There is so much that blows my mind about this bakery that I find it hard to even start writing about it. Part of me would be tempted to let the photos tell the story (there is something singularly eloquent about the way light settles on flour, dough and bread), another part needs to talk about the bakers and yet another part wishes to dwell on the bakery’s unique bread-baking philosophy. Each of these elements, the visual, the people, the philosophy, tells it all and yet there is more. So I’ll just forge ahead and try.
I’ll start by setting the decor: the bakery is located in Saint-Aubin-sur-Algot, a small village near Lisieux (Calvados), a lovely area of Normandy famous for its apples, its cider, its apple brandy, its cheeses (Camembert, Pont-L’Évêque, Livarot), its milk, cream and butter, etc… Barely off the main road between Caen and Lisieux, the place is so rural you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking you have crossed an invisible border and find yourself in a different country or, possibly, century.
The treehouse Erik the baker built with his teenage son
(above photo by our friends from Tree-Top Baking, along for the visit. Reproduced with permission)
But here I am using first names when I haven’t even introduced any of the bakers. Let me do it now:
The three original baking buddies were Erik, Antoine and Manu. Antoine has moved on to open his own little bakery; Manu is still there but currently apprenticing to a farmer for a year because he’s planning to eventually grow and mill the grain for the bakery. We didn’t get to see him. We heard about Mickael, another of the current bakers, but he wasn’t working that afternoon and we didn’t meet him either.
Getting back to Erik, this giant of a Dutchman didn’t plan on becoming a baker. He trained as a forestry engineer in his native Holland but after one boring meeting too many, he quit his job to travel around the world. In 1984-85, a girlfriend led him to France.
Determined to work with his hands, he started baking three breads per hour in an old gas stove he had refurbished and installed in his small city apartment (he then lived in Caen). He sold them at the open-air market. After a while, eager to move closer to the grain, he left the city for the country, soon getting his hands on more castaway gas stoves… At one point, seven of those could be counted lined up in his living room.
He dreamed of a wood-fired oven but his budget didn’t allow it. Luck intervened: he heard of a baker up north who was planning to dismantle his old oven and would be willing to sell the metal parts for scraps. He bought the scraps and trucked them back and with his buddies’ help, he finally built his wood-fired oven. It took him a year…
That was in 1993-94. The oven has been in constant use since then. Erik says that once he switched ovens, his bread quickly became so much better that he could no longer satisfy the demand. He needed to make more. He had a choice: invest in equipment or invest in labor. He chose to make more bread with more hands instead of with more machines. He also decided he no longer wanted to be boss: time had come to share the burden of garanteeing a steady income to all those who worked at the bakery. The cooperative was born.
As he tells it, about two years ago he biked his way around France for a month, exploring the countryside and eating baguettes every day. Once back home, he realized that he wanted to make bread. So he built himself a levain from scratch and started baking. The first bread turned out okay and it spurned him to make more, much more. He finally made it back to France the following April, first working as a volunteer (wwoofing) at an organic goat cheese farm (cheese is his other passion), then seeking an organic bakery that would use a wood-fired oven.
He contacted Les Co’Pains through a mutual acquaintance and they agreed to let him “wwoof” at the bakery, at the beginning just for room and board. He is now a full-time salaried employee. He enjoys many aspects of the bakery and finds great personal satisfaction in the atmosphere it fosters among the bakers and their network of friends and acquaintances.
Now that you have met the bakers, let’s talk about the baking. Erik describes an epiphany he once had as a student in a high-school chemistry class: “Aaargh! I never want to be precise again!”, he vowed, and to this day, he describes himself as a “latitudinarian”. He bakes by feeling, not according to any formula. There is nothing written in the bakery (except a schedule of bread prices) and no ingredient is ever weighed or temperature measured.
As Manu writes in Boulange: “Empty the bag of flour into the trough. Throw in pinches of salt (more or less one for each kilo of flour plus another for the sheer beauty of the gesture). Dip your hand into the levain. Estimate how much you need depending on the temperatures, both indoors and outdoors, the proofing time, the flour you are using, the composition of your levain… Careful! Things get a bit more complicated. Head towards your source of water. Use cold water if the temperature is warm, warm water if it is cold. If you don’t know whether the temperature is warm or cold, ask Erik. If Erik isn’t around, improvise! The dough will let you know the day after if the water was too warm or too cold…”(my translation).
On the whole it surely evens out. The bakery has been successfully selling its bread for more than 20 years, so it must know what it is doing. I imagine an intern has a hard time of it until he finds his bearings though. And it is hard work, no doubt about that. Although to the onlooker, it may look like sheer poetry…
Let’s turn to the bread…
(above photo by our friends from Tree-Top Baking. Reproduced with permission)
Four days a week he sells at markets: Wednesdays in Honfleur, Fridays in Caen, Saturdays in Lisieux, Sundays in Caen again. He delivers to several natural food stores and CSA’s. People in the know even make their way to the bakery on baking days to pick up their bread as it comes out of the oven. But local villagers typically do not get their bread from Les Co’Pains: first of all they are not necessarily able or willing to pay a premium for organic and secondly, they prefer the baguettes they can buy at Carrefour or Leclerc, two ubiquitous chains of supermarkets typically found in most cities or on their outskirts.
We did buy a baguette and had it that night with cheese. It tasted wonderfully wheaty but it was also saltless. Yes, you read it right: there was no salt in it. Clearly the follow-no-script method has its pitfalls ! But then what method doesn’t? I have taken to always measuring the salt first and putting it very close to my mixing bowl so I can’t possibly not see it when the autolyse is over. Salt-less does happen. Levain-less too sometimes… Not fun! The baguette was otherwise excellent.
Out of these three doughs, they make nine to ten different breads, adding various seeds (sunflower, poppy, sesame or flax) and other flours, including spelt, buckweat and a 5-grain mix, also walnuts or hazelnuts. They make an emmer bread that Erik describes as their most expensive at € 5.30/700 g ($ 7/24 oz.) but which always sells very well.
Mixing is typically done at the end of the day, entirely by hand. There is no mixer. No stretch and fold or other form of gluten-development either. Erik describes the resulting dough as slightly more than no-knead. That’s all. Fermentation takes place from 8 PM to 4:40 AM. The dough is never refrigerated or otherwise retarded. That’s baking like it was done in the old days, folks! A mind-boggingly different business model from the ones we saw in Paris during our BBGA-sponsored visits (see In Paris with bread on my mind, Two more Parisian bakeries and Award-winning baguettes in Montmartre) where shiny modern stores hide diminutive labs (often located in the basement) and where the husband toils in the back while the wife officiates at the cash register. No cash register is visible at Les Co’Pains, only a cash box and Erik’s wife commutes to a nearby small town where she teaches French. There is no woman in sight actually and I forgot to ask if the bakery ever had a woman apprentice.
When at Europain I attended a roundtable of women bakers and I remember the participants bringing up the issue of pénibilité (the demanding nature of the work) and the way labs could be adapted to women’s physical requirements to make professional baking more appealing to them. Well, at Les Co’Pains, such adaptation hardly seems possible. But what goes for women also goes for aging workers. Erik is probably already thinking of the day when his back rebels or his arms slow down.
Young partners and/or workers will need to be secured and he himself might choose then to focus more on what he already says he greatly enjoys: perpetuating a skills by training apprentices and teaching breadbaking to school children. Many classes already visit regularly as a group. For a set fee of € 6 euro per child, the kids play with flour and levain and get to bake pre-shaped loaves that they can take home. These visits are a good source of income for the bakery and they help strenghthen its ties with the community. They may also help train the tastebuds of future generations of local customers…
As Manu writes in Boulange, today the Co’Pains are bakers. Tomorrow they might be farmers too (he’s working hard towards that goal). Together with other like-minded artisans in their community (such as Lin or Sophie, who make cheese, Nicole, who makes cider and apple-juice, etc.), they are forging ties both to the land and to the people who nurture it by working it the old-fashioned way. Their network grows with every passing year and their hope is that twenty, fifty, a hundred years from now the artisan model will the prevalent one. The land will have been re-parcelized and supermarket-shopping will be no more than the memory of a quaint aberration in a not-so-distant past… We will all be thinking like stewards of the Earth. The Co’Pains already do.