As you all know, we love bread. I mean, really, who doesn’t love bread? The staff of life, the basis of a sandwich. OK, I know what you are thinking, isn’t it full of wheat? Yes, and I know Griffin can’t have any, but that doesn’t stop my own love affair with bread. I mean, they man say “Man cannot live on bread alone” but I think some French would disagree or at least say that bread is at least as essential as items such as water and shelter.
Of course, if you were speaking to a French person, it would not just be any old bread, but a baguette. I was in a group of 10 diverse French people recently and asked them what their favorite kind of bread was (keep in mind the average boulangerie has at least 20 to 30 varieties). The unanimous answer was a plain baguette. No contest.
Of course, our family eats about a baguette or two a day, and often also a boule tranchee (that’s a sliced loaf). I often order an epi since that kind of loaf is like a lot of little rolls stuck together and I love crust. The kids adore pain comtoise which is a flat loaf that is baked with cheese and lardons (little chunks of bacon). Besides the traditional baguette, we sometimes purchase a baguette fariné which has flour dusted over the top or a mésonge which is a multigrain baguette that is delicious with butter and honey. Of course, we also sometimes get patisseries such as croissants, pain au chocolate, tartes, eclairs, meringues and other things like the delectable tasting pingoin which is a white cake with a chocolate ganache covered in a chocolate (penguin shaped) shell. I try to be good and not get this stuff too often!
All of these delicacies, for the most part, are purchased at the best (and smallest) bakery in St. Claude: Le Petit Mitron. The friendly owners, Alain and Annie take very good care of us and even bake special bread for Griffin. Le Petit Mitron is probably my favorite place in Besancon.
Of course, being me, I was curious about what goes on behind the scenes at a traditional French bakery. I asked Annie if we could come in early one day to see how things work. She said to come in one morning during the vacances. I expected a quick 15 minute tour of the place and we ended up, instead, with a thoroughly fascinating tour of the entire operation that lasted about 2 hours.
Le Petit Mitron makes the dough for their bread at least a day ahead of time. They mix it, form it into shapes and lay the raw dough on le couche (special ridged cloths) to rise overnight. The reason their bread is so much better than the other bakeries in town is that they let it rise longer, giving the dough an incredible airiness and a better crust.
They use a giant mixer for the dough (le tournera en français - shown left). To give you a sense of scale, that orange bag you see holds 25 kilograms of flour. Annie told us the flour used to only come in 50 kilogram sacks – I guess you need a strong back to be a baker. Check out how many sacks they have stored (right) – all printed with their own logo! We were lucky enough to get to watch the mixer in action. All that is in the bread is flour, water, yeast and salt. That’s it! Also, they put in a bit of dough from the last batch each time as a starter.
The whole thing is quite an art. Alain started by dumping 50 kilos (2 bags) of flour in with roughly measured water. That mixed for some time (10 minutes?) and then he added the yeast, mixing again for about 10 more minutes (I don’t really remember the times but he used a timer to make it just right). Then the salt. He then felt it repeatedly and added bits of flour to get just the right consistency. The wonderful Annie brought Griffin a meringue and Callie and Zander croissants to help the time pass quicker. Alain said you have to feel the dough to make sure it is ‘right’. Each batch is a bit different depending on the properties of each batch of flour and yeast, etc… There are different grades of flour you can buy for bread, from lowest to highest, they use a medium grade, but there are variations even within this. He even has to make a dough that feels a bit tougher on Wednesdays since it will rise two days instead of one (They are closed Thursdays). His day is extraordinarily long. He gets up at 1am every morning and doesn’t finish until around 2pm. The bakery stays open in the front until around 6pm – but I think he must go home to rest in the afternoon. This is every day of the week except Thursdays. They are open on holidays too. The only time they are closed is two weeks in the summer and one week in the spring. My opinion is you are not a baker unless you really love your work.
After the dough is finished mixing, he has to measure it into equal batches for preparation to be made into baguettes. It was amazing to watch how close he could get to the right measure by eying it – and also how quickly he worked with his little chopper tool to cut out and get just the size of dough he wanted.
Next, the dough went from the measured batches into a dividing machine (le divisor). It chops the premeasured dough into 20 perfectly equal segments. Then they have to pull the segments apart and put it into yet another machine made to hold the dough (la balancelle). It was awesome to watch. Alain called the other baker, Tom (who I never knew existed!) over to help. This team is obviously both fast and experienced. The amount of flour used in the process is incredible to see. Everyone and everything seemed to be coated in fine white powder; Griffin looked a bit snowy!
After this is done (about a million times) the dough is formed into baguette shapes. In the olden days, this was all done by hand, of course, but not anymore! Now the dough holder rotates the dough around until it dumps onto a conveyer belt. The belt sends each chunk of dough in between rollers to be smooshed into the perfect baguette-sized chunk.(This machine is la faconeusse)
Tom, waiting patiently, grabs the little worms and puts them on the waiting couche. When one couche is full, he pauses the machine and readies the next one. Once all the baguettes are made, they go in the special rising chamber to rise overnight. We asked how many of these they make a day and it turns out it depends on the day. We came in on a Wednesday which is the day that the other bakery (across the street) is closed. No true French person would go a day without a fresh baguette, so on Wednesdays, they have to make about 500 baguettes, double their usual number. Plus they make about 100 of the other kinds of bread (i.e. specialty breads). So that means on Tuesdays they have to make 3 huge batches of dough and form them into baguettes and on other days just 2 huge batches of dough. So, if each batch of dough makes about 200 baguettes, that means 10 measured chunks to be divided into 20 pieces for each batch of dough. Times 2 or 3, depending on demand. Imagine that it all used to be by hand. Even with machines just the thought of it is exhausting. Again, I say, this job is not for the faint of heart, or back!
Once the dough has been given enough time to rise and mature (i.e. the next day), it is finally oven time. We got to watch the dough going into and out of the enormous ovens. If you don’t take the time to watch any of the other videos, check this one out – it’s simply incredible.
He slides the risen baguettes off the couchette and onto the oven couchette, then he slices each one with a little fork. Next, he puts them in the oven to cook for 20 minutes, but (watch out!) the last batch is now ready to come out, steaming, piping hot. I know it sounds lame, but it was thrilling to behold!
Each resulting piece of miraculously delicious bread costs us less then 1 Euro. I guess it is possible because they make so durn many of them! If we don’t get there early enough, they are always sold out of the best things. Of course, they charge more for the patisseries, although I assume they must be even more labor intensive.
We didn’t get to see croissant making in action, but we did get a peek at the room they use to make the patisseries and see the giant rolling machine. Guess when you are baking for 500, you can’t mess around with a regular rolling pin. When making croissants and pain au chocolate, they also need to have time to rise. We saw them resting, waiting for the oven and even got to see them put into the oven a few minutes later. It was really cool since, even though they cook for 10 or 15 minutes, we could see them start to puff up within 30 seconds of being put into the perfectly calibrated oven.
What a well-orchestrated and magical place the background of a bakery is. Turns out that after 30 years in the business, Alain lost his post and had a hard time finding a new job. He ended up renting Le Petit Mitron about 5 years ago and going it on his own with Annie by his side. Obviously, it has been a success! I am so grateful they did it – and even more grateful that they gave so generously of their time and love to let us see everything they do. There is so much that happens in this world, without most of us even noticing it. I remember picking strawberries to make jam for the first time. I had a sore back and knees afterward and I felt supremely grateful to the migrant workers who usually do my berry picking for me. I always think of them, now, when I eat a strawberry. I definitely don’t think Alain, Annie and Tom are like the poor abused migrant workers. They are there by choice, and always seem pretty happy, some of the happiest Bisontins I have yet to meet. These people are artists, following their dreams, if you ask me – and what a delicious dream it is. Nevertheless, one thing is for certain, I’ll never look at a baguette quite the same way again.