I met François Brault of Boulangerie Panifica towards the end of our stay in Paris last May. I had read that he made excellent bread, including a very good line of gluten-free (GF) breads. I don’t talk much (or at all) about GF or gluten-light anything on this blog, mostly because nobody I bake for has gluten-intolerance or insensitivity, also because I have seldom enjoyed the GF breads I have encountered over the years. I remember taking a GF workshop at WheatStalk in June 2012: the class was fascinating but the breads disappointed. However techniques evolve and things change. Even bread. So I emailed François Brault and made an appointment.
The Man and I came in early, early enough to walk around the neighborhood for a spell. Panifica is located Avenue Trudaine, on the edge of Montmartre, facing the Sacré-Coeur basilica.
Spring was in the air…
…but the hordes of tourists hadn’t descended on the streets yet. We pretty much had the area to ourselves and it was lovely.
Even so we made sure to be back at the bakery in time to beat the lunch crowd and secure a table from which we could observe.
We saw a beautiful space artfully decorated with recycled material (lamps salvaged from the Concorde hangar at Heathrow, re-purposed and sculpted teak panels, etc.) by stylist and designer Gaétane Raguet, Brault’s business partner. I especially loved the tiled floor tying it all together. I learned later that it was a throw-back to the floor in the original bakery (the one Panifica replaced): same manufacturer,new tiles, different colors. Gorgeous.
But I know you want to hear about the bread. Except for the baguette in the ham sandwich we had for lunch, the only Panifica bread I actually tasted was one of the GF ones: the suédois. I bought a loaf to take home. I wish I could have sampled them all but we were out and about and the prospect of carrying more than one loaf of bread around for the rest of the day didn’t appeal to either of us. So we limited ourselves to this one. I sliced it open as soon as we got home. It had a glorious crumb (see photo below) and a sweet taste that struck me as profoundly honest. Contrary to most of the GF breads I have had so far, it was real bread. When I asked Brault what his secret was, he didn’t hesitate. He replied: “The levain (the starter).”
Before I go any further though, let me make it very clear that François Brault doesn’t claim to be making gluten-free breads. Since all his breads are made in the same lab and flour is eminently volatile, it is impossible to avoid cross-contamination. As we all know, even an infinitesimal particle of gluten is enough to make someone very very sick if that person has celiac disease. So please, my Parisian friends, don’t all rush to Panifica to get your gluten-free fix. You won’t find it there.
What Panifica does make -among other things- is four beautiful breads that are naturellement sans gluten (naturally without gluten – NWG). From left to right on picture below:
- Maïs (corn) leavened with rice starter
- Riz-millet-pavot (rice-millet-poppy) leavened with rice starter
- Sarrasin (buckwheat) leavened with buckwheat starter
- Suédois (Swedish: buckwheat-potato flour-sunflower seeds) leavened with buckwheat starter
What these four breads have in common is a) that they are naturally without gluten; b) they are starter-leavened; c) they fermented slowly. Many bakers don’t think of using starter in their GF breads but it actually makes a huge difference. In terms of shelf-life, of digestibility and of consistency.
Panifica keeps a very mild white starter, a more acidic one (used for rye and whole-grain breads) and, for its NWG breads, a gluten-free starter, either buckwheat or rice. The rice starter is made white rice flour (unless ground on the spot, brown rice yields a very bitter taste). Since it doesn’t keep well, it is made afresh for each bake from one spoonful of buckwheat starter. Its main advantage is its mildness. The buckwheat starter is much more assertive. All of Panifica’s starters are liquid.
Panifica’s best-selling NWG bread is the suédois. Its popularity extends to the gluten-eating customers. I am not surprised. Despite its less-than-sexy looks, it is deeply seductive. I would buy it regularly too if I lived in Paris. I might even make a special trip for it. People who wish to minimize their gluten intake also go for the norvégien (the Norwegian) which contains spelt, rye and seeds. The more adventurous seek out einkorn and kamut. The other overall best-sellers are the complet (whole-wheat), the tourte de meule (100% high-extraction flour) and the alouette (country bread with seeds). The bakery makes only one kind of baguette (organic and levain-based), one plain which sells for one euro (probably among the cheapest in Paris for an organic baguette Tradition au levain), and a seeded one that goes for € 1.30. Panifica actually makes fewer baguettes than most other Parisian bakeries (400 a day including the ones needed to make the sandwiches) as its main focus is on specialty breads.
It also makes croissants and other viennoiseries as well as all kinds of small pastries, both sweet and savory. Many French bakers complain that a growing number of clients require their bread pas trop cuit (lightly baked) but Panifica doesn’t have that problem. Its customers actually want bien cuit. Don’t you love the deep color of these gorgeous palmiers?
Brault himself is in charge of the baguettes which he makes in the afternoon. He also experiments with new breads. Three bakers come in in the morning to make everything else while he takes care of purchases and administrative tasks.
Like many (most?) bakers I know, Brault didn’t start his professional life in the baking world: an engineer by training, he worked in the banking industry before settling on bread. As is frequently the case in France, food played a pivotal role in his family which featured no professional chefs but counted several excellent cooks, notably his mom and his aunts. However he is the only one in his generation to have a métier de bouche (a lovely French expression which means literally a mouth-related profession). Things are markedly different among his younger relatives, several of whom are interested in pursuing a career in food.
Brault likes to eat bon, bio et beau – in that order. In other words, he likes his food to be tasty, organic and beautiful-looking but tasty and organic always trump beautiful. At the bakery everything is made in house and almost everything is organic (all the flours are) unless choosing organic means sacrificing taste. A good example is the butter that goes into the viennoiserie. Organic butter is available but it isn’t as good as the conventional butter he can get at Laiterie de Montaigu in Charentes-Poitou. So Brault uses beurre des Charentes.
It can take months of testing and many sad baguettes and croissants before a baker finds the right organic flour. Brault buys his from Monsieur Girardeau, a miller who owns five mills in Western France, including an organic one (Minoterie Suire) and a buckwheat mill. Girardeau knows how to produce quality flours, both conventional and organic. He has a testing lab and keeps a demo lab which is run by Mickael Chesnouard, Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF).
Brault describes how he once spent a vacation working in the kitchen at Hotel Crillon, took a class at Le Cordon Bleu to learn mise en place and the proper use of kitchen tools, then went to pizza school where he discovered dough and found he really enjoyed the process of mixing, fermenting and baking. He went on to learn from MOFs such as Anis Bouabsa, and too train at INBP. He then honed his skills at his miller’s lab. During his stints with bakers, he had used excellent conventional flours. At Minoterie Suire, he used organic flours that performed just as well. He became a convert. That being said, all organic flours are not created equal. Many millers cannot guarantee that their organic flours -often lower in gluten- will consistently perform as well as conventional flours and, consequently, the bakers they supply cannot make the switch to all-organic. Brault left Minoterie Muire with a bunch of recipes, including the one for the 100% buckwheat on buckwheat levain. He never looked back.
Before Brault even started Panifica, he knew he wanted the bakery to be big enough for the production not to depend entirely upon him. He succeeded. He has proven that he has the know-how. He has attained most of his goals. The others are within his reach. Yet, asked how it felt to be an entrepreneur, Brault sighs. The subject is clearly a frustrating one: France doesn’t make life easy for small business owners. Some annoyances are predictable and run-of-the-mill (no pun intended) but others pile on unexpectedly and they are discouraging: lack of support at the bank, issue with the State over the refund of the value-added tax, etc.
To a young baker wishing to start in the profession, Brault would says this:
- Go high-end;
- Go the levain way and you’ll face no competition from industrial bakers. Even baking schools don’t teach you how to bake with levain. They focus on commercial yeast. Which is the reason Brault himself never went for his certificat d’aptitude professionnelle (CAP) (certificate of professional competence). Preparing for the exam would have forced him to learn techniques he didn’t care for. Instead he trained on the job with bakers he admired;
- Go 100% fait maison (made-in-house).
The model of a small bakery with one baker, one helper and one salesperson is an obsolete one. There are too many administrative hurdles. In Paris, you find a bakery every 150 meters (roughly 500 feet). To survive the only solution is to go the artisan way. Otherwise the supermarket wins. But to be successful as an artisan, you cannot be too small.
Generations of bakers such as Poilâne or Ganachaud and millers such as Viron have paved the way, followed by Kayser and Saibron. Now France needs to focus on upcoming generations, to train them to make everything in-house, to ferment with levain, and maybe to go gluten-free. Sadly the best baking books are to be found on the other side of the Atlantic and they have no French equivalents. There is more enthusiasm and innovation in the US, yet you look up the bios of famous American bakers: they all did a stint in France or with French bakers.
Clearly il y a encore du pain sur la planche (literally “there is still bread on the bench”). Pun intended. Much is yet to be done.