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.
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.
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.
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 900o C 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.
But there’s no time to stop, we have to get the second bake of the morning going.