Monday, June 22, 2015

Buckwheat Blast in Brittany

I guess I could say we went on a buckwheat bender a few weeks ago while visiting family in Brittany. Our niece Anne-Laure - who lives near Quimper in Pays bigouden  - shares my love of blé noir (literally "black wheat") as buckwheat is often called in France and, to our delight, she wove it into almost every meal, be it at local crêperies when we lunched out or at home where she prepared local specialties for us. If that wasn't enough, in between our several buckwheat encounters, she took us sightseeing. I hadn't been back to Brittany since my kids were, well, kids, and I had forgotten about beautiful it is. She led us for long walks along the shore... old seaside villages...
...and around the countryside where the fields were abloom with flowers of all kinds (except for buckwheat for which we were too early)...
Originally from Asia but grown in Brittany since the fifteenth century from seeds brought back by returning Crusaders, buckwheat is in the same family as sorrel or rhubarb. While it isn't a cereal and contains no gluten, it is rich in fibers, amino-acids and antioxydants and therefore very much appreciated for its nutritional value. Seeded in late spring (to avoid frost which it doesn't tolerate), it is harvested from mid-September to mid-October.
In the Brittany of yesteryear, it was part of a subsistence diet together with pork or beef fat and whatever meat or fish was occasionally available. Poor local farmers and fishermen often lacking the necessary ingredients and/or fuel to make bread, used to make a sort of buckwheat mush which they boiled inside a linen bag alongside bacon or meat scraps, a recipe known as kig-ha-farz (literally "far in a bag").  In subsequent variations, the buckwheat mush was thickened in a pot over the fire, then poured into a dish and baked in an oven. It then become a far, as in far breton (a popular dessert often made with dried plums). Today far breton is usually made with wheat flour.
To fully understand why buckwheat was so readily adopted back in the old days, one should also remember that, by law, farmers bringing wheat or other grains to the miller had to pay a tax to the local lord for the use of the mill not to mention a percentage to the miller as well as a tithe to the church. Buckwheat, le blé du pauvre (the poor man's wheat) was exempt of such dues and could legally be milled on demand at home in rudimentary wooden mills. Moreover its flowers were extremely attractive to bees, which made for bumper crops of fragrant honey. On the downside, its leaves were toxic to cattle and couldn't be used as straw or hay. Interestingly, popular belief held that blé noir was a creation of Satan while wheat, which produces white flour, was credited to God.
Had our stay in Brittany be longer, we would certainly have seen many more examples of the use of buckwheat in cooking and baking but because of our time constraints, we experienced buckwheat in four of its avatars only: fish and chips, galettes, kouign-amann and farz. We didn't make it to any of the amazing bakers I had heard of in the region (they were either inland or further north) and I saw no trace of buckwheat bread at the regular bakeries we saw along the way. Which means I am already making a list for next time! Meanwhile here is a recap of our buckwheat encounters.

Buckwheat fish and chips
Anne-Laure had suggested we meet in Concarneau's ville close (walled city) where she knew of a little restaurant featuring "fish and chips breizh." Breizh is Bretton for Brittany and in a food context, it is often a strong hint that buckwheat is around. She was curious to find out and once she told me about it, so was I.
I can't say that I actually tasted the buckwheat but the fish was extremely fresh (any fresher, it would have jumped on the plate by itself) and the outer layer of the fillets was arrestingly crunchy: they had been perfectly deep-fried in a finely textured batter. Anne-Laure asked the owner what percentage of buckwheat she used but she wouldn't say. It had taken her a while to develop the recipe and, understandably, she didn't feel like jumpstarting the process for the competition. Coming from the United States, what struck me the most is how small (three pieces) the serving was compared to what we are used to back home...

Buckwheat kouign-amann
After lunch we made for Le Guilvinec, a major fishing hub where our niece had said we would watch the fishing ships come in and buy fresh seafood for dinner.
But on the way over, we glimpsed a road sign advertising a buckwheat kouign-amann. Since kouign-amann (Bretton for "butter cake") is usually made with wheat flour, we were intrigued enough to stop.
The legend says that the cake was invented in the late nineteenth century by a Bretton baker who found himself one day short on flour but long on butter and sugar. I was amazed to see how different the cake we got was from the leavened laminated pastries generally known as kouign-amann. So was it the local version of the real thing or a tourist trap? As we were leaving, we saw a passel of silver-haired seniors exit a bus and head determinedly towards the store (which offered souvenirs as well as local bakery items), so who knows? In any case, such as it was, our buckwheat kouign-amman had a pleasant nutty flavor and if you could get over the amount of butter and sugar (the Man clearly had no problem with that), it was a lovely dessert, more flavorful (and actually less sweet) than the wheat version (the person behind the counter kindly had kindly let us sample both).

Farz en sac (literally mush in a bag)
In our honor, Anne-Laure decided to make far en sac one night.  Since we were out and about all day, she didn't have time to make a true kig-ha-farz, so she decided to boil the farz on its own in salted water seasoned with seaweed and to serve it alongside fillets of lieu jaune (pollock) gently cooked over a bed of sautéed leeks. She already had the bag (which she had fashioned out of an old linen dish towel), she had buckwheat flour, she had sea salt, she had eggs, she had cream and butter, and she had not one but two identical recipes (from the back of the bags of flour). We were in business!
(Anne-Laure used two different flours because she had some flour leftover from another recipe).
I found a gold mine of information on farz in Fars bretons et Kig-Ha-Farz by Patrick Hervé. While researching his book, he had talked to many elders (some of whom were born in the 1890s) who told him that there was no vegetables in kig-ha-farz until after the French Revolution and that the authentic recipe actually called only for meat and buckwheat. The farz was also sometimes boiled separately in water, with a bit of lard added for taste. When a household had no dedicated bag, the homemaker would either use a dish towel (as Anne-Laure did) or sacrifice an old shirt and use the sleeves, seams on the outside, (one sleeve for wheat and one for buckwheat). After use, the bag was rinsed out, never washed. Fully seasoned, the best ones were kept in the same family for generations. Some seniors recalled that the boiled buckwheat mush sometimes became so compact that it could be sliced and that leftovers were pan-fried the following day. Others said it should crumble when taken out of the bag so that it can be rolled almost as fine as couscous. Differences in texture may be due to cooking times and to the various ingredients used or skipped (poor families sometimes had nothing more than buckwheat and water, sometimes milk, at their disposal). It'd be interesting to experiment. As it was, Anne-Laure's  farz was of the crumbly sort and the perfect foil for the delicate taste of the just caught fish. Merci, Anne-Laure!!! It was a memorable dinner.

Galettes de sarrasin (buckwheat crêpes)
On our last night, our niece took out her billig (crêpe maker) and made galettes.
Since we had been on a steady diet of buckwheat crêpes whenever we lunched out, she first checked with us to make sure we hadn't been over-crêped. We had not. Actually we had heard so much about Anne-Laure's galettes through the family grapevine that we would have been disappointed to leave Brittany without having any. So once again she whipped out her buckwheat flour, took an egg out of the fridge, measured milk and water, and went for it.
I wish I had taken more pictures but the minute Anne-Laure put the first galette on the table,  all thoughts of reporting left my mind. Let us just say that of all our buckwheat encounters during this trip, galettes de blé noir were my absolute favorites. Especially Anne-Laure's... I could practically live on those! And in case you are wondering about the technique involved in using a bilig, here is an informative video from the Krampouz website:

It looks simple but it isn't. As I discovered from experience, working a bilig is a lot like getting into Carnegie Hall, it requires a lot of practice. But then what doesn't?

Friday, May 8, 2015

Gâteau nantais

Related post: Meet the Baker Éric Marché

Many thanks to Éric and Cathy for generously agreeing to share their recipe.
Note: The amounts given for the syrup have been edited to reflect the quantity actually needed for the recipe (although it doesn't hurt to make more as it keeps beautifully in the fridge and can be used on babas and other cakes).
Makes 5 individual cakes (100g each)

1. Rhum syrup
  • 74g water
  • 100g sugar
  • 174g strong dark rhum (110 proof if possible) (PBC uses rhum ambré 54°)
Duration: 15 minutes
  1. Add water and sugar to a pot and bring to a boil
  2. Let mixture cool, then add the rhum
  3. Reserve in a cool spot
2. Cake batter
  • 130g sucre
  • 105 g butter
  • 85g white almond flour
  • 35g pastry flour
  • 130g eggs
  • 3g fine salt
  • 30g strong dark rhum 
Duration: 25 minutes
  1. The day before: take the butter out of the fridge and leave it at room temperature overnight so that it is soft and creamy
  2. On the day of the baking: mix it (either by hand or on first speed in a mixer) with sugar and almond flour
  3. Slowly add the eggs
  4. Mix well, but do not whip
  5. Sift the flour and add it all at once to the mixture
  6. Add rhum at the end. Mix well
  7. Oil five cake pans (10 cm x 2 cm) (foil is fine) with melted butter, using a brush
  8. Using a pastry bag or a spoon, pour 100 g of batter into each pan
  9. Pre-heat oven to 350-375°F (180-190°C)
  10. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes till the cakes turn slightly golden
  11. Test with a sharp knife (the blade must come out clean)
  12. Take the cakes out and pour on each 1 or 2 teaspoons of rhum syrup (according to taste)
  13. Let cool thoroughly before unmolding.
3. Glaze
  • 20g dark rhum
  • 40 g hot (122°F/50°C) water
  • 360g icing sugar
Duration: 5 minutes
  1. Sift icing sugar
  2. Add hot water and rhum to sugar
  3. Mix well with a spoon
4. Glazing
Duration: 10 minutes

To facilitate glazing, it is highly recommended to first refrigerate the cakes for one to two hours. They will be less brittle and much easier to unmold and glaze.
  1. Unmold the cakes and put them upside down (smaller diameter surface down)
  2. Using a tablespoon, put up to two spoonfuls of glaze on the cakes
  3. Using a small spatula, smooth out the glaze (making concentric circles from the center towards the edges). Don't strive for perfection, some irregularities should disappear as the sugar firms up
  4. Put the cakes back in the fridge, glazing facing up
  5. Take them out one or two hours before serving.
  • Gâteau nantais is best after resting for one or two days. Plan accordingly if making it for a special occasion
  • If making it in a bakery setting, don't unmold the cakes as they would dry out too fast. Glaze them in their pans making sure to cover any and all space between pan and cake (see picture below) so that the flavor of the rhum doesn't escape (that last tip was contributed by Cathy and, boy, does she know what she is talking about!)
  • Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Meet the Baker: Éric Marché

For me, stepping into Boulangerie Pains, Beurre et Chocolat (PBC), in Nantes, France, was like entering Dame Tartine's famous edible palace (if you didn't grow up to the accents of Il était une dame Tartine you may need to check out the English version of the lyrics to see what I am talking about): my pulse quickened and my brain went into serotonin overdrive as I took in the dazzling display of breads, bretzels, viennoiseries and pastries. I had definitely entered another, wondrous, dimension. The young salesperson flashed me a glorious smile. Before I could introduce myself, Éric Marché stepped out of the lab and came towards me. He too was smiling. We shook hands and talked a while. Then, picking up a buckwheat Menhir nantais (a menhir is a standing stone), one of his signature breads, he good-naturedly agreed to pose for a picture before shepherding me to the back to put my coat down and meet his wife Cathy. Five minutes later we were chatting like old friends.

Like several of the bakers I have met over the years, Éric came to bread from another walk of life. He was 40, working for a regional newspaper and living in southwestern France when he switched tracks. He was already a serious home baker: "I couldn't find bread I liked where we lived. The only way to get the kind of bread I was looking for was to make it myself." Five years earlier, Cathy had quit her job as a business facilitator working for the local chamber of commerce to become a pastry chef. Now it was his turn. He applied to École Banette near Orléans and was accepted. Within six months, he had graduated with two diplomas: the CAP (certificat d'aptitude professionnelle or certificate of professional competency) and the BP (brevet professionnel, a higher professional certificate). Within the Banette system, a beginning baker may be supported by a miller who helps him or her get a foot in the door by providing market research, technical and commercial assistance, etc., in exchange of which the baker becomes a customer. Éric and Cathy thus learned of a bakery coming up for sale in Le Croisic on the coast of Brittany, fifty miles or so west of Nantes. (Le Croisic is right near Guérande, known worldwide for its famous sea-salt). They sold everything they owned and in 2004, as soon as school let out for the summer, they uprooted themselves and their three kids and moved to Brittany.

 Baguette de l'Erdre (tradition au levain)
The bakery was a big one.  In high season when business was brisk, it employed up to six people in the back and seven in the front: Éric and Cathy worked hard and managed to increase production by forty percent compared to the previous owners. But the low season was long (Le Croisic mostly comes to life when school is out: to give you an idea, the bakery used to sell one thousand and five hundred baguettes a day in the summer against two hundred in the winter), the miller's flour contained more additives than Éric cared to use and the work wasn't nearly as creative as he had hoped: locals were not really interested in trying out different breads. By 2007, they knew they had to move to a larger city and become independent. They picked Nantes partly because they wanted to stay in the Loire region and partly because competition was fierce in the city: there were many excellent bakers there including La Petite Boulangerie, owned and run by MOF Franck Dépériers, (MOF means Meilleur Ouvrier de France). Making it in Nantes would definitely be a challenge. But at that point in their lives, a challenge was exactly what they were looking for.

Éric and Cathy found a bakery in Saint-Félix, a lively and prosperous part of the city, in a spot where there had always been a bakery although at the time the premises were reduced to bare walls. Once again they sold everything (at a loss because they were still paying back their loan) and moved. They chose a local mill, Minoterie Girardeau, which had been in the same family for four generations and still stone-milled all of its organic flours. By then it was 2008. They went to work. This time though Cathy was no longer in the back making chocolate (something she had greatly enjoyed doing in Le Croisic's cool climate and big lab): the new lab was simply too warm and too small. So she put on a new hat and took charge of sales and catering. "I love interacting with people, so I am fine," she told me with a twinkle in the eyes before leaving the floor to Éric, only to reappear a few minutes later with a luscious little cake that I was made to sample on the spot, the gâteau nantais, a regional specialty. The taste was like nothing I had every had before: a cross between a French almond cake and a baba-au-rhum. Now I am not a cake person and I never liked rhum very much (my older brother's favorite cake was baba-au-rhum and I always dreaded his birthday growing up) but were I to be magically transported to Dame Tartine's actual palace, Éric and Cathy's gâteau nantais is what I would wish the walls to be made of! "Very easy to make!," proclaims Éric, "The secret is to use good butter, good rhum (and a lot of it) and the best almonds you can afford." There was indeed so much rhum in the slice I had that, had I indulged in a second one, I would probably have been over the legal alcohol limit for driving. (For the recipe which Éric and Cathy generously offered to share before I even asked, click here).
But back to bread. Everything in the bakery (including viennoiseries) is leavened with a natural starter. Éric keeps several different ones, some of them seasonal.
  • A liquid starter (100% hydration) based on T65, a farine de tradition française, a wheat flour to which no additive can legally be added and which retains 0.62 % to 0.75 % minerals (see this classification of French flours - in French). Used for baguette de tradition.
  • A firm starter based on organic T80 wheat flour (flour which retains 0.75% à 0.90% minerals). Used for all organic breads besides the kamut and the spelt.
  • A firm spelt starter. Used for the kamut and spelt bread because of its lower gluten content.
  • A high-gluten starter based on farine de gruau (T45). Used at Christmas time for panettone.
  • A levain nantais: liquid starter based on farine de tradition to which beurre roux (brown butter) is added at feeding time. Used for viennoiseries as well as for fouace, a regional bread traditionally made at vendanges (grape harvest) time. 
  • A starter based on levain nantais to which brown sugar syrup is added at feeding time. Used for fouace as well.
For baguette dough, Éric feeds the starter and lets it ferment for two hours. Next he incorporates flour and water by mixing them together for three minutes, lets the mixture autolyse for two hours, does the final mix (four minutes on first speed), lets it bulk ferment at room temperature for two or three hours, divides and shapes, then retards it for sixteen to twenty-four hours. He explains that by treating the dough gently and barely mixing it, he helps preserve the aromas and taste a prolonged high-speed mixing would inevitably destroy.

Menhir nantais
The menhir nantais is made with 15% sarrasin (buckwheat) and 85% farine de tradition and leavened with firm levain. But Éric roasts 5% of the buckwheat flour which gives the bread the unmistakable aroma of the crêpes de sarrasin (buckwheat crêpes) Brittany is justly famous for.

Buckwheat flour: roasted (top) and raw (bottom)
Visually, it is hard to tell the two flours apart but the minute your nose comes into play, you know which is which.

Buckwheat dough, retarding (for up to 48 hours)
Everyone has a favorite bread, right? Éric's is the tourte de seigle (100% rye) with its subtle hints of honey and spices.
Mine is the tourte de sarrasin, a buckwheat loaf so powerfully aromatic I took one home and had a slice for breakfast for the remainder of our stay in western France. Sliced, toasted and spread with butter speckled with sel de Guérande, it tastes like Brittany itself. So, yes,  I am a convert and next time I make buckwheat bread, I too will roast 5% of the flour.
In 2013, PBC won the fourth spot among a hundred or so bakeries selected to compete at the national level in M6 TV show La Meilleure boulangerie de France.
In the two weeks following the announcement of the results, traffic increased by fifty percent: people came in for the menhir, for the gâteau nantais, for the bi-color croissants and for other viennoiseries.

Croissant & moulin à vent au citron (lemon pinwheel)

Pain aux raisins (raisin roll) and raspberry croissant
When traffic went back to normal, Éric found out that his regular customers had become more adventurous: they were willing to try different grains and to trust him with new flavors. Today he makes an average of thirty-two different breads on any given week, including eight or nine organic ones. There is a rule in the lab that everyone must come up with a new bread or viennoiserie every month: some of these creations make it into the bakery's regular répertoire. So it went for l'Italienne (made with herbs and tomatoes on ciabatta dough)...
... and for the Algeria-inspired Mathloun, among others.
At PBC, flours are either organic or the product of sustainable farming. Ingredients are sourced locally whenever possible: salt comes from Guérande, butter from Laiterie de Montaigu in nearby Vendée, honey from Ruchers du Pays blanc in Brittany, etc. Unsold bread goes to food banks and customers can buy an extra baguette and leave it at the bakery for the first person in need who will walk in and ask for it. Cathy keeps track on a big slate behind the register. On any given day, an average of fifteen baguettes are thus shared. I love it.
When asked what best advice he would have for a young baker, Éric doesn't hesitate: "Your first concern should be taste. Shape, length, grignes (cuts), they all matter, but at the end of the day, you don't share a shape, you share a taste. Never lose track of that." Being a baker is a demanding job: it requires long hours (Éric and Cathy are on their feet from 4 AM to 8 PM with a thirty-minute nap in early afternoon) and it seriously disrupts your social life. Looking back though, they only have one regret: that they didn't start at a younger age. But their three kids have remained their first tasters and customers and now that a grandchild has joined the family, they know the taste of good bread will pass on to yet another generation. If that isn't a good enough reason to get up at dawn and fire up the oven, then what is?

Crème des pains

Left: Seeded country loaf. Right: Le Rustique.  Front: Le Norvégien
A slice of Norvégien
  • PBC makes no gluten-free bread
  • All flour blends are done in-house
  • Except for the baguette, all bread is sold by weight
  • Dough for the baguette is hydrated at 78%. The starter gets only one feeding and a two-hour fermentation before being put to work. It gets incorporated in the final dough at the same time as the coarse sea salt
  • All seeds are toasted then soaked
  • To roast the flour, Éric puts it in a 320°F oven for a total of fifteen minutes (mixing it every five minutes to prevent it from burning)
  • Spelt bread contains 40% seeds (sunflower, soy, buckwheat and brown flax). Made with malt syrup and firm levain and hydrated at 120%, it keeps five to six days and is a best seller
  • The fruit purées that go into some viennoiseries contain only 10% sugar
  • Crème des pains is made with farine de tradition and crème fraîche. It has a brown butter aroma
  • The Saint-Félix is made with farine de tradition and wheat germ. It has a thick crust and a robust chew
  • Le Norvégien is made with three different whole-grain organic flours (spelt, rye and wheat), six different seeds and three kinds of dried fruit (fig, cranberry and apricot). It bakes for two and a half hours in large 3-kg pans. It keeps for several days
  • Salt content: from 1.77% for baguette and related doughs down to 1.13% for rye, with spelt and kamut hovering at 1.50%.

Moulin à vent au chocolat (Chocolate pinwheel)

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