18 June 2009

Oh, the ‘Pain’!

Scenes from a Gana bakery in Marseille.

The French take their bread very seriously — or used to, anyway. The hunger for bread was one factor in the buildup to the French Revolution, of course, and the language has so many words for different types of bread that the original formulation of “Let them eat cake” was actually “Let them eat brioche” — another type of bread. (Eggy, sweet, and fluffy, it’s close kin to challah.) I’m always struck that the French have separate words for the inside (mie) and the outside (croûte, from which comes our word “crust”) of the bread. Clearly, my neighbors have given the matter a great deal of thought. Linguistically and philosophically, what snow is to the Eskimos, bread is to the French.

Theirs is a glorious tradition, and the government has designed legal and tax structures to make it easier for small, independent bakeries to continue to do their old-fashioned business in the modern era. Stroll around the streets at the right hour in almost any community, and you can smell the yeast and butter — as you cannot, in other European countries. Yet as France comes more and more to look like the United States, with supermarkets, shopping centers, and fast-food chains everywhere you turn, it becomes more and more difficult to find good bread here.

A sign of changing times: The multi-grain Flûte Gana

The essence of good bread is a balance of tensions, first between the croûte, which should be crusty, and the mie, which should not. The mie should be dense, yet airy; chewy, yet not rubbery. If the airholes are all the same size, we are unhappy, for that’s a sure sign of pain industriel, or mass-produced bread. Unfortunately, that’s what you find now, in most places. Above all, bread should be fresh. Ideally, you buy your bread in the morning, and it’s still a bit warm at lunchtime. You do not eat indiscriminately, but slowly, savoring the bread and assessing its character with each bite.

The town of Beynes has had mixed luck with its bakeries. When I first started to visit here, there was a very good bakery just down the street, on the Place Saint-Martin, but the owner retired and sold the lease to a newcomer — whose bread was so bad that the locals pretty much ran him out of town, shortly after he arrived. Now the shop is a hair salon.

Nearby is a new shop, but they don’t do their baking on the premises: the bread each day arrives in a truck from a town down the road. Though the taste and price of this bread are commendable, its freshness inevitably suffers in transit. On the outskirts of the Bourg, another shop offers bread baked on the premises, but there’s a chasm between price and quality. The good stuff is excellent, and extremely expensive.* The reasonably priced stuff is characterless. In protest, I seldom go there. Weirdly enough, the local supermarket, part of the G-20 chain, does its own baking. It’s not outstanding, but it’s reliably pretty good bread.

I’m more than a little spoiled, because I spent so many formative hours at the table of Henri Boutrit, whose palate was so cultivated and so demanding. His bread of choice was the Flûte Gana, a more slender baguette carefully crafted and entirely respectful of proportion, balance, tension, and character. It’s somewhat more expensive than many other breads, yet you get outstanding value for your Euro.

The Flûte Gana is the hallmark of Bernard Ganachaud, whose flagship bakery is in Paris but who has made a franchise of his recipe, so that you can get a good Flûte in many parts of France — including Royan, where Henri bought his daily bread at the Marché Central. Alas, though we’re just snooty enough in Beynes to prefer and to pay for Ganachaud’s recipe, nobody in the area has bought into the franchise, and so we muddle along. Even in Paris, I have to travel out of my way (at least two Métro stops) in order to find a good Gana. I confess I don’t always make the effort.

Yet I’m struck that I, an outsider, seem to care more about French bread than many of the natives do. What business does an American have, telling a Frenchman about bread?

*Even the most expensive French bakeries seem cheap when compared with the $4 — and more — charged by Americans for better-quality bread. The Hastings-on-Hudson A&P is a prime offender. To the people of Westchester, I say: Aux armes, citoyens!


Girl From Texas said...

I drive all the way to Central Market in Plano for good bread....the boule, my fave, is $2.99. Add in the cost of gas to get there, and the total goes up.

wine_and_baguettes said...

Oh no, le pain is one of a few reasons I would condescend to return to France...the bread, Roland Garros, and le jardin des plantes. Oh, and come to think of it, j'adore la salade au chevre.