordeaux at the age of 38 he decided to dedicate to his life to trying to answer that question through a series of self-soundings which he published as the Essais. A lot of the early essais are quite dry and often repeat what his favourite classical writers had to say. Frequently that was contradictory. But when he starts to explore his own reactions to the world, gaining in self-confidence as he begins to trust his own views over those of the ancients, he becomes much more interesting

He lived in very turbulent times in France during the Wars of Religion, when Catholic and Protestant factions fought each other often viciously and the crown, buffeted by both factions, was powerless to exert its authority. Montaigne was Catholic and hated the turmoil in society that religion had caused, but his estate was in the middle of a Protestant area.

So, I’m on another literary pilgrimage to visit the château of this writer who has been a bit of a hero of mine for over 40 years.

View of the rebuilt Château of Montaigne from across the fields

View of the rebuilt Château of Montaigne from across the fields

The estate, in the village of St Michel de Montaigne just north of the Dordogne, is still there today and so is the Tower that housed his library where he studied and wrote his Essais. The original château was built by his grandfather in the fifteenth century as a fortified Périgord house rather than a castle, and it stayed in his family until 1811 when it was bought by M Magne, Minister of Finance under Napoleon III. He had the house re-built as a fantasy Gothic Loire valley château, with turrets and steep, slate roofs, completely out of keeping with the original house and the architecture of Périgord. Only Montaigne’s Tower and the sixteenth century outbuildings which housed a laundry, stables and wine storehouse were retained.

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The Gothic monstrosity burnt down in 1885 (apart from Montaigne’s Tower and the outbuildings), but M Magne’s daughter, convincingly demonstrating that bad taste is inherited, had it re-built to the same design. The château is today still in the hands of the Magne family.

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Between the outer gate and the inner courtyard, protected by stout gates, was a barbican which could be defended against intruders from a parapet high above.

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Montaigne’s wife, who had the best business head in the partnership and mainly managed the estate, had her own tower at the other end of the rampart, but this no longer exists. The château itself was Montaigne’s mother’s domain. So you have the sense of these three people each having their own space.

It was in the late eighteenth / early nineteenth century that the Tower started to become a site of literary pilgrimage. Until then the Tower had rather fallen into a state of disrepair, with the lower story (which Montaigne’s father, Pierre, turned into a chapel) used as a potato store. Curiously the chapel is built in a sort of Byzantine style. It has a blue ceiling sprinkled with white stars and the inner wall has trompe-l’oeil niches in it surmounted by the coats of arms of family and friends. Montaigne, whose bedroom is on the floor above, used to say that he slept above the sky. It’s so dark that photography is virtually impossible, so apologies for the next shot, but I wanted to give a sense of what it looks like:

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The main focus of the chapel is the simple niche altar with a now faded painting of St Michael killing a dragon.

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M Magne did not like the painting because it was so faded and had it replaced by a canvas reproducing the same painting but in more vibrant colours: this thankfully has now been removed.

Over the entrance to the chapel on the inside is Montaigne’s own device, a lion’s paw on a black background with golden trefoils (symbolising wealth) surrounded by shells (symbolising nobility).  Also over the entrance is an aperture through which Montaigne could hear Mass being said from his bedroom on the floor above. During the worst of the Wars of religion when many churches were closed, Montaigne got permission from the Protestant Henri de Navarre (and future Henri IV) for Mass to be said daily in his chapel.

The bedroom, with its original tiled floor and wooden ceiling, contains a four-poster bed which is not contemporary. Our guide tells us that in Montaigne’s time people slept sitting up, supported by pillows and covered with blankets, since they were frightened of dying in their sleep if they lay down. I’m not convinced of this explanation and have not read it anywhere else.

Montaigne's Tower-27

When Montaigne lived here there were no glass windows: window spaces were covered with hanging cloths, so rooms were cold and draughty. To the side of one of the two windows is a recess where Montaigne sat to read and keep warm.

Montaigne's Tower-5The chimney breast over the fireplace is decorated with paintings, now so badly faded it is impossible to make them out. They were done by a painter from Italy whom Montaigne commissioned to illustrate scenes from his favourite book, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Many of these paintings here and in other parts of the Tower were whitewashed over by Montaigne’s descendants and by the ever tasteful M Magne.

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Montaigne's Tower-7In the early 1580s Montaigne set off on a trip to Italy with his secretary, servants and assorted young male relatives. The experience was captured in a travel journal that he kept which was only discovered nearly 200 years later in a metal chest in the château. The chest now stands in the corner of the bedroom beneath a bust of the writer. Actually the travel journal turned out to be a rather dry affair kept by his clerk in the third person, with none of the vivacity of the better essais.

Montaigne’s library and workroom occupies the top floor of the Tower. The entrance door is quite low, a reminder not just that medieval people were generally shorter than modern people, but also that Montaigne was a small man, probably no more than 1.5m tall. He complains about his stature in the Essais: being taken for one of his servants sometimes when out on business and preferring to move about on horseback rather than on foot to avoid being jostled by other people in the street.

The main item in the library is a desk and chair – again not original. Montaigne preferred to dictate his essais to a clerk sitting at a desk, as he found it hard to think while sitting down.

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From the windows on the top floor he had a commanding view of the estate and good give orders and instructions to the estate workers. As he walked around the Tower he could see above him painted on the beams favourite quotes (mainly in Latin, but some in Greek) from his favourite Classical writers;

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Montaigne's Tower-13

Also as he walked, thought and dictated he would stop and consult his books to check a quote or story. The books and the shelves they stood on are unfortunately no longer there. In his will he left his books to Marie de Gournay, his fille d’alliance (‘adopted daughter’, though celebrity stalker might be more accurate) but, before she could get to the château after his death, his wife had given all his books away to friends. There’s a whole sub-genre of Montaigne studies which is concerned with tracking down his library and studying the marginalia. For its time it was a considerable library of about 1,000 books, housed on 5 shelves between the two windows facing the writing desk.

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An artist’s impression on the easel shows what the bookshelves may have looked like:

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Behind the writing desk is a plaque to his friend Etienne de la Boétie who died of the plague in his early thirties. Montaigne was at his bedside when he died and recalled his friend’s model Stoic approach to death. In part the Essais is a continuation of the friendship and conversation which Montaigne enjoyed with la Boétie for a mere six years.

A half-size (and not particularly well done) statue of Montaigne executed in the 1960s stands in the library today.

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Originally there was a fireplace here, but Montaigne had it bricked up as he was afraid that a fire might destroy his books. So to keep warm in the coldest weather, Montaigne and his clerk would withdraw to a side room, the cabinet de travail, where there was a fireplace.  

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It was very richly decorated with now faded paintings, though some of the designs and vibrant colours are still visible.

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High up on one of the walls is a plaque in Latin that Montaigne had made when he made the decision to retire to his estate.

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Here’s my translation:

In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of 38 years, on the eve of the calends of March [ie the last day of February], the anniversary of his birth, Michel de Montaigne, bored for a long time by his bondage at the Court of Parliament [in Bordeaux, where he served as an officer preparing case summaries for the magistrates] and by his public duties, still feeling full of energy, came to rest on the bosom of the learned virgins [ie the Muses] in calm and serenity; he will spend there the remaining days of his life.

Hoping that fate will allow him to complete this dwelling of sweet paternal retreats, he has dedicated them to his freedom, tranquillity and leisure. 

Over the chimney breast is a Roman Pieta, based on the story of the daughter who, visiting her condemned father in prison, offers him her breast to suckle. The father’s captor, seeing this gesture, was so moved that he freed the father. Apart from the prison grill it is very difficult to see any of the detail.

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At the top of the Tower there used to be a clock which deafeningly sounded the hours in Montaigne’s time, but at some stage after his death it came crashing down damaging the staircase.

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Appropriately for this writer who never shied away from the earthier side of what it is to be human, a long-drop loo stands off to one side f the newel staircase between the 2nd and 3rd floors. More poignantly, it must have been a place of torment too as Montaigne suffered agonising bouts of kidney stone lasting several days which left him exhausted, but curiously clear-headed too.

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The visit leaves me with a great sense of his character still filling this place where he lived, thought and wrote about what it is to be human, and in particular, what it was like to be Michel de Montaigne.

On the way out I buy a bottle of the wine still produced on the estate and was disappointed that the small shop did not have a copy of the Quesnel drawing of Montaigne made in 1588 just four years before he died.

Montaigne by Quesnel

It is considered to be one of the most lifelike pictures of him. He looks like a warm, friendly and wise person – exactly the way he comes across in the Essais.

At the pigeon fanciers festival in Pellegrue

Fete de la Palombe 9

It’s Saturday afternoon and, after an excellent birthday lunch for my son, we find ourselves in a square before a medieval church watching one of the more unusual village events we’ve ever attended.

We’re in the little village of Pellegrue in the Entre Deux Mers area of Aquitaine as it celebrates its annual Fête de la Palombe (wood pigeon festival). Many of the men are wearing berets: so many that it looks like an English parody of a French village.

Fete de la Palombe

We assume that the berets with the pigeon emblem are being worn by members of the local pigeon fanciers club, but they don’t seem to be pigeon fanciers in the English sense. They don’t keep pigeons in lofts and race them, it is more about capturing wild pigeons with decoys and elaborate traps. But what they do with them after that is anyone’s guess, perhaps they are gourmets who capture pigeons for the table.

A couple of trees have been set up in big concrete containers in the square so that they look as if they grow there naturally. In the air above us a man in a harness has hauled himself up into the greenery of one of the trees and is demonstrating various pigeon fancier activities with an array of tools clipped to his workbelt. Quite what he is actually demonstrating is hard to work out, and it’s not helped by the commentator on the ground with a mic. The PA system is turned up so loud it’s distorting and we can’t hear what he’s saying.

Then there’s the tall man with a long grey beard and broad-brimmed hat who’s herding about 20 geese with two sheep dogs. The dogs are constantly circling the geese, concentrating and anticipating their movements.

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The goose-herder doesn’t even need to issue instructions to the dogs, they do it by instinct. Only now and again does he stop talking to hush a goose if it starts to puff itself up and stretch its wings.

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Now a Gascon folk dancing perform just in front of the church door. One of the dances is particularly odd. It starts with couples promenading slowly to a dirge like tune,  the men pulling extraordinary faces, as if they are drunk or gaga. Then they break into a joyful lively dance before going back to the peculiar promenade. This is repeated several times.

Fete de la Palombe 2

Back to pigeons. The programme calls it a ‘cooing competition’. A successions of men go into a hide and appear at the window as if they’re on pigeon TV and start cooing into a microphone. One competitor, a little boy, shouts in annoyance “I haven’t finished yet!” when the man holding the microphone, thinking the boy has finished his impression, tries to move it away, Three judges sit in rapt concentration with their back to the hide, judging the competition.

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My favourite competitor – who goes on to win – has a very impressive moustache and is of course wearing a beret.

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The announcer awards prizes to all the wrong contestants and one of the judges has to step in, take back in all the prizes, and re-allocate them.

In the early evening there’s a concert of Gascon folk music in the church, but the sound is mainly lost in the building’s terrible acoustics. Then outside a Gascon banda plays very upbeat music in the main square of the village, before dinner is served under the early twentieth century iron and glass covered market. The main dish of course is wood pigeon.

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Letters of introduction in white, red and blue

In Artemis Cooper’s wonderful recent biography of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, she describes how, in the course of his walk across Europe in the 1930s, he managed to meet and stay with a succession of eccentric and often brilliant aristocratic families in Germany and middle Europe. In the main this was thanks to some letters of introduction provided by a friend of his landlady’s in London. And, of course, as he stayed with more people they provided further letters of introduction to their friends and relatives to help him further along his route to Constantinople.  

It reminded me of the only time in my life (to date – who knows what may happen tomorrow?) when I was given a couple of letters of introduction.

Nearly 40 years ago I was living in France and working as an English language assistant in a lycee in Grenoble. On my university course I was also studying Russian and the wife of my professor, with whom I took some translation classes, finding out where I was going to do this stage in France, gave me a letter of introduction to a White Russian family by the name of K—– (can’t resist the anonymising device of old Russian novels) who lived in Grenoble. One there, I hung on to the letter for quite a while, as there were so many other distractions in my life at that time. And then one day decided to make contact with them.

Details at this distance in time are hazy. I recall there seemed to be quite a few people in the flat and I never quite worked out who they all were. The reason for the introduction was so that I could speak Russian to them. Remember, this was the early 1970s so access to native Russian speakers in those days was rare. My Russian at that time, even though I was studying it at university, was to say the least not good. In fact to me it was mainly a written language and my main exposure to it was via nineteenth century literature. In the circumstances, and given the fact I felt very self-conscious about speaking it, It was hard  to make conversation in the language, so we spoke mainly in French.

I remember that they sort of invited me to a party or event that may have had some connection with the (Orthodox) church. Looking back, if I had had any sense I would have tried harder to speak Russian and to make friends with them. However, I didn’t and that was undoubtedly my loss. One of the main things that sticks in my memory though about that one and only meeting with them was when we got onto the subject of politics.

Pompidou was nearing the end of his presidency and life – he died in April 1974. But in the last few months of his life there was much speculation about his health. Magazines and newspapers showed pictures of him with a very swollen face. Clearly something was wrong with him, but of course he denied it. There was therefore much talk of an upcoming election and after so many years of Gaullism, a sense that the country was going to take another direction, specifically a lurch leftwards. My White Russian family, mindful of the Russian Revolution and its upheavals (and who knows what personal tragedies it brought them), were horrified at the prospect of a Communist government coming to power in France. In fact they were so frightened of it, they told me that if it happened they would pack their bags and leave the country.

I thought at the time they were being alarmist. I remember people in England saying the same sort of thing at the prospect of a Labour government in the early 60s. But looking back and knowing a bit more about that period now than I did at the time, I can appreciate why they felt the way they did.

The main leftwing parties in France at that time had united under Le Programme Commun, driven mainly by the Communist Party. I remember buying a copy of it, a book the size of an average paperback, though I never did get round to reading it.  However, this leftwing coalition, in order not to alienate too many leftist sympathisers, had the sense not to elect a leader from the Communist Party. Instead they selected François Mitterand who, ironically when he did become president in 1984, started to drift as far away from the left as you could imagine.

Fast forward a few weeks and it is a warm evening in the Stade de Glace in Grenoble. It is 4 May and the last night of the quick presidential election campaign called following Pompidou’s death in office. I am sitting up in the balcony with a couple of English friends surrounded by several thousand fervent French leftwingers. We are waiting for Mitterand to appear and give his last address of the election campaign. Grenoble was no doubt  chosen for the climax of the campaign because at the time it was a socialist stronghold, with a forward thinking socialist mayor called Hubert Dubedout who was doing great things for the city.

We have had a few warm up speeches, including one from Pierre Mendès France, a longstanding leftwing politician. He was an anticolonialist who in the late 40s had started French disengagement from Indo-China by negotiating an armistice with Ho Ch Minh. Later he clashed with de Gaulle over government policy on Algeria. Then amazingly a slight woman with black hair and wearing a long black dress emerges on the stage, trailing a single red rose (the symbol of the leftwing alliance). The audience goes wild. It is Juliette Gréco, and she proceeds to give us some of her great songs.

However, it is getting late. By law electioneering has to stop at midnight. It’s now gone eleven and there’s still no sign of Mitterrand. Even Juliette is struggling to hold the audience’s attention. When it gets past 11.30, the audience are boiling with frustration at Mitterrand’s non-appearance. Then suddenly there he is on stage, giving a speech which is greeted almost hysterically by the audience. At one point we sing the Marseillaise. I say ‘we’ because I jumped to my feet and joined in, giving it full voice, whilst my English comrades pointedly remained seated. I enjoyed that bit enormously but was later treated to a bit of lecture about the dangers of mob hysteria.

Then it was midnight and, like Cinderella, Mitterrand slips away. Amazingly this election turned out to be one of the closest in French history. The Gaullist candidate, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing failed to get a majority in the first round and it went to a second ballot where he won by about 400,000 votes – or a whisker as we psephologists prefer to say. No doubt my White Russian family breathed a huge sigh of relief.

My second letter of introduction was to a French nun. At the time I was going through my Catholic phase and before leaving for France had been taking instruction from a Jesuit to ’embrace the scarlet woman’, as they used to say. In spite of the Jesuit’s urging I had refused to be stampeded into a decision. Somehow and from a Catholic friend I imagine I had managed to get this introduction. I held on to it for a long time, not sure what I would have in common with a nun. Eventually out of curiosity I rang her up and she invited me to the convent one Saturday afternoon.

As it turned out, she was quite entertaining. She was a teacher of English and I was able to help her out be recording some pieces from her textbooks for her classes. We had tea and cake in the communal area of the convent with some of the other nuns, who all seemed very calm and quite jolly.

One event stays in my memory all these years later. She invited me to the convent one Sunday afternoon for an outing. In the boxy convent Renault we drove up into the mountains, my nun friend driving, another nun beside her and me sat in the back with the Profesor of Astrophysics from Birmingham University, on a visit from CERN. I have no idea how he knew these nuns. Perhaps he too had a letter of introduction…

Up and up into the mountains we went, each hairpin bend revealing more and more dramatic views, until at one point flat part we stopped and the nuns pointed at some wild flowers by the side of the road. We got out of the car and walked over to them. They turned out to be gentians. I can still see their intense blue colour, smell the heady scent of pine resin, and feel the freshness of the air in these high mountains. For some reason it remains an intense, clear experience across the years.

Du côté de chez Proust – a literary pilgrimage

Today is the ninetieth anniversary of Proust’s death and I would like to mark the occasion with this post on a visit I made to Illiers-Combray back in 1971 (coincidentally the centenary of Proust’s birth).

Chartres sits on the great flat plain of la Beauce and the cathedral with its two towers can be seen from miles away, crouching like a solitary cat with huge ears. I spent some time exploring this wonderful, Gothic cathedral and at that time there was a great English guide there called Malcolm Miller who had spent several years studying the building. He led a really mind-opening tour of the cathedral for a small group of English speakers. Though I recall no details of that tour now, I do recall its impact: the realisation that architecture can convey ideas and an overall purpose and that buildings can  be ‘read’ to discover their meaning, in a similar way to literary texts. Malcolm Miller was superb on the stained glass windows of Chartres and how all the parts of the cathedral worked together to deliver a consistent visual message, essential in a society where literacy was the preserve of the wealthy or learned.

Not long before that visit to France I had read the Combray section of Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of Proust’s vast novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (ALRTP) and was aware that there was a connection between Proust and this part of la France profonde. For some fifteen miles south-west of Chartres lies the small town of Illiers, where Proust spent childhood holidays with his family and which was one of the main models for Combray in the novel.

[I was living in northern France at the time, working as a surveillant in a private Catholic college in a small town in Picardy, and stayed for a while with a doctor and his family called Perdu. One day out in the street, the doctor’s wife stopped me and asked if I had seen her youngest son Antoine. To which I replied: ‘Ah, Madame, vous êtes à la recherche d’Antoine Perdu!’ She didn’t seem to get the joke. In hindsight she was probably more concerned to find her young son than laugh politely at a foreigner’s lame humour.]

So, on a Sunday, just out of curiosity to see what the place looked like and without doing any research on whether there was anything worth seeing and if there were whether it would even be open, I caught the train from Chartres out to Illiers. I was surprised to discover on arrival that the town name, as displayed on the station platform, had changed to ‘Illiers-Combray’. It turned out that this change only came about in 1971 in commemoration of the centenary of Proust’s birth.

Illiers-Combray was a rather characterless small town on the banks of the river Loir, consisting of undistinguished houses in grey stone around a small central square on which stands the church of St. Jacques. The church name is a reminder that the town stands on the old pilgrim route of St James of Compostella.

Illiers is where Proust’s father was born and where his uncle and aunt, Jules and Elisabeth Amiot, lived. From an early age Proust’s parents brought him and his brother Robert out to Illiers at Easter and during the summer holidays to stay. The Combray of the novel is a composite of Illiers and Auteuil (just outside Paris) where his maternal grandparents lived, just as the characters are composites of lots of different people that Proust actually knew.

However it is from Illiers and the surrounding area that Proust drew many names that appear in the novel. For example: Tansonville (the name of Swann’s estate); Méséglise (estate of the Duc de Guermantes, adapted from Méréglise); La Raspelière (house of the Verdurins near Balbec from La Rachepelière); Saint Loup (name of one of the narrator’s aristocratic friends); Montjouvain (home of the composer Vinteuil and his daughter, adapted from Montjouvin); Saint Hilaire (the name of the church in Combray, taken from the Rue Saint-Hilaire in Illiers); Mirougrain (farm owned by the narrator’s Tante Léonie); and Combray itself (adapted from the village of Combres).

Everything was closed up in the town that Sunday afternoon; the streets were empty and completely silent. Wondering off the main square to explore the side streets I came across what was described as La Maison de Tante Léonie (the house where Proust’s Amiot uncle and aunt lived) in the Rue du Saint Esprit and amazingly it was open. When a small group of people had gathered (there couldn’t have been more than 6 or 8 of us) we were given a guided tour of the house: the dining room; the kitchen ruled over by the family servant, Ernestine (one of the originals of Françoise in the novel); aunt Elisabeth’s bedroom; the room where Proust slept; the small garden itself.

We were then led out of the garden, through the town and across the river Loir by a footbridge to a small park or pleasure-garden built by uncle Jules that he called the Pré Catalan (after a famous enclosure in the Bois de Boulogne).  Uncle Jules laid it out with lawns, dwarf palms, gravel paths, geranium beds, a small lake (more accurately a pond) with swans and carp, and an octagonal, red brick summer-house that he called La Maison des Archers. A small brook, still too wide to jump across, ran from the pond into the nearby Loir. Here Marcel and his brother Robert came to play and fish in the pond, and Marcel read on the divan in the summer-house. When I visited it, the pond was silted up and the pleasure-garden overgrown, so it was difficult to see how it would have looked in Proust’s childhood.

Back at the house, we were shown into a garage (built after Proust’s time), fitted out with old red plush cinema seat, where we were addressed by our guide about the town and its connection with Proust and his novel. The guide’s name was M. Pierre Larcher, an old man, in his eighties at least, with rheumy eyes. From his clothes he looked as if he had stepped straight out of the late nineteenth century. He was wearing a white shirt with a tie of the sort called in French a bande lavallière (a large, floppy, stringy bow tie fashionable amongst artists and intellectuals of the fin de siècle) a black velvet jacket with piping round the lapel edges and a black fedora. M Larcher had been born in Illiers-Combray and was president of the Société des amis de Marcel Proust.

As we filed out of the garage into the garden again for one last inhalation of Proustian atmosphere, I went up to M Larcher and asked him whether he had ever met Proust. “No”, he said, “but I used to see him in the street when he came to stay.”

I still can’t work out how old M Larcher was. Proust was born in 1871 and stopped coming on holiday to Illiers when he was about 13, as his father thought the river and the countryside were bad for his son’s asthma. He came back on a few rare occasions in later life, but not for any length of time. To be conscious of who he was looking at, when he saw Proust in the street, M Larcher must have had to be born by the late 1870s at the latest. That would have made him somewhere in his mid-nineties at the time I met him.

The temptation to identify places and people in real life with their fictional counterparts is often overwhelming. This is particularly the case with Proust whose novel frequently tends to be read as a thinly disguised autobiography. However, I am sure this something he would have strongly resisted. In a critical essay entitled Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust attacked the biographical approach to understanding a writer’s work.

Nevertheless that visit to Illiers-Combray has always stayed with me and gave me an understanding of the background to the novel that I could not have got any other way when, 2-3 years later, I came to read ALRTP itself.

Baking sourdough in the Pyrenees

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.