Fragment of a mural on the outerwall of Première Moisson
in the Mont-Royal area of Montreal
Just came back from a few days in Montreal with lots of good memories (including of a mad dash through rain-peltered streets to the sheltered terrace of a café on Place Jacques-Cartier where we sat next to a cheerful bilingual beer-guzzling street entertainer in a black kilt and dreadlocks), half-a-shelf worth of used books (as if I needed the extra weight for the flight home next week but where to get novels by Michel Tremblay or Félix Leclerc in the Pacific Northwest?) and a bagful of bread – well, just four loaves really – as well as two “chocolatines aux amandes” (almond chocolate croissants) which were to die for.
The chocolatines (which we first sampled when visiting Première Moisson Bakery at Atwater market) were so good that I knew I had to go back and buy some bread, especially because I was curious about the bakery anyway. I had first heard of it in August 2010 when I went to the Montérégie area of Quebec, west of Montreal, to meet with Robert Beauchemin, owner of La Meunerie Milanaise.
Photo © La Milanaise, used with R. Beauchemin’s permission
Beauchemin, who with his wife Lily Vallières has been producing organic cereal grain on his farm since the late 70’s, had a mill built on his property in 1982 because no mills were available to him which would stone-grind his grain and he felt stone-milling was a trade which was slowly disappearing. He was determined to reverse the trend. He soon discovered that there was much more to milling than knowing how to keep the stones sharp and that the milling process itself had a tremendous impact on the finished product. With the help and support of Agriculture Canada, he was able to hire research staff at the end of the 90’s to analyze this process. Initially scheduled to last two months, the study actually lasted two years as the team discovered more and more layers of complexity, once all of the physical characteristics of a given variety of wheat were taken into account. (For more on the history of La Milanaise, check out this page of its website).
Beauchemin also told me that La Milanaise only mills organic grain and that he had joined hands in 2007 with the owners of Première Moisson Bakery (literal translation: First Harvest) to found another mill, Les Moulins de Soulanges with the goal to develop specialty flours tailor-made to the needs of Quebec artisan bakers. These flours wouldn’t be organic but they would be made without any chemical additions or manipulations.
He recounted how, as late as in 1999, La Milanaise was still buying 85% of its wheat from the Canadian West as it was widely believed that no quality wheat could be grown in Quebec. A variety of wheat was considered good for baking purposes when its flour readily absorbed water and produced a bread with hardly any crust and a finely honey-combed crumb, in other words the perfect sandwich bread. The wide plains of Western Canada produced 100% spring wheat which yielded the ideal flour for such bread.
But towards the end of the 90’s, the move towards artisanal bread was starting to take hold in Quebec. Scores of bakers were arriving from France and having a excruciatingly hard time producing French breads with the strong flours (14% protein) which were the only ones then available to them. A demand thus emerged for a type of wheat that was of no interest to the Western farmers. Time had come to revisit the principles of wheat production in Quebec. Beauchemin who is a mechanical engineer and holds a Master’s Degree in mathematics, was convinced that science was the answer: the influence of genetics and climate needed to be thoroughly analyzed and tested. With strong government support, he hired two full-time agronomists whose job it was (and still is) to establish a concordance between what could be observed at the mill and at the bakery and what was going on in the fields.
Thanks to these efforts and others and to forward-looking government subventions, Quebec is now producing more and more winter wheat whose aromas are much more complex than those of spring wheat: “After a few years of researches, we have now identified certain varieties of wheat grown in Québec that have interesting potential for speciality flours and bakery. Moreover, we observed that some characteristics of wheat grown in Québec make them even more interesting than other varieties grown in the Canadian West.” (quotation from La Milanaise website)
Les Moulins de Soulanges is currently working with six to eight varieties of wheat, some selected for their strength, some for the flexibility they bring to the dough and others for the characteristics of the bread they yield – color, aroma, crust texture (a full-time baker is also on staff). All the flours it produces result from a blend of grains in varying proportions according to the desired results. All agricultural machinery used by the farmers who work with Les Moulins is equipped with a chip that constantly analyzes data during sowing, hoeing, fertilizing and harvesting. That chip makes it possibly to determine the quality of the protein in each part of each field so that overfertilizing is never an issue. Every element is measured and controlled at every stage. The origin of each grain delivery can be pinpointed not only to the individual farm but almost to the individual furrow. Blends are made on the basis of the percentage of gluten (which is not necessarily the same as the percentage of protein) and the aptitude of the flour to produce the desired dough characteristics.
What’s more, by managing changes in wheat characteristics, it is now possible to develop a wide range of aromas from floral to coffee. The baker can choose the ones that will become his or signature once he/she applies to the flour his or her knowledge of the fermentation process by varying acidity and temperatures levels. He/she can pick different blends for different breads. I don’t know about you but I find the concept of picking aromas à la carte totally mind-blowing. Like a dream come true…
Quebec doesn’t yet produce enough organic wheat to satisfy demand. But with the support of the Canadian government, it has implemented a successful sustainable agriculture program which makes it possible for a big artisan bakery such as Première Moisson to use exclusively wheat grown in Quebec without the use of pesticides.
A rustic setting for Les Moulins
Knowing all this and having the good fortune of spending three days in Montreal earlier this week, I was curious to see Première Moisson. A family store, it was founded in 1992 and now has multiple locations in the Montreal and Quebec City areas. I only saw three of them, the above-mentioned bakery at Atwater market, the one at the Jean-Talon Market and the one in the Mont-Royal area of Montreal (where I photographed the mural). But in all of them the displayed motto was the same: “L’art du vrai !”, translated by Première Moisson as “Truly authentic!”
First off, the wheat-colored stores are bright, airy and spacious. Then there is bread (or pictures of bread) literally everywhere (I am only focusing on bread but the bakery offers much more including various pastries and a “charcuterie” section supervised by an artisan master charcutier from France who uses meat from animals raised in Quebec under a “clean label”). The pictures I took in the store are not very good. But they’ll give you an idea of the atmosphere of the place and the kind of bread to be found there.
The breads we took home were actually quite tasty, except for the olive sourdough loaf which was rather bland, way blander as a matter of fact than an olive bread has the right to be in spite of the description in the in-store brochure which promised: “for a fleeting moment, you’ll be transported to the Italian countryside!”. The olives had no flavor and I couldn’t taste the olive oil. Oh, well! Maybe it was a bad day for olives. The crumb was beautiful though… The organic sprouted grains and the sourdough walnut were both very good.
Organic Sprouted Grains
But the raisin, honey and hazelnut sourdough was spectacular, with perfectly roasted hazelnuts and a complex honey flavor.
Première Moisson’s raisin, honey & hazelnut sourdough bread
So will I go back to try and sample some more next time we go to Montreal? Sure. There is a lot more to explore at the bakery and I am looking forward to new discoveries. But then I may also want to talk to Josée Fiset who founded Première Moisson with her mother and her two brothers close to 20 years ago. She came out in 2006 with a book, Bread, which I couldn’t resist buying to learn more about the bakery’s bread philosophy (well, I actually bought the French version, Pain, but the contents are probably identical). In any case as I was reading through the introduction, I was shocked to discover that Fiset believed (and had confirmed by a baker colleague in France) that the possibility of making good artisan bread at home was an utopia as could only be made at home breads which required no steam, no levain and no kneading skills!
I personally know several professional bakers who would firmly disagree with her, including Anis Bouabsa who was recognized as Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Artisan Baker in France) in 2004 and whose baguette won the label of best baguette in Paris in 2008. Anis actually told me when I saw him at Europain in 2008 that he was very impressed by the work of home bakers and he certainly wasn’t above passionately discussing levain techniques with me. I can only think that Fiset is too busy running the bakery to keep up with the serious home baker movement. Hopefully the few links I am planning to send her will help convince her that things have changed!