I am filing this post under the Meet the Baker label but in fact the two hours of this time Frédéric Pichard so generously gave me on a recent Saturday morning were less about him than about his all-consuming passion, le pain français. Pain français means “French bread” of course but I won’t use the translation in this post because Monsieur Pichard would have a fit if he could see what comes up when one googles “French bread,” definitely not the kind of bread he is devoting his professional life to. He has no website and zero interest in the Internet, so hopefully he won’t see these pictures but, out of respect, I’ll stick to the original French. I first met Frédéric Pichard in a chapter of Sam Fromartz’ excellent book, In Search of the Perfect Loaf, a Home Baker’s Odyssey. Despite the fact that Pichard had won best croissant in Paris in 2011 and that his baguette had placed in the top ten in the 2009 Grand Prix de la Baguette, I hadn’t really paid much attention before but when I read what Sam had to say about his methods, I knew I had to go see him. And even though I am not sure Monsieur Pichard knows what a blog is, he was most welcoming when I called. And at the appointed time, we sat under a tree at a long table in the quiet courtyard behind the boulangerie. Madame Pichard came to say hello and brought me coffee and a croissant.
I thought of Sam who described Pichard’s baguette as almost floating in his hand as he held it. Well, that croissant was so crisp and light it practically levitated. Definitely worth crossing a continent AND an ocean but hard to eat elegantly: as it dwindled, it kept showering my open notebook with golden flakes which I tried to brush away while still writing a mile a minute… Not an easy feat. Fortunately Monsieur Pichard paused long enough to let me catch up.
As you will see if you read on, what Frédéric Pichard gave me that morning was a treatise on pain français, complete with practical information and historical references, and because he was so intensely involved in his subject, listening to him was an unexpectedly moving experience. Monsieur Pichard knows full well that he is un oiseau rare (literally a rare bird) among French bakers. When I told him that he reminded me of Don Quixote, he laughed and he shrugged. Like all of us, he can only do his best, right?
If an eighteenth-century French baker time-traveled to Maison Pichard, 88 rue Cambronne in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris, he or she (were there women bakers then?) would feel at home almost immediately. The technology and equipment have evolved but the process has remained almost identical. They would find the flour and its sometimes erratic behavior eerily familiar as well. They used farines-mères, a flour whose only ingredient was wheat. Frédéric Pichard does too: no additive is ever allowed into his flour, not even malt. The grain is grown and milled to his specifications in his native Beauce, a region so fertile that, from time immemorial, its vast plains have been considered France’s breadbasket. One of his grandfathers was a farmer and he used to say: “France is divided in two parts: one half is to the north of the Loire River, the other half to the south. Pain français comes from the northern part of France where wheat grows best.” Today Mr. Pichard makes his baguettes with the very same high-protein wheat varieties that this grandfather used to grow: Capelle, Capitole, Hardi. Why high-protein? To prevent gluten degradation during fermentation.
Pichard bakes his baguettes in a wood-fired oven because falling heat makes for better development. The bread gets a bit chewier and therefore tastier. The cost of wood isn’t an issue: “Because I use my own flour and don’t pay a premium to a miller for putting in additives and test-developing recipes, I can afford wood and still sell my baguette at a very competitive price.”
What follows is a synopsis of what Frédéric Pichard told me, based on a translation of my notes.
What is pain français?
- “Le pain, ce n’est que de la fermentation;” (Bread is nothing but fermentation)
- Pain français is bread made of pure T55 flour sublimated through the fermentation process (according to this article, the ash content for T55 flour is 0.50-0.62 and the extraction rate 75-78). The flour must contain no additives of any kind: a baker who uses additives is alienating his or her profession. To use a wine-making metaphor, it is like adding raspberries to Romanée-Conti;
- Pain français must taste lactic and its flavors be subtile; using a higher extraction flour would make for a stronger taste and the resulting bread wouldn’t be pain français;
- There is no prescribed recipe for pain français; the baker must adjust to the flour: wheat has its vintages as does wine. Moreover, “les blés bougent à chaque écrasement” (wheat changes with each milling);
- Pain français is all about the baker’s savoir-faire (know-how);
- When properly made, the baguette is the ultimate pain français.
In the eighteenth century, bakers of pain français:
- Always worked en masses importantes (in large batches). The size of the batch was proportional to the oven capacity;
- Used as much water as they possibly could and mixed until the dough started to look homogenous and the gluten network to develop; didn’t work from a recipe (there was none);
- Let the dough ferment for a while (sometimes up to ten hours) then added fresh flour and water to prevent pourriture (decay), i.e. the formation of undesirable acetic bacteria. These additions were called rafraîchis. Their object was to “launder out” the unwanted bacteria which routinely appeared because the bakers used wooden troughs (where germs tended to proliferate) and worked in labs that were not immaculate;
- Let the dough ferment again and added the salt at the end of the mixing; then did the last rafraîchi, called tous points;
- Worked in the room where the oven was, which means that there could be tremendous variations in ambient temperature. Typically the oven wasn’t lit yet when the mixing began. The lab went from really cold at the beginning to really hot towards the end of the process. Such variations in temperature were detrimental to the yeast micro-organisms.
To make pain français today, Frédéric Pichard:
- Applies the CELFEL (Culture Endogène Longue/Fermentation Exogène Lente) method that he has developed over the years (lengthy endogenous culture/slow exogenous fermentation);
- Mixes flour, salt and water in stainless steel cuves (see picture below: the word is normally used for wine and means “vats”) which are scrubbed and bleached between each batch and allows the mixture to rest for as long as needed to get the endogenous fermentation he is looking for. This fermentation differs from autolyse (whose function is to relax the gluten.) Here there is no prescribed duration: the process can take twenty hours, it can take more than thirty. The key is to add as much water as the flour can take. The more water, the more active the fermentation; no recipe can help the baker determine how much water to use. If a baker applying the CELFEL method underestimates the amount of water that the flour can absorb, then the baking goes south: there is less fermentation which means the development won’t be optimal and the bouquet aromatique will be less complex;
- Adds a minute amount of fresh yeast (0.2 to 0.4% of flour weight, sometimes even less than 0.1%) at the time of the final mixing “pour imprimer au pain une poussée gazeuse” (to facilitate a gaseous thrust) which, combined with the bulles sauvages or wild bubbles created during the long endogenous fermentation, will help give the crumb its honeycomb structure);
- Mixes only as long as necessary to develop the dough;
- Allows the dough to ferment again for four to seven hours after mixing;
- Doesn’t proof his baguettes: once shaped, they are ready for the oven after one single long slash with a lame;
- Uses a wood-fired oven in which he burns hornbeam wood (the young tree growing in his courtyard is a hornbeam which he planted to honor the wood that helps make his pain français);
- Bakes his baguettes for 20 to 22 minutes or so;
- Never uses his retarder for pain français, only for bulk viennoiserie and specialty doughs.
- Le pain français first appeared at the time of the First French Empire: Talleyrand, France’s most important diplomat under several kings and one emperor, was a gastronome; his chef Antoine Carême made it his mission in life to refine French cuisine as a whole, bread-baking included. He had flour sifted so that only the white endosperm was retained. No longer able to rely on the strong taste of grain, French bakers learned to use fermentation to create flavorful and airy breads: they invented pain français;
- Pain français became famous because it was the bread of the rich and powerful (lower classes ate miches which generated no interest). Almost every country in the world has a bread tradition, yet twenty years ago nobody talked about Italian breads or pita bread; multigrain loaves started appearing thirty-five years ago in Paris; Parisian bakers began using dried fruit in bread twenty years ago or so. These breads are tasty because they contain ingredients suitable for pastry. They are not to be confused with pain français.
- One gram of flour contains thirty to forty yeast micro-organisms, one gram of baker’s yeast contains one hundred billions. Most bakers use way too much baker’s yeast with the result that no characteristic aroma is produced; that’s why they use flour to which malt has been added;
- The Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) bakers have considerably evolved over the years in terms of shaping and presentation. But bread must be judged based on both its esthetic and its organoleptic qualities and unfortunately only esthetics seem to matter today. The French no longer know how to taste their bread. If they did, they would know it isn’t good. Aromas are what make bread interesting, the reason we get it day after day and never get tired. Combining aromas is an art, l’art du boulanger, the baker’s art;
- When the wheat varieties that Pichard uses were developed, there was no seed lobby, no studies. Only know-how. Money wasn’t the only factor then: work ethics and honor were important values. Today two criteria enter into play when creating new seeds: resistance to disease and productivity. In the old days, organoleptic qualities were taken into account as well. Pain français was at his best from 1900 to 1960 because that’s when wheat was at its best.
- Nowadays, more often than not, pain français is an imposture. The fault lies with the millers who strive to normalize flour. In France, four milling companies produce 68% of the flour used by the bakers. They eliminate all possible variations, come up with a recipe and standardize the bread when there should be as many baguettes as there are bakers;
- Learning how to make pain français takes ten years. Everything else (pastry, viennoiserie, specialty breads) can be learned in six months;
- The baguette is key to the survival of individual bakeries in France. In Germany where manufacturing plants are humongous, stores sell for more money a bread that costs less to make and bakeries are disappearing. The beauty of the baguette is that it must be eaten fresh, so that customers have to come in everyday. If all bakers made only miches, there would soon be no more bakeries in France;
- Maison Pichard makes three to four thousand baguettes a day.
Before leaving, I asked Monsieur Pichard what recommendations he would have for a serious home baker who wanted to make good baguettes. He sighed. He knew I live in the United States where access to a local bakery is more problematic than in France and I could see he was trying to come up with an encouraging answer. After a minute, he said: “Use nothing but pure wheat flour, water and salt and rely on fermentation alone to develop aromas. That should give you a good wheat bread.” He didn’t say pain français.