For me, stepping into Boulangerie Pains, Beurre et Chocolat (PBC), in Nantes, France, was like entering Dame Tartine’s famous edible palace (if you didn’t grow up to the accents of Il était une dame Tartine you may need to check out the English version of the lyrics to see what I am talking about): my pulse quickened and my brain went into serotonin overdrive as I took in the dazzling display of breads, bretzels, viennoiseries and pastries. I had definitely entered another, wondrous, dimension. The young salesperson flashed me a glorious smile. Before I could introduce myself, Éric Marché stepped out of the lab and came towards me. He too was smiling. We shook hands and talked a while. Then, picking up a buckwheat Menhir nantais (a menhir is a standing stone), one of his signature breads, he good-naturedly agreed to pose for a picture before shepherding me to the back to put my coat down and meet his wife Cathy. Five minutes later we were chatting like old friends.
Like several of the bakers I have met over the years, Éric came to bread from another walk of life. He was 40, working for a regional newspaper and living in southwestern France when he switched tracks. He was already a serious home baker: “I couldn’t find bread I liked where we lived. The only way to get the kind of bread I was looking for was to make it myself.” Five years earlier, Cathy had quit her job as a business facilitator working for the local chamber of commerce to become a pastry chef. Now it was his turn. He applied to École Banette near Orléans and was accepted. Within six months, he had graduated with two diplomas: the CAP (certificat d’aptitude professionnelle or certificate of professional competency) and the BP (brevet professionnel, a higher professional certificate). Within the Banette system, a beginning baker may be supported by a miller who helps him or her get a foot in the door by providing market research, technical and commercial assistance, etc., in exchange of which the baker becomes a customer. Éric and Cathy thus learned of a bakery coming up for sale in Le Croisic on the coast of Brittany, fifty miles or so west of Nantes. (Le Croisic is right near Guérande, known worldwide for its famous sea-salt). They sold everything they owned and in 2004, as soon as school let out for the summer, they uprooted themselves and their three kids and moved to Brittany.
The bakery was a big one. In high season when business was brisk, it employed up to six people in the back and seven in the front: Éric and Cathy worked hard and managed to increase production by forty percent compared to the previous owners. But the low season was long (Le Croisic mostly comes to life when school is out: to give you an idea, the bakery used to sell one thousand and five hundred baguettes a day in the summer against two hundred in the winter), the miller’s flour contained more additives than Éric cared to use and the work wasn’t nearly as creative as he had hoped: locals were not really interested in trying out different breads. By 2007, they knew they had to move to a larger city and become independent. They picked Nantes partly because they wanted to stay in the Loire region and partly because competition was fierce in the city: there were many excellent bakers there including La Petite Boulangerie, owned and run by MOF Franck Dépériers, (MOF means Meilleur Ouvrier de France). Making it in Nantes would definitely be a challenge. But at that point in their lives, a challenge was exactly what they were looking for.
Éric and Cathy found a bakery in Saint-Félix, a lively and prosperous part of the city, in a spot where there had always been a bakery although at the time the premises were reduced to bare walls. Once again they sold everything (at a loss because they were still paying back their loan) and moved. They chose a local mill, Minoterie Girardeau, which had been in the same family for four generations and still stone-milled all of its organic flours. By then it was 2008. They went to work. This time though Cathy was no longer in the back making chocolate (something she had greatly enjoyed doing in Le Croisic’s cool climate and big lab): the new lab was simply too warm and too small. So she put on a new hat and took charge of sales and catering. “I love interacting with people, so I am fine,” she told me with a twinkle in the eyes before leaving the floor to Éric, only to reappear a few minutes later with a luscious little cake that I was made to sample on the spot, the gâteau nantais, a regional specialty. The taste was like nothing I had every had before: a cross between a French almond cake and a baba-au-rhum. Now I am not a cake person and I never liked rhum very much (my older brother’s favorite cake was baba-au-rhum and I always dreaded his birthday growing up) but were I to be magically transported to Dame Tartine‘s actual palace, Éric and Cathy’s gâteau nantais is what I would wish the walls to be made of! “Very easy to make!,” proclaims Éric, “The secret is to use good butter, good rhum (and a lot of it) and the best almonds you can afford.” There was indeed so much rhum in the slice I had that, had I indulged in a second one, I would probably have been over the legal alcohol limit for driving. Éric and Cathy generously offered to share the recipe for their gâteau nantais before I even asked.
But back to bread. Everything in the bakery (including viennoiseries) is leavened with a natural starter. Éric keeps several different ones, some of them seasonal.
- A liquid starter (100% hydration) based on T65, a farine de tradition française, a wheat flour to which no additive can legally be added and which retains 0.62 % to 0.75 % minerals (see this classification of French flours – in French). Used for baguette de tradition.
- A firm starter based on organic T80 wheat flour (flour which retains 0.75% à 0.90% minerals). Used for all organic breads besides the kamut and the spelt.
- A firm spelt starter. Used for the kamut and spelt bread because of its lower gluten content.
- A high-gluten starter based on farine de gruau (T45). Used at Christmas time for panettone.
- A levain nantais: liquid starter based on farine de tradition to which beurre roux (brown butter) is added at feeding time. Used for viennoiseries as well as for fouace, a regional bread traditionally made at vendanges (grape harvest) time.
- A starter based on levain nantais to which brown sugar syrup is added at feeding time. Used for fouace as well.
The menhir nantais is made with 15% sarrasin (buckwheat) and 85% farine de tradition and leavened with firm levain. But Éric roasts 5% of the buckwheat flour which gives the bread the unmistakable aroma of the crêpes de sarrasin (buckwheat crêpes) Brittany is justly famous for.
Visually, it is hard to tell the two flours apart but the minute your nose comes into play, you know which is which.
Everyone has a favorite bread, right? Éric’s is the tourte de seigle (100% rye) with its subtle hints of honey and spices.
Mine is the tourte de sarrasin, a buckwheat loaf so powerfully aromatic I took one home and had a slice for breakfast for the remainder of our stay in western France. Sliced, toasted and spread with butter speckled with sel de Guérande, it tastes like Brittany itself. So, yes, I am a convert and next time I make buckwheat bread, I too will roast 5% of the flour.
In 2013, PBC won the fourth spot among a hundred or so bakeries selected to compete at the national level in M6 TV show La Meilleure boulangerie de France.
In the two weeks following the announcement of the results, traffic increased by fifty percent: people came in for the menhir, for the gâteau nantais, for the bi-color croissants and for other viennoiseries.
Croissant & moulin à vent au citron (lemon pinwheel)
Pain aux raisins (raisin roll) and raspberry croissant
When traffic went back to normal, Éric found out that his regular customers had become more adventurous: they were willing to try different grains and to trust him with new flavors. Today he makes an average of thirty-two different breads on any given week, including eight or nine organic ones. There is a rule in the lab that everyone must come up with a new bread or viennoiserie every month: some of these creations make it into the bakery’s regular répertoire. So it went for l’Italienne (made with herbs and tomatoes on ciabatta dough)…
… and for the Algeria-inspired Mathloun, among others.
At PBC, flours are either organic or the product of sustainable farming. Ingredients are sourced locally whenever possible: salt comes from Guérande, butter from Laiterie de Montaigu in nearby Vendée, honey from Ruchers du Pays blanc in Brittany, etc. Unsold bread goes to food banks and customers can buy an extra baguette and leave it at the bakery for the first person in need who will walk in and ask for it. Cathy keeps track on a big slate behind the register. On any given day, an average of fifteen baguettes are thus shared. I love it.
When asked what best advice he would have for a young baker, Éric doesn’t hesitate: “Your first concern should be taste. Shape, length, grignes (cuts), they all matter, but at the end of the day, you don’t share a shape, you share a taste. Never lose track of that.” Being a baker is a demanding job: it requires long hours (Éric and Cathy are on their feet from 4 AM to 8 PM with a thirty-minute nap in early afternoon) and it seriously disrupts your social life. Looking back though, they only have one regret: that they didn’t start at a younger age. But their three kids have remained their first tasters and customers and now that a grandchild has joined the family, they know the taste of good bread will pass on to yet another generation. If that isn’t a good enough reason to get up at dawn and fire up the oven, then what is?
Crème des pains
Left: Seeded country loaf. Right: Le Rustique. Front: Le Norvégien
A slice of Norvégien
- PBC makes no gluten-free bread
- All flour blends are done in-house
- Except for the baguette, all bread is sold by weight
- Dough for the baguette is hydrated at 78%. The starter gets only one feeding and a two-hour fermentation before being put to work. It gets incorporated in the final dough at the same time as the coarse sea salt
- All seeds are toasted then soaked
- To roast the flour, Éric puts it in a 320°F oven for a total of fifteen minutes (mixing it every five minutes to prevent it from burning)
- Spelt bread contains 40% seeds (sunflower, soy, buckwheat and brown flax). Made with malt syrup and firm levain and hydrated at 120%, it keeps five to six days and is a best seller
- The fruit purées that go into some viennoiseries contain only 10% sugar
- Crème des pains is made with farine de tradition and crème fraîche. It has a brown butter aroma
- The Saint-Félix is made with farine de tradition and wheat germ. It has a thick crust and a robust chew
- Le Norvégien is made with three different whole-grain organic flours (spelt, rye and wheat), six different seeds and three kinds of dried fruit (fig, cranberry and apricot). It bakes for two and a half hours in large 3-kg pans. It keeps for several days
- Salt content: from 1.77% for baguette and related doughs down to 1.13% for rye, with spelt and kamut hovering at 1.50%.