Saturday, June 30, 2012

Breadventures - in France

This month I've been on a little holiday in Europe. I'm currently in the countryside not too far from Limoges, which is roughly in the centre of France. It's a beautiful wooded, hilly landscape with little farm houses and holiday cottages dotted among the country lanes and hay fields. Worlds away from Tokyo!

While visiting the land of fine bread craftsmanship, I've been keeping my eyes open to see how daily bread is in France these days. My first stop was the local boulangerie, where what I might have called a "baguette" in England was ordered as plain "pain" (bread) in French, and where you can pick up your fresh croissants every day should you so wish.

Along with the "pain" and the thinner "baguettes" this bakery also had some rustic slashed boules, much in the style I've been trying to make in my sourdough bread experiments. You grab them off the shelves with your bare hands, pay at the counter and take them back to your car just like that - no trays with metal tongs in sight.

Later on, in Limoges town center we scoured cooking equipment shops to see if I could sort myself out with some banneton wicker or cloth-lined proofing baskets, and a real dough slashing blade - a "lame." After having had little luck finding either in the various Carrefour supermarkets or homeware depots, I approached the proprietress of a kitchenware shop with my more than broken French - "Avez vous un.. (erm).. 'lame'?" she had no idea what I was going on about. I pointed to the slashes on a picture of a baguette on a bread bin standing helpfully by, and after a detour to the bread knives section she got it "Ah! Une lame" (it sounded more like "lam" when she said it than my "lamay" pronunciation). She also called the bread slashing knife a "grignette" (she pronounced 'grinyette') from the French word "grigne" which is the shape produced by the slashes that curl open during baking (the slashes do resemble grins, but I'm not sure if this is the original meaning of the term or just a happy coincidence). Anyway here it is, my proper little slasher. Now I have no excuses.. Oh, and these were in a box behind the counter, so it's worth asking if you don't see them out on the shelf.

A lame, 3.70 Euros from "Made in Cuisine & Co." Limoges

Proofing baskets were another matter. I haven't been able to find them anywhere I've looked in this part of France. I'll stick to improvised cloth-lined bowls for now as they do the trick (you can do it without sewing, just a big piece of cotton pushed into the bowl, string around the outside rim, lots of flour and away you go), and look out for pretty wicker versions along the way. Another 100-yen shop trip upon my return perhaps?

While in a local Carrefour supermarket I checked out the kinds of bread available there. Aside from the impressive sizes of some of the pain ordinaire, I was also struck by how many additives there were in most of the supermarket bread. On the first photo, even without a fantastic grasp of French you can make out a couple of flour treatment agents, an E-number and preservatives.

The "Bio" bread on the other hand (second photo) was made from nothing but flour, natural leaven, water and salt. We got some to try and it had a lovely rich, slightly tangy flavour with a firm nutty crust. Really lovely for supermarket stuff! It is already starting to harden, the day after buying it. It got us to talking about things like french toast and bread and butter pudding, feeding the ducks at the park - that bread used to go hard and interesting uses were found for it. White sliced bread in England goes moldy before it ever seems to goes hard, and Japanese supermarket bread seems to stay soft and mold free for an extremely long time, the implications of which according to Andrew Whitley and others possibly aren't doing great things to our digestive systems.

The last installment of my small breadventure was a market, remember those? Growing up in the English once-upon-a-time market town of Stockport, I remember the still fairly vibrant market we'd visit when I was little. My Grandparents would see if we could name the different types of fish, there was a butcher's stall held in the side of a long open van with piles of sausages and steak with a "I'm not asking you for £3, I'm not even asking you for £2.50, I'm saying you can take all this beautiful sliced ham, and 4 chicken breasts for £1.99!" spiel, or words to that effect. There was a fresh doughnut stall, and even now I get transported back there when I catch the same smell in the air in another country. In my mind I'm there with my little paper bag, which is getting greasy, with the sugar-covered plain doughnut that was fished out from the hot oil. Mmm healthy! The Victorian covered market hall is still there, but the last few years I have visited I felt the atmosphere was not the same.

These days I suppose farmers' markets are taking the place of the old town centre markets, particularly in the U.S. and the south of England. The difference, in the age of vast supermarkets with everything you could want under one roof, being that rather than visiting a market out of necessity people are choosing to visit farmers' markets as an active decision to know more about the food producers and their methods, to buy local or to buy fresher than from a supermarket.

The market we visited in France still appeared to be a vibrant comunity event, people stopping to catch up with each other, stall after stall of beautiful cheeses and meats, fish and seafood, bric-a-brac galore, beautiful veg and even a live chicken stand with a lady throwing the chickens into cardboard boxes for sale. The artisan bread stalls were equally impressive, though it does appear that dreadlocks are required to be an artisanal bread baker. Look at the size of some of these beauties! I could only dream of an oven big enough to do this in Tokyo.

Difficult to see, but they're roughly the size of a decapitated torso!