Visiting Gérard Rubaud is like taking a huge leap sideways over the Atlantic to the French Alps and once there, a few steps back in time. Maybe not to the 18th century, although judging from old engravings, his bakery looks a lot like the ones found there before the Revolution of 1789: of course those didn't have electrical light or hot water on demand or a mixer (even a 40-year old one) or an electronic scale or a floury radio blasting Radio Canada 24/7. But you certainly feel you traveled back as far as the fifties at least...
As for himself, he owns neither a television ("When would I have time to read or to listen to music if I did?") nor a computer (same answer). He doesn't own a camera, digital or otherwise ("I don't think I ever took a picture in my life") and of course no smartphone (or even a simple cell phone). But he does have a regular telephone and it rings very often. Gérard may be short on modern life accoutrements but he is long on true friends and many of them often call or drop by.
In the two years since my first visit in 2009, we have become friends too. We speak on the phone, I visit, we have been on field trips together. I have learned a lot about boulange au levain (naturally leavened bread-baking) and he has discovered a few things about blogs, computers and the Internet. Not that he cares that much, to tell you the truth, except as a new and convenient way to disseminate and perpetuate age-old baking skills. Bread-baking is his lifeline, his raison d'être (literally: reason for being).
When a stroke confined him to a wheelchair a few years ago, he would have let himself go were it not for the tweaking he was constantly giving his dough in his head: he wanted to walk and work again to see if the actual results would match the dreamed-up ones.
When asked how come he doesn't grow tired of baking the same bread 51 weeks a year, year in and year out, his eyes grow round with surprise: "But it's never the same, that's the challenge. First of all, every time I get a new flour delivery, I have to adjust the formula. Plus I am constantly experimenting, adding or subtracting grains, lowering or increasing temperatures, varying fermentation times, etc. It is actually a lot more fun to stick to one dough and see what you can do with it and make it the best you possibly can than to divide your attention between several different ones."
He probably doesn't approve of the fact that I am frivolous enough not to be satisfied with a firm levain, so that I keep a liquid one as well and enjoy making "pains fantaisie" (breads that contain ingredients other than cereal grains, flour, salt and water) but he has come to tolerate my difference and not to look (too) skeptical anymore when I tell him how delicious these other breads can taste. I was actually going to bring him some this time so that he could try them for himself but because of the hand injury I sustained a few weeks before our trip, I had to forego baking for a while. That experience will have to wait.
You have probably guessed by now that Gérard has his own (very specific) ideas about the "right" way to bake: he applies the methods he was taught as a teenage apprentice. He is also a fervent admirer of Raymond Calvel whose book Le Goût du pain (The Taste of Bread), he seems to know by heart. So I expected him to balk at my suggestion that he experiment with retarding his dough overnight at a cool temperature and naturally I wasn't disappointed.
"Retarding has been invented by bakers who wanted to sleep longer nights. It has nothing to do with improving the dough." (Gérard has trained himself to sleep very short nights, complemented during the day by numerous 12-minute naps: beyond 12 minutes, he gets groggy and can't function properly. So he sets the timer, lies down on the bench in the bakery, lifts his arms above his head -an old trick which works wonders for him- and seconds later, he is asleep. He wakes up with the timer, fully refreshed and in good spirits, all set to go back to work.)
I had an uphill battle to fight to convince him to try retarding. But I was spending a few days at the bakery, he had time off - no production deadlines - and I gave it my best shot. In the end he gave in, provided we didn't go for too low a temperature. "Below 68°F, you start getting undesirable acids. It'd be best to let the shaped breads proof overnight at 70 to 74° F." We settled on 68° (which happened to be the temperature of the bakery that evening).
He mixed the dough. I photographed the process. How I wish my camera could have captured aromas... Those coming from the mixing bowl were simply heavenly.
The breads were set to proof at 8:40 PM. He said he would check on them in early morning. I promised to come and join him the minute I woke up. When I entered the bakery the next day around 6:00 AM, Gérard met me at the door. His face looked grim. "What's wrong?" I asked innocently. "Come and see! I checked on the breads at 4:00 AM and they were already completely overproofed. I knew it wouldn't work. I kept them for you to see before I throw them in the trash". Well, I could see them all right. They had reached over the edges of the couche to kiss each other's brows and made for a huge mess indeed. And of course I wasn't surprised either: after all, I had never heard of retarding for hours at room temperature when room temperature is close to 70°...
However, being a morning person, I can be annoyingly cheerful when the day is young. So I told Gérard how two summers ago, when we had friends visiting from France at our little house on the river, I had made a batch of his rustic batards and set them to proof, only to forget all about them and go boating for six hours. When we came back, they had looked even worse than today's misfits. Still I had baked them and they had turned out a bit flattish but excellent with a wide open crumb.
Gérard didn't seem impressed. He started tucking at the kissing loaves (which parted reluctantly) and chucking them in the trash one by one. I protested so vehemently that he finally relented and spared two, one of which he disgustedly folded over itself like a limp parcel. Those two, he baked, still grumbling: "We won't get any rise; all the sugar has been eaten up; they won't brown; I should have added malt to the dough, etc."
Meanwhile the bakery was filling with its usual aromas and Gérard's brow gradually cleared (Has anyone ever studied the mood-enhancing benefits of bread baking?) to finally settle in an expression of amazed delight when the two loaves came out of the oven: they had magnificently risen to the occasion and shone golden in the morning light. By now Gérard was eager to slice them open and had started casting regretful looks towards the trash can where the discarded dough was gasping its last breath like a carp out of water...
The rest, my friends, history and by that, I mean a phenomenon of historical proportions in Gérard's life as a baker: when he cut open the loaves, he was greeted by a burst of lovely aromas and he saw a crumb which he deemed to be more open than anything he had ever achieved before. We each had a first slice, then a second one slathered with Vermont butter: the flavors were magnificent. Rustic and intricate. Marvelous...
Gérard said: "Well, you were right and I was wrong. I learned something today. Thank you!". His face was a bright as the rising sun. His mind was running a mile a minute. I could see he was already thinking up various ways of adapting his baking to this new discovery. Meanwhile he kept slicing and savoring, a blissful expression on his face. The man may be a tough nut to crack but I like it that his ego isn't what gets in the way. Bread is. And it wins. All the time.
Updated news, three weeks later:
I just talked to Gérard on the phone: today is his day off and he is hard at work refining his timeline. Laughingly he tells me he is now retarding his bread for 10 hours at 70-72° F. To avoid overproofing, he has halved the percentage of levain in the dough down to 20% from the 40% he normally uses in the winter. Which means he still gets the acids he is looking and none of the undesirable ones. Wow!
He says his bread has never looked or tasted better. He gets a fabulous crumb, full of oval-shaped holes (interestingly and inexplicably half the holes are vertical, half horizontal). His only complaint is that the crumb is a bit moist on the first day and reaches its peak the day after. To solve that problem, he is planning to bake his bread a bit longer at a lower temperature.
You have got to love that about the man: he may be reluctant to enter the game but once he catches the ball, he does run with it so fast and so far that it's hard to catch up. I bet that next time we talk, his production schedule will cover three full days (he says he's leaning that way and I bet he's serious too). I forgot to ask if he's now among the bakers who sleep full nights...