I was planning to do a Meet the Baker post on my friend Marie-Christine Aractingi who recently opened a bakery in Marseille, France, but circumstances went against us. The Toussaint holiday weekend was around the corner and Marie had a hectic week. Both the lab and the shop were unusually busy and we couldn’t do a proper interview. But the Man and I were in the city visiting friends who have two sons, age fifteen and nine. These kids have the proverbial growing boy appetite which means we brought home a lot of bread every time we stopped by…
…and bread is very eloquent at Dame Farine.
In fact it can’t stop talking and it says a lot about the baker. So if you ever find yourself in Marseille, a city of mind-blowing contrasts which I personally find both hard to fall for and impossible to dismiss, make a beeline for 77 avenue de la Corse, not far from the Vieux Port and Palais du Pharo. and get a loaf or two. Your tastebuds will thank you. Plus you may meet la boulangère! If you do, please say hi! to her for me.
In the hands of a skilled baker, bread not only talks, it sings. Take Marie’s petit-épeautre intégral (whole-grain einkorn) for instance. Buy a loaf and cut yourself a slice (or rip off a chunk if you can’t wait), close your eyes, bring it to your mouth and bite.
Chances are you will find yourself transported to the hills of Haute-Provence, the very ones you roamed in your imagination if you ever read Marcel Pagnol’s souvenirs or watched Jean de Florette or Manon des sources. I have had einkorn before but nothing that ever approached the flavor of this one, grown in a hardscrabble land where the sun is fierce and water elusive. The bread reminds me of pain d’épices (even though it contains no spices or sweetener) but mostly, it brings back the drives south in the summers of my childhood when the first clue that the grandes vacances (summer vacation) had indeed arrived was the scent of the maquis (the pervasive Mediterranean scrubland) drifting in through the open car windows. However you don’t need blasts from the past to love Marie’s petit-épeautre, the aforementioned boys couldn’t get enough of it. I was impressed. Especially because the bread is whole-grain and they are raised mostly on baguettes. Of course it helps that, despite their tender age, they are both erstwhile gourmets with a devouring interest (pun intended!) in experiencing new tastes.
Also strongly evocative of terroir is Marie’s fougasse aux olives. While petit-épeautre takes you to Provence’s fragrant and stony hills, the fougasse brings to mind cobblestoned streets lined with colorful market stalls and lazy lunches under the vine arbor. The olives are plump and plentiful (I love it when a baker is generous with ingredients) and the crumb-crust ratio is spot-on perfect, so that buying a couple of loaves (or more) is the only way to make sure there’ll be some left at mealtime.
At Dame Farine, all flours and most ingredients are organic and locally sourced. The bread is hand-crafted in small batches. The levains are mild, the mixer is gentle, fermentation is long. Even though the bakery is located on a busy avenue, it feels like an old-fashioned village boulangerie: locals come in, greet the baker, leave with bread and brioche; kids examine the display of sweet rolls and carefully select their after-school snacks.
There is laughter and gossip. People linger and ask questions. The city isn’t familiar yet with the flours Marie likes to use: kamut, spelt, rye, buckwheat, chestnut. Some customers are more daring than others but all look and wonder and you can see in the timid ones’ eyes that they are sorely tempted and that, one day, they too might take a wild leap into the unknown.
It doesn’t hurt that the baker is a poet and that her breads carry inspired names. The whole-grain kamut is miche Cléopâtre, the big rustic white loaf Petit-Poucet (Little Tom Thumb) and, in a stroke of genius, the whole-wheat is called Soleil Levain (soleil levant means “rising sun.”) When I saw that, I couldn’t resist brightening up our day by taking home a chunk.
On our last visit we left with half-a-dozen castagnous (Marie comes up with a different seasonal roll every week). Made from chestnut flour and whole chestnuts, they taste like an old-fashioned French Christmas. Guess who made short work of those!
There is a wonderful feeling of community around the new bakery. The neighborhood tradespeople threw a block party when it opened. The mayor gave a toast. Friends came from Aix. There were flowers and smiles. Tears of emotion too. Word of mouth is doing the rest with help from the media. Locals have started saying “tu” to Marie, to kiss her on both cheeks, to ask how she is doing. She is getting to know them, to remember who likes his or her baguette bien cuite (dark) and who deplores the crisp crust but still comes back for more. On Saturdays, some customers arrive in late afternoon and leave with armfuls of loaves, a sure sign they live in other boroughs or maybe in the suburbs and are stocking up for the week before heading home. She loves interacting with them all.
Delphine, one of Marie’s new neighbors, runs a safranière (a saffron farm) in nearby Aubagne. We visited her on a gorgeous Saturday morning (more about that in an upcoming post) and were delighted to see that the bread used in the tasting came from Dame Farine. Bread made with local grains, spread with locally-grown-saffron-infused jams: we were eating the landscape. It tasted marvelous.