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The French Factor

The boulangerie-patisserie in La Roche Vineuse: “The best in all of France!” (picture courtesy of Google Street View).

Several years ago, Jennifer and I rented an old farmhouse in the Burgundy region of France. La Roche Vineuse was a small village near Mâcon, a little more than an hour north of Lyon. In the month we were there, we grew into the rhythms and life of the rural farming community.

There were so many pleasures! The cheapest wine you could buy would have been a $35 bottle back home. A greengrocer gave me French lessons every time I stopped at her outdoor stall. We attended a farmer’s market each week, where you’d choose your own chicken, still running around in a coop … come back in an hour, and it was dressed and ready to pick up. (Jennifer and I were carnivores in those days!)

And, need I say, the boulangerie-patisserie!

A morning ritual

It was a morning ritual. A five-minute walk down the road and across the street. If there was still a line-up at 8:30 a.m., I’d have time to make a decision about which pastry to try. To eat on the way home, with the breakfast baguette tucked under my arm.

I’d be back before nine, get the Moka pot brewing, and break into the baguette, the crust shattering on the cutting board, the crumb still warm from the oven. Slabs of creamy butter and apricot preserves. Those were the best baguettes in the world!

We wrote to our host that the boulangerie-patisserie in La Roche Vineuese must surely be the best in all of France! I’m pleased to say it is still there today! 1

But we were charmed! We drove all over the Bourgogne, visiting vineyards, bakeries, farmer’s markets, castles, and Michelin-starred restaurants in the countryside.

The seamy underside of rural France

The seamy underside was the preponderance of fast-food restaurants. We often drove to Mâcon to use the WiFi in a McDonald’s restaurant. It was crowded every day with screaming kids, ketchup all over their cheeks, and harassed-looking parents. It was a stark contrast to the countryside idyll we so loved.

We preferred the traditional shops, but even the supermarkets were a class above. The Carrefour “hypermarket” on the way to Mâcon was tastefully laid out. It had a large and exquisite cheese room, cooled, with hundreds of varieties on display. Handwritten cards identified the type, origin, and price of each one. I am allergic to cheese, but even I loved going into this room to take in the aroma.

A nearby Hyper U was less appealing, a Walmart-like box store that sold wrenches, toys, televisions, and fine wines.

Only in France would “flavor” and “value” have the same moral weight.

Bill Buford, “Baking Bread in Lyon,” The New Yorker, April 13, 2020

Baguette vending machines?

We found the small cluster of shops and bars around the town square more appealing. Such as our boulangerie, or a local bar was open for business mid-morning. Farmworkers, up since dawn, would come in for their glass of vin ordinaire and a small, round chevre, a specialty of the region. The French version of a coffee break.

I hope the box stores have not further eroded the rural culture of France. It was disconcerting to read in the New York Times that rural boulangerie-patisseries were closing their doors, unable to compete with the Carrefours and Hyper U’s.

Some areas unserved by these box stores actually had baguette vending machines installed in the town squares. No one complained about the quality of the baguettes, but it was as if a vital fabric of French village life had been ripped away.

In Paris, meanwhile …

The cities, for the time being, have been unaffected by the disappearing neighbourhood bakery. Most urban dwellers still live within a block or two of a local boulangerie. In Paris, Le Grenier à Pain has twice won the “Best Baguette in Paris” competition, which earns the distinction of supplying baguettes to the President of France.

On a slow day, Le Grenier à Pain sells a thousand baguettes. On Saturdays and Sundays, sales reach between 1,800 and 2,000. Lucky Parisians to have such a neighbor!

The best baguette in Paris!

A recent article in The New Yorker by Bill Buford tells his story of apprenticing as a baker in the Quai Saint-Vincent neighbourhood of Lyon, on the Saône River. The baker/owner, who goes by the name, Bob, is a hapless sort of fellow whose baguettes are among the best in the city and favoured by the restaurant in the area.

Late in the story, Buford asks Bob which of his loaves make him “the proudest.”

“What a baguette should be…”

He does not hesitate. “My baguette.”

“Really?” Buford says. “The French eat ten billion baguettes a year. Yours are so different?”

“No. But mine, sometimes, are what a baguette should be.”

An enigmatic response, but you might have a sense of what he means if you’ve tasted a baguette that transcends description. Like those baguettes, Jennifer and I experienced in La Roche Vineuse.

Bob meets a sad end. Buford moves back to the U.S. but returns a year later for a short visit. At a restaurant near his hotel, he tastes some bread that transports him back to Bob’s baguette. He is so taken with the flavour that he drives a few towns away to the mill where the flour was made.

The meal is still important

Buford discovers that the miller, Phillipe Degrange, shares a common bond — a value — with Bob. Buford finds he is part of the bond, as well.

“In the country, we don’t change as fast as people in the city,” Degrange said. “For us, the meal is still important. We don’t ‘snack,’” he said, using the English word.

“What I learned from my father and grandfather is what they learned from their fathers and grandfathers. There is a handing off between generations.” The word he used was transmettre. Le goût et les valeurs sont transmis.

Flavor and value: those are the qualities that are transmitted.

Only in France would “flavor” and “value” have the same moral weight.

It’s a haunting feeling, this description. I got a small taste of its meaning, living in that small town in Burgundy 10 years ago. And it’s a quality that I find myself trying to emulate as I mix my doughs here on Pender Island.

It seems unreachable, this unity of flavour and “value.” But every now and then, I get a sense of where to look for it. Maybe someday, we’ll have it on our small island on the far side of the world.


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These corn kernels are headed to the mill to make cornmeal for Anadama Bread this week. It’s a bread with origins on the east coast, but that shouldn’t stop us west coasters from enjoying it, too, godanadamit! This is organic field corn from @fieldstoneorganics of Armstrong, B.C. … and the hard red whole wheat from Metchosin, B.C. make this Happy Monk take on Anadama a bona fide west coast phenomenon! Just sayin’!
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#anadama #anadamabread #cornmeal #cornmealbread #metchosinbc #armstrongbc #stoneground #stonegroundflour #stonemilled #stonemilledflour #stonemilledbread #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries

These corn kernels are headed to the mill to make cornmeal for Anadama Bread this week. It’s a bread with origins on the east coast, but that shouldn’t stop us west coasters from enjoying it, too, godanadamit! This is organic field corn from @fieldstoneorganics of Armstrong, B.C. … and the hard red whole wheat from Metchosin, B.C. make this Happy Monk take on Anadama a bona fide west coast phenomenon! Just sayin’!
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#anadama #anadamabread #cornmeal #cornmealbread #metchosinbc #armstrongbc #stoneground #stonegroundflour #stonemilled #stonemilledflour #stonemilledbread #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries
...

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Morning Breadsong (volume up!) A pile of Salish Sourdoughs just out of Mildrith, the wood-fired oven. 
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#breadsinging #breadsong #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bakery #bakerslife #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #breadmaking🍞 #sourdough #sourdoughbread #coboven #earthoven #earthenoven #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries #penderisland

Morning Breadsong (volume up!) A pile of Salish Sourdoughs just out of Mildrith, the wood-fired oven.
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#breadsinging #breadsong #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bakery #bakerslife #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #breadmaking🍞 #sourdough #sourdoughbread #coboven #earthoven #earthenoven #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries #penderisland
...

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It just needed a few more minutes. That was three hours ago. Saved my best for last!  #showusyourfuckedloaves

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John-boy’s got his arms loaded with a bunch of Happy Monk bread, one of his favourite states of being. He’s generous to a fault, though, and spread the loaves around his close circle of friends. That’s m’boy!

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The 2kg Desem miche is out of focus, in the back ‘cause it would have drowned out the little 1kg Durum Sesame loaf in front. The miche is a monster but every bit as delish as the Durum loaf! The Desem’s coming soon! Won’t be a miche, though!

The 2kg Desem miche is out of focus, in the back ‘cause it would have drowned out the little 1kg Durum Sesame loaf in front. The miche is a monster but every bit as delish as the Durum loaf! The Desem’s coming soon! Won’t be a miche, though! ...

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  1. Google Street View took me right there!

2 thoughts on “The French Factor

  1. Fantastic write up. 35 years for me since I spent 6 weeks in France; I think it’s time to go back.

  2. […] his family. The baker is known to Buford and everyone in his Lyon quartier as Bob. I mentioned Bob in an April post of the Happy Monk blog when an excerpt from Buford’s Dirt ran in The New […]

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