Having met with several artisan bakers over the past year and a half (since I retired from my other life), I am ready to vouch that they are a breed apart. They exhibit none of the greyness, sameness, run-of-the-mill-ness which seems to fall like a cloak over many of us as we grow up. They come out as real characters, intense, focused and passionate.Now are they bakers because they are passionate? Or passionate because they are bakers? Or both?
To borrow a phrase from George Stapledon as quoted by Andrew Whitney in Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own, bread which, at its most elementary, comes from the soil, has the “ability to enliven”. It is alive (or it was before it went into the oven) and it needs to be coaxed into being. To my mind here lies the challenge and with it, the kindle that fires the baker’s soul.
More than an artisan (although he is that too, definitely), he is an artist who plays his levain with the same dexterity and virtuosity as Yehudi Menuhin played the violin. With minute changes in temperature, fermentation times and hydration rates, he gets a wide array of subtle flavors, giving his bread a complexity that most bakers can only dream of. He is the prince of aromas.
No wonder the ten stores he supplies locally – among them City Market in downtown Burlington, Healthy Living in South Burlington and Richmond Cornermarket in Richmond as well as CSA Intervale – can never stock enough of his fragrant loaves.
Gérard sees the baker as a poet, not a movie star. Calm and solitude are the two ingredients that feed his creativity. As he works, he alternates between silence, music and Radio-Canada’s ad-free nightly broadcast of programs from France and other French-speaking countries. A fervent believer in simplicity as the road to excellence, he makes only one dough but strives for perfection. He wants each of his loaves to carry the bouquet which is his signature. The aromas which waft up from his mixers when he mixes either the firm levain or the final dough are heavenly. I could get totally hooked on them. I wish there were a way I could reproduce them for this blog!
Apprenticed as a baker at the age of 13, Gérard got his baking & pastry diploma (CAP or “certificat d’études professionnelles en boulangerie-pâtisserie”) early on.
(In this videoclip, Gérard explains that the exam was a competitive one and that, as indicated on his diploma, he won first place. When he was young, it was more important for him to win first place than to get the diploma itself. As he added a few minutes later off-camera, in each district the youngster who won first place was awarded a trip to Paris financed by a major margarine manufacturer!)
However, when he was a youngster, the mountains held more appeal for him than bread (although he vividly remembers the fragrance of the huge loaves baked each week at the mountain farm where he was sheltered during World War II). He skied in the winter and mountaineered in the summer, while working as a baker to finance these two hobbies, a way of life he reproduced later on when he was a member of the French national ski team in the winter and took tourists on tours of the Mont-Blanc in the summer. He soon became a ski racing coach as well but then he got married and his life changed.
He started working for Rossignol, the French ski manufacturer, and from then on devoted his enthusiasm and energy to making sure the racers had the best possible skis to help them win. He sees a lot of similarities between the job he did then and the one he does now. Then as now, he strove for excellence. Working closely with the racers, he also developed invaluable communication skills which serve him well today in his relationship with his students.
For Gérard isn’t satisfied with producing the best possible bread. He also wants to make sure his knowledge of the levain is passed on to the next generation. To that effect, he takes on students (usually bakery owners or instructors in baking schools and culinary institutes from the world over) whom he coaches on the intricacies of what is commonly called “sourdough baking”, a misnomer in Gérard’s case as his bread is anything but sour.
His classes run 5 or 6 days and the price ($2350) includes room and board as well as some small tools he sees not only as necessary but as most valuable for the baker (a manual grinder for the grain fed to the levain, a small thermometer and a small scale). He only takes about 2 students a month, unless they come in a pair. Then he might take four (there is a discount for pairs). He likes teaching partners because, working in shifts, they may find a way to keep their bakery open 7/7, something he sees as a social duty for a village baker. He did it himself for a while but there was only one of him and the relentless pace almost killed him. Since the stroke he suffered in March 2004 (which left him paralyzed for 5 months and unable to work for more than a year), he limits himself to making bread 5 days a week.
Manual grinder used by Gérard to mill flour for his levain
(Can be found online at Lehman’s Hardware – reference number: 30347120)
What brought Gérard from the steep slopes of his native Savoie to the gentle hills of Vermont? It is a long story. Suffice it to say that he went quickly up the corporate ladder at Rossignol and ended up as president of the company’s North-American division. The job took him to Vermont when the ski giant built a factory in the state. He and his family thrived there for a dozen years or so but at age 47, he decided that time had come to do something else with his life. After a brief stint as the owner of a restaurant and vacuum-cooking facility, he went back to his first profession and opened up a bakery on a large tract of land he had purchased near Burlington.
He set it up on the model of an 18th century French bakery, working from old engravings to have a local carpenter and a woodworking buff he knew from his restaurant days reproduce the equipment commonly found at the time, save for the mixers which, while old, obviously do not predate electricity! By opting for old-fashioned equipment, he wasn’t trying to be quaint or to make a statement. He just chose what he deemed best for bread and in his opinion, wood is best because it allows the dough to breathe without perspiring.
Bakery illustration from Diderot’s mid-eighteenth century encyclopedia
(found here on the Web)
Gérard uses the wood from his woods (mostly maple) which a forester selects and a lumberman cuts down for him, paying close attention to environmental and aesthetic issues. Since landscaping is another of his passions (and he did a great job around the bakery and the main house), he is not likely to overlook these two considerations.
Gérard mixed the levain with the freshly milled flour blend, some all-purpose flour and water in the old Hobart which he uses only for this purpose (it wouldn’t be gentle enough for the dough).
Here is the levain after the first feeding:
and seven hours later:
Before mixing the final dough, Gérard grinds a larger quantity of whole wheat, spelt and rye berries (using an electric grinder this time) to add additional layers of flavor to his bread. He does it right before mixing a new batch to make sure most of the wild yeasts will still be present.
When the levain is ripe, Gérard mixes these just-milled flours, all-purpose flour and water in the big mixer, then lets the whole thing rest for 30 to 40 minutes (autolyse). The process helps develop the gluten, making it possible to reduce mixing time later (thus preserving the flavors). Then he adds the levain and the salt.
The mixer is a sixty-year old German machine on which Gérard has disabled the second speed setting (to make sure his students will not be tempted to use it). It continuously folds the dough, reproducing the baker’s age-old gesture. There is something serene about the way it works and watching the dough slowly come together is a real pleasure. In the above videoclip, Gérard is cutting up some of the ripe levain for the first batch of dough and adding it to the “autolysed” (fully hydrated) flour while the Hobart is mixing the remainder for the next one. (A portion of the levain is always reserved from one feeding to the next).
After the mixing, the dough goes into the big wooden box for the first fermentation (which can last up to 4 hours). It is poured from the box onto the bench and folded when the box is required for the next batch:
After another resting period comes the weighing…
…and the pre-shaping:
Then Gérard gives the bread its final shape:
…and lets it proof (ferment) for up to three hours depending on the temperature inside the bakery and the quality of the levain. He uses 35% levain for 100% flour (except when it is cold out, then he uses more levain) but he says he would have a slightly different approach if he worked with a partner. Right now he does whatever is needed to give him enough time to mix and bake two or three successive batches by himself without running the risk of overproofing the dough.
When the time comes to put the bread in the oven, he scores it delicately, holding the blade sideways so as not to get deep “ears” which he says distract from the taste.
Gérard adds steam then the loaves bake for 30 to 40 minutes at around 450 F/230C (the oven is hotter though for the first batch).
The goal of the first fermentation is to develop the flavors while the second one (the proofing) creates the gas. A good hydration rate (Gérard goes for 78-79% but tries to get as close to 80% as the flour will allow) combined with a good quality levain helps produce the airy crumb which characterizes a country bread.
A good levain has a delicate and complex flavor, it must taste like a ripe pear or peach. The only way for the baker to get these aromas is to control the production of acids. Gérard feeds his levain every five hours, which means that he never sleeps more than five hours at a stretch or leaves the bakery for longer than that. When he needs to go away for a few days, he dries it up. Exceptionally he may put it in the fridge for 12 hours at a time (but then he makes sure the temperature never goes below 46 degrees F/8 Celsius) to avoid losing some tasty acids.
Gérard says jokingly that he is a slave to his levain but almost in the same breath, he says that what he loves about his job is that it is constraint-free. I suspect he doesn’t see what he does as a job. It is his life, his “raison-d’être”. He shares his days and nights with Jojo and Bibi, his two black labs who seem to love bread with the same passion. They never come close either to the dough or to the loaves (they even act as though they didn’t exist) but the minute they hear the crunch of the bread knife in the kitchen, they rush in, sit and wait, tongue lolling, eyes shining. They always get a slice. Clever puppies!
Interestingly Gérard renews his levain regularly (every 4 to 5 weeks, sometimes 6 in the summer and every three months in the winter) as he finds it impossible to control the acids otherwise. He never uses high-protein flour (which, he says, is useful to make car tires, not bread) and he is a firm believer in the nutritional properties of wild yeasts as opposed to commercial yeast.
Today he is living his dream, which is to make it possible for people to eat real bread at an affordable price (his breads – which are sold for 24 oz – weigh closer to 26 and they are sold for less than 5 dollars) and to coax out of his levain the complex and heart-warming flavors he remembers from his childhood.
Considering the tastiness of his bread and the enthusiasm with which it is received, I’d say: “Once a champion always a champion! The former topnotch skier and racing coach extraordinaire is today a world class baker”. I would even go as far as to say that he is in a league of his own…