May 4, 2007

Hello Everyone!

My day (Friday) started at the crack of dawn – feels like home! I spent part of the morning with Theirry Dubois at his business Pain D’Epi. A boulanger who refuses to lower the quality of his product, Dubois makes his bread without any additives or preservatives, nor does he freeze his dough. This is the standard of an artisanal baker as legislated by the government. When I arrived this morning he was in a full out baking frenzy for the opening at 7:30. It is just him, one other baker and a pastry chef. He does all the bread production in full view of his store, so customers can really get a sense of the operation. (His pastry chef works downstairs).

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He starts the baguette dough a full twenty hours before he bakes it. He doesn’t use poolish, but old dough from the previous bake. The dough stays in a proofer at 8-10 degrees celcius – a method called deferred fermentation that he believes provides better flavor by extending the second fermentation process (appret) . He shapes and bakes the following morning. He and his team bake all day long depending on the demand. His method allows him to adjust for demand by controlling the temperature of the dough.

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Theirry has thirty breads in his rotation, including pain complet, pain seigle, pain cereales, pain de bois, pain mie and viennoise.

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Another highlight today was my first visit to Eric Kesyer – a very famous boulanger who has several locations in Paris and is expanding to the US. He is really respected in the french baking community – a guy who is constantly creating and pushing the envelope. The site I visited today was in the 13th arrondissment, which is located in the west section of the city in a largely business district. I had to walk for about and hour along the Seine to get there – (a fantastic view of the museums and river on flickr). At this site, all of the baking is down for his other bakeries. It is a very modern storefront and kitchen. He is on the forefront of bread baking technology because he is using a machine designed by Bongard that actually completely shapes large amounts of dough thus reducing damage to the dough by human hands but also increasing the productivity of the baker. It literally takes the baker’s hands off the dough – which some might say is not the most desirable way forward. It’s really questionable to me whether a baker can maintain his level of knowledge about dough if he isn’t handling it.

The salesperson who showed me around did not allow me take pictures either inside the store or the bakery – truly frustrating. I have an appointment with his manger next week (courtesy of Steven Kaplan – thank you!), and its possible I will be able to get some pictures and maybe a meeting with Eric Kayser himself.
All of his breads use a natural levain, and he uses a lot of interesting ingredients and flavor combinations. I bought a pain de algue – a bread we have been working on at Per Se. It was excellent – tasted like the sea but not in a disconcerting way. He doesn’t use dried seaweed -and the salt is just right – not too overwhelming.

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At last the venerable Poilane! Genevieve, Appolonia Poliane’s assistant gave me over an hour of her time and talked with me about the history of the company as well as the methodology behind the bread. The store is very small – and it has remained unchanged since 1932 when Pierre Poilane first opened it. (For those of you not familiar with the company, Poilane is generally regarded as the one of the most famous boulangeries if not the one – its sourdough miche is renowned for its flavor and its baked in wood-fired ovens – an increasing rarity in France today.)

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Set in a former convent, Pierre discovered a wood-fired oven that he determined was first built around 1789, and he was determined to resurrect it. The company is really focused on preserving tradition. On the walls where I met Genevieve were paintings given to Pierre in exchange for bread during WWII.paintings-at-poilanejpg.jpg

Another feature was this dead dough chandelier made by Poilane but designed by Salvador Dali. Every two years a baker remakes this – pretty neat.

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The storefront is as simple as their product. They only produce a sourdough miche, a rye boule and they use the miche and rye doughs for two other variations with nuts and dried fruit. They also produce a brioche pan loaf, sable cookies, apple tarts and croissants – that’s pretty much it. Everything is baked in the wood fired oven, so the product has a very rustic quality. Nothing is perfect in the sense that everything is uniformly baked – but everything looks great. And the bread is made exactly as Pierre made it in 1932 – nothing has changed. At the larger site in the 15th arr. where there are 16 working wood-fired ovens, it is the same methodology. Everything is shaped by hand. The ingredients have not changed either – stone-ground flour, guerade (?) salt, dough from the previous day, water.

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Now for the best part – the oven –

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I was blown away by this. I couldn’t get over how deep it was. The baker has a real mastery over the oven- being able to control the temperature in both the front and the back. One boule takes about an hour, but the ones loaded first will be the last to come out, so the back of the oven needs to stay cooler than the front. Talk about stressful!  Pierre (the baker in the photos) is a real pro.  He has been with the company for years.

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I asked about training in the company and it was clear that there is a real culture to the company. They do not take professional bakers – they want people who are willing to learn what they do and how they do it and commit to mastering it because theirs is a very unique way of baking bread. It usually takes years for a baker to man the oven alone.

I really enjoyed this tour – and I am looking forward to possibly seeing the Poilane site in the 15th.

Tomorrow – coffee and touring with Steven Kaplan, Professor of French Studies at Cornell and University of Versailles and expert on the history of french bread , (and who has been a fabulous help with this trip), and then boulangeries in the 15th district. See you!

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