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Sunday, September 28, 2014

L'art du pain

     The French and their bread are a case apart.  One can spend hours debating on the subject of bread with French people.  It is just as important to them as wine is.

     In France, pairing the proper bread with one’s food is something taken very seriously.  Rye bread is the only one eaten with oysters, while breads made with lemon or aux hèrbes are reserved for fish.  Pastries, such as tea cakes or cookies, are mostly consumed for the mid-afternoon treat called le goutier and are rarely eaten in the morning.

     Originally, bread was the staple food of the peasants.  It was not until Louis XIV’s reign that bread started to be refined into what is known today as the ubiquitous baguette, and all its extensive varieties.   In the 18th century, the aristocracy decided that the pain de campagne was a bit too heavy for their stomachs, and the refinements of flour in order to produce white bread began.

     Bread was one of the main causes of the French Revolution.  Following a bad harvest, the government decided to raise the price of cereals.  This meant the common folk were not only deprived of the beautiful palaces and glamour the aristocracy enjoyed, but were now also going to starve.  The people revolted, and the rest, as they say, is bloody history – literally.

Kirsten Dunst uttering the famous line “let them eat cake” in a 
still from “Marie Antoinette”
Another still from “Marie Antoinette” showing beaucoup du pain!
     When Marie Antoinette uttered the famous qu'ils mangent de la brioche”, it was indeed an insult to injury to the already starving populace.  She could only keep her head for another four years after that. 

     Nowadays, in Paris alone there are about 35,000 bakeries, which produce about 3.5 million tons of bread per year.  When it comes to baguettes alone, it is estimated that 10 million are sold each day.  In France, it is illegal to put preservatives into the bread.  Hence one must buy it every day.  I remember the practice was the same in Buenos Aires (where I was born).  One would go to the almacén within one’s own neighborhood to get the bread for the day.

     This is unfortunately not the case with bread in the United States, where generally, the bread is very bad.  One can find excellent bread in any bakery in Europe, or even in the supermarket.  But in the U.S., unless one goes the extra mile to find it, all there is available is what I call “plastic bread”.  It is chewy like gum and has no crispness at all.  An insult to the art of baking bread really.

     Luckily, and thanks to the local farm-to-table movement, there are a few places where one can go for just the right amount of goodness when it comes to bread.  I am speaking, of course, of The Olde Hearth Bread Co., a local bakery with a stall at the most excellent East End Market.  They also sell their products over the weekends at the Windermere and Maitland Farmers Markets.  They supply the top local area restaurants and premiere hotels… and I have their breads all over my freezer at home too.  For me it is de rigueur, every 2 to 3 months, to place a large order and stock up on their wonderful bounty.

     Here’s what I got this last time I went, starting at the top right hand corner and then clockwise:

     -          Croissants.  Their plain croissants are the best ones I’ve been able to find in Orlando.

-          Fougasse a l’oignon.  Small breads with onion, ideal for substantial sandwiches to go on a picnic for instance.

-          Ficelles. Two small baguettes to laden with butter and preserves for breakfast in the morning.  For more details on the French breakfast, go here.

-          Chocolate boule.  Yes.  This is a pain the campagne made with chocolate and either dried mango or dried cherries.  I prefer the mango.  Toasted with a slab of cold, salted butter and a cappuccino, it is my weekend treat.

-          Pain de mie raisins.  Smells like the holiday season already.  Great toasted with some butter but even better for French toast.

Not pictured, but also worth trying, are the specialized baguettes aux figues and noisette (ideal for a great cheese plate), as well as the brioche challah loaf, which makes an ideal dipping bread.

     I’ve always longed to visit famous bakeries in Paris, but for now, I am happy I have The Olde Hearth Bread Co. for my monthly supply of bread.

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