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Bread and “Les Canotiers de la Meurthe”

Les Canotiers de la Meurthe by Emile Friant, 1887.

Look at the fellow at the far right of this painting, and what he’s holding close to his belly. It’s a huge loaf of bread, sometimes called a miche. He and his friends are gathered around a restaurant table. A waiter is pouring wine, our man is cutting the bread, the meal is about to start, there is expectation, laughter, conversation, and delicious food to come!

Simple times, simple pleasures. It’s an evocative scene to be sure, the outdoor table by the river, the boaters just in from a day sailing. But it’s the loaf of bread that gets my attention.

I can feel its heft on my knee, its rough dusting of flour on my hand. The knife slices through the crust, shattering crumbs over my clothes and table cloth. The interior crumb is moist and soft and creamy. It smells delicious!

Two pounds of bread per day

The painting, by Emile Friant, is called Les Canotiers de la Meurthe, or “The Boatmen of the Meurthe.” (The Meurthe is a river in France due east of Paris, between Nancy and Strasbourg). It was painted in 1887 when a worker’s portion of bread was two pounds per day, and it was on every table at mealtime.

Notice how the bread here is at the head of the table. It is central to the gathering, a convening presence, the host of the party, metaphorically speaking. The bread will be passed to the guests as if celebrating the Eucharist, or holy communion, though this celebration is as secular and human as it gets. The bread joins them all, as “breaking bread” has done through the ages. Everyone understands this.

Chasing that elemental loaf

This is an elemental loaf and one I first read about in Chad Robertson’s classic book, Tartine Bread. As it happens, Les Canotiers began Robertson’s journey to develop a loaf just as he imagined the one here:

The loaf would be baked dark, and the substantial, blistered crust would hold some give while containing a voluptuous, wildly open crumb with the sweet character of natural fermentation and subtle, balanced acidity. The bread would be a joy to eat and would keep well for a week.

Chad Robertson, Tartine Bread

The loaf he perfected propelled him to the top of the bread world. It became the basis of the Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, where devotees have been lining up every day for years at 5pm to snatch up one of his loaves. Tartine has expanded to Los Angeles, and Seoul, Korea, and the bread is being mass produced for distribution around the world.

It may be factory produced, now, but the Tartine Country loaf is just as compelling today as the loaf in the painting. A little smaller, perhaps, a little less dramatic. But it has the same effect on a gathering of friends. It sits at the head of any table where it is served.

Simple times, simple pleasures

The picture also recalls a simpler time. It’s nostalgic.

Bread is less ubiquitous these days. We have concerns about gluten sensitivity and “wheat belly,” too much carbohydrate. How could workers eat two pounds of bread a day and not suffer from the maladies we have today?

I think it’s because of modern genetically modified wheat and poorly made bread. The bread in this picture was likely made in the traditional way, with sourdough and spent ale grain. Bakers made bread with wheat that, today, we’d call ancient or heritage wheat. And the word “organic” was probably never applied to food at all because everything was from the earth, everything was organic.

No more gut issues, no more wheat belly

Les Canotiers recalls a time when bread could be eaten and enjoyed without health concerns. People ate bread because it was healthy. The enjoyment of a shattery crust and soft crumb was more direct, uncomplicated by worries of irritable gut issues, gluten sensitivity.

We remember when bread didn’t come with health complications. We remember the joy of eating great bread, and how it brings us together.

I make Happy Monk bread in the old way, with ancient heritage grains, organic ingredients, and sourdough yeast. I ferment the loaves slowly, overnight, in the fridge and bake them in a wood-fired oven. The sourdough and long ferment “pre-digest” the starch and wheat, rendering the gluten less harmful to the gut.

Some customers who call themselves gluten intolerant tell me they can eat Happy Monk bread without issue. It’s a revelation to those who love the taste and smell of bread, the idea of bread, but who get stomach cramps after eating it, or swollen joints or “fuzzy brain” every time they eat it.

The aroma of bread

I’m no nutritionist. I’ve read about these claims, but now I hear it from customers who are experiencing the pleasures of bread, tasting the grain. It’s something everyone should enjoy.

I sense this every time I hand a loaf of fresh bread to someone. If it is still warm, the receiver presses it against their belly or heart. They raise it to their nose and take a deep whiff of the aroma. There are smiles and heartfelt thanks.

We can enjoy bread as happily as the boatmen of the Meurthe are about to enjoy as they move into their feast, their conversation, their joy. That bread looks so good, doesn’t it?

1 thought on “Bread and “Les Canotiers de la Meurthe”

  1. […] context. We can see it as a means of bringing us closer to others at the dinner table (as in the boaters in “Les Canotiers de la Meurthe”). It can remind of us our love and humanity, as I often see when people pick up their loaves and […]

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