Funny how things work in life. Back in May 2012, when I went to Victoria, British Columbia, to visit baker/farmer Diane Andiel for the purpose of a Meet the Baker post, I met her French “wwoofer” Matthias Arbion, a passionate environmentalist and indefatigable traveler. Matthias holds a masters degree in environmental studies from the University of Angers and another in land use planning from the University of Rennes. When we first met, he was roaming the world, looking for his calling. He liked working the land and tending farm animals but he was also deeply interested in making a difference on a larger scale by promoting careful stewardship of our planet’s limited resources. Due to the sheer immensity of the country he had thought there would be more opportunities in Canada than in much smaller France but either it didn’t turn out to be the case or seeing Diane bake and eating her bread every day sowed in him the seed of another vocation.
In any case, he had finished his “wwoofship” (don’t look up the word, I just made it up!) and already crossed Canada from British Columbia to Quebec mulling his options along the way when he recalled an article he had read months earlier about a guy who had switched tracks mid-career to become a baker. He had trained at École internationale de boulangerie in Provence, France. Something clicked. Matthias emailed the school director, Thomas Teffri-Chambelland. Thomas replied immediately. The month was November and the next training cycle started in January. Matthias lost no time in making up his mind. Figuratively speaking, he hopped on the next plane to France.
He trained for three weeks at the school in the organic artisan baker program (which focuses on baking with natural leaven and all organic flours and grains), interned for a month at La Conquête du pain in Montreuil, near Paris, then another six weeks in Montreux, Switzerland. There the flours were much stronger than the ones he had become accustomed to in France. He learned to work with and adjust for very different doughs. It was good training for the CAP de boulanger (certificate of professional ability) exam which he took and passed in short order as a candidat libre (independent candidate). Immediately afterwards, in September 2013, he received a call from Thomas asking if he would be interested in a job at La Fabrique à pains, the bakery he was opening at 4 Rue Pierre de Coubertin in Aix-en-Provence.
We had kept in touch on Facebook all along and last fall, during a visit to family in Marseille, as we were planning a day trip to nearby Aix, I asked Matthias if I could go and visit him at work. And that’s how it happened that by an overcast November morning in Provence (yes, they do have them!), I pushed open the door.
The first thing you notice when you enter is how bright and open the space is: the only thing separating the shop from the lab is the bread counter. Then you see the bread. Which is beautiful and smells heavenly. I am sorry, Dior, Gucci, Chanel and the rest, I love fragrances as much as the next woman but if I could take one scent and only one scent with me to the proverbial desert island, it would the aroma of freshly baked bread (although it would probably drive me bonkers if the scent wasn’t followed in short order by the actual fresh bread!).
Tourte fermière (khorasan starter, 5% rye)
Baguettines aux olives (olive twist)
Tourte de seigle (100% rye)
Then you notice the people. The place is a beehive. Everyone is constantly moving, constantly working. Everyone seems to have an immediate purpose.
When the bakers aren’t loading the oven with sheet pans of pompes à huile (a local brioche made with olive oil), they are sweeping the floor. When they aren’t dividing and scaling, they are mixing dough or helping customers. I ask Matthias how it all works and he says that in the morning, one person is in charge of the doughs and another of the oven while a third attends to customers. From 1 to 4 PM when customer traffic as slower, no one is specifically assigned to sales and everybody pitches in. Generally speaking, everyone gets a turn at everything, including cleaning although Matthias is mostly in charge of production. He also does the outdoor markets (the bakery does five markets a week, principally in Marseille but also in Aix and Aubagne.) He says he greatly enjoys the dual aspect of his working life: he loves production (especially mixing doughs and manning the oven for the campagne) but he also loves being out in the fresh air, freed from the constant constraint of ringing timers.
Matthias went from apprentice to co-manager in a very short time (the bakery had barely been open a year at the time we visited) and it is clear that the passionate environmentalist and would-be steward of the land we had met in Canada two years earlier has found not only his calling but also an outlet for his powerful organizational skills. He has his formulas down pat, he documents everything. The others come to him with questions and get answers. He projects both competence and a quiet authority. He is in his element.
An apprentice comes up to the bench. Matthias walks back to the mixer with him. I turn my attention to the shop. Business is brisk. I hear customers ask for du pain bien cuit (well-baked bread). Music to my ears because too often on this trip I have heard the opposite: pas trop cuit, le pain, s’il vous plaît (“on the lighter side please!”), a request that drives me nuts. I want to scream: “Don’t you know that a well-baked crust makes for a much more flavorful bread?.” But do they care? Probably not. Is blandness becoming the new taste? (Pounding my head against the keyboard right now!)
An elderly gentleman walks in and inspects the offerings: Il est appétissant, votre pain! (“Your bread looks good.”) He walks out with two baguettes (bien cuites) and a brioche. Yay! There is hope yet.
Being a baker is hard. The job is physically demanding, sometimes exhausting but Matthias says he forgets it all when someone says: “You gave me back the taste of my childhood,” or “Thanks to you guys, I am eating bread again” or, as recently happened, “Your bread is extraordinary.” Customer satisfaction is a strong motivation. Another is the knowledge that a baker can work almost everywhere because everybody eats bread (especially in France), which means that the job is pretty much crisis-proof. It also offers plenty of room for creativity and épanouissement (self-fulfillment). Matthias thrives on being part of a team: “This is all teamwork. Everybody has a role to play. It is essential to stress this fundamental truth. I don’t know yet what the future has in store for me but because I love collaborating with others, I can’t see opening my own bakery anytime soon. I love teaching, working on different projects, and I can think of many exciting possibilities within the framework of my job here.”
Khorasan (on left) and rye (on right) starters
Local flours from Moulin Pichard
Khorasan is one of Matthias’ favorites. It has a powerful fragrance. But my own delight is the einkorn. I have yet to taste back in the States an einkorn that “sings” the way einkorn from Provence does. Sadly I lack the words to describe its taste. I wish I had had Michael Kalanty’s tool at my disposal back when I visited. Maybe I would be more articulate. As it is, I can only say, relying on my memory, that Provence einkorn speaks of sun and wind and rocky hills and of a terroir like no other. The job of the baker is to let the soul of the grain shine through and, like Dame Farine in Marseille, La Fabrique does it exceedingly well. I could live on both bakeries’ petit-épeautre. The stuff of life.
I ask Matthias if he misses his environmental work. He doesn’t. His job is deeply satisfying on that level as well: “It may seem far-fetched but in fact there are similarities. We are closely associated with organic farming. Ninety-five percent of our ingredients are locally sourced. We know how they are produced. We work with a miller in Haute-Provence (Moulin Pichard), we get our olives from Nyons, our walnuts from Grenoble. We emphasize both terroir and quality which means we remain true to our values and our beliefs and we make the most of our skills.”
Who knew that sometimes you need to bounce around the world to find your inner baker?
- La Fabrique uses all organic flours without any additive. All are locally sourced
- Most bread are naturally leavened. La Fabrique keeps three starters: khorasan (kamut), rye and rice (for gluten-free breads)
- The starters are fed twice a day
- Tourte fermière is made with young levain to cultivate a lactic aroma
- The doughs are very hydrated (hydration is 110% for instance on the khorasan), which is why many of the breads are baked in pans
- Autolyse: anywhere from 30 to 90 min (three hours for the baguettes)
- Commercial yeast is used only for baguettes (2 or 3 g of fresh yeast per kilo of flour)
- Baguette dough ferments for 24 hours (including an 18-hour old bulk fermentation)
- Percentage of salt: 1.8% (in line with European recommendations)
- Shaping is kept to a minimum.
- Owner Thomas Teffri-Chambelland built his own mill where he mills riz de Camargue (rice from the Camargue area of Provence) for La Fabrique‘s rice-buckwheat bread. For more on Thomas, take a look at this video (in French).