Sunday, August 16, 2009

La Boulangère

I have started a project of creating a collection of etchings of the notable people of our village. It is only right to begin with the baker, Madame Guedet. As all boulangers in almost any village in France, she is the heart of the community. If you want to know what's going on in the area, if you have any questions about procedures, coming events or even the health or activities of other residents, the baker is there to tell you. She knows who's getting married, who's on vacation, who is expecting, who got into a fight with whom. She hands out advice, gossip and counsel with every baguette and croissant. One gets an ear-full at the same time as a bag-full. For our bed and breakfast, we depend upon Madame Guedet each day for fresh bread. Her work begins at about 4AM, when she and her husband arrive at the bakery to prepare the morning offerings. Bread is baked freshly throughout the day. We visit her before breakfast, at lunch, and if we serve dinner, in the evening as well. Most all the villagers patronize her shop several times a day. She is constantly busy and one never arrives at the boulangerie without meeting neighbors. A transaction is not a perfunctory event. One must take the time to exchange a few words, opinions, stories and pleasantries. Besides, if you don't share your family events with Mme Guedet, how can she pass them on to your neighbors? When we first moved to town we remarked to someone that we didn't know anyone. They answered us, "You may not know them, but they know you." Better the baker should learn your news directly from you. The relationship with your baker is one of the most important ones you'll have in a small village like ours. The variety of breads a single baker makes in France is quite impressive. Michael Fenichel took this gorgeous photo of a boulangerie in Paris, with all the many sizes, shapes, colors and forms available from one small shop. It is well worth visiting Michael's site to see the original at a much larger size. Our region of France is particularly known for it's wonderful bread. Gourmet Magazine did an entire article about the Baguette du Perche in the March 2008 issue. Near us is a very special baker who creates this wonderful bread in his ancient stone oven. All his bread is made with sour dough starter that has been active for countless generations. His flour is grown organically and locally and milled by his cousin. He supplies bread for local markets, restaurants and to individuals who order directly from his farm, but he has no boulangerie of his own. He does not bake his bread every day, but when he does, he makes a couple of hundred loaves at the same time. He builds a roaring fire in his ancient brick oven, built into a hillside, early in the morning. In the fire he lays some large stones. After several hours, the fire burns itself out and the oven is very warm and ready to accept the loaves of bread which have been rising on long wooden tables. He pops all 200 loaves into the oven at the same moment. Warm stones are distributed between the uncooked bread, the wooden door is closed and the bread is left to cook. We have watched him while he takes the baked bread from the oven, raps each one with his knuckles to hear if it is done or not and then arranges the loaves in large handmade baskets to take to market. It's one of the most satisfying sights imaginable! In Paris there is at least one boulangerie every few blocks. Fauch0n, that palace of over-priced gastronomy, in the Place de la Madeleine, has a lively bread counter. But my favorite is Boulangerie Secco in the 7th arrondissement. There it is well-worth the wait to purchase some of their crusty breads, madeleines or tartes. This is also the favorite bakery of the cooking teacher at Maison Conti, who rides the metro for 40 minutes each way to purchase bread for her family. The importance of the baker in French culture was expressed most lovingly in the very famous novel written by Jean Giono La Femme du Boulanger - The Baker's Wife, and turned into a movie in 1938 by Marcel Pagnol. (Jean Giono was also the author of The Man Who Planted Trees.) The Baker's Wife tells the story of the village boulanger who becomes distraught when his young wife runs off with someone else. He can no longer concentrate well-enough to bake and so the town is without its bread. The town's people unite together in desperation and go after the wife convincing her to return to her husband. Harmony is returned when the couple is once again happily reunited. All is put to rights when the oven is fired up and the bread is on offer! Everyone is content.


  1. This is a wonderful insight into French culture. So different from Australia, where bread is bought at the supermarket and then frozen so it will last as long as possible. I remember when I first went to France and discovered the amazing flavour and delight in a simple meal of baguette and butter. Thanks for this window on your world.

  2. great post..thank you for sharing your knowledge of french culinary history ;-)

  3. fantastique sujet ... même pour une française ! le pain est tellement important en France. Un bon pain met de bonne humeur pour toute la journée et que dire de plus de "la boulangère" !