Special Report: Embracing the art of French baking

by Darryl Levings
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In Bordeaux, you can have your history and eat it, too.
 

BORDEAUX, France — In this pulsing heart of the French wine trade, it’s hard to say which may be the more indestructible: the U-boat bunkers in the Bacalan quarter or the bakery oven at 72 Cours de la Martinique.

True, the massive, concrete Nazi submarine pens came though Allied air raids showing only a few “scratches” from 500-lb bombs.

On the other hand, the bread oven inside Au Petrin Moissagais was installed in the 1765, during the reign of the son of the Sun King, and it, so to speak, is just warming up. Muscled of crafted refractory bricks, masked by heavy wrought-iron doors, fed by staves of high-resin wood, it still turns out daily cartloads of its thick loaves.

Here, you can have your history and eat it, too.

It went through the same often-inaccurate air raids, plus la Revolution. Just a few blocks away in Place Gambetta, heads once plopped into baskets like so many Gascons, the heavy sourdough loaves of the Bordeaux region.

These days, at least for a pastry fan, the surest way to lose one’s head is to walk into At Au Petrin Moissagais, the boulangerie owned by Serge Combarieu, at least three dozen different kinds of jewels of baking — including the heavy sourdough loaves of the bakery’s signature le pain Gascon — are arrayed up front in old wooden bins, on bare boards atop saw horses and rustic tables.

Varieties of croissants, pain au chocolat (called chocolatines in Bordeaux), brioche, pain au raisins, mille-feuille (here in the U.S., these go by the alias of “Napoleon”), religieuse, pain de champagne, the trays go on and on. No, we have not forgotten those little fluted cakes that are a regional trademark, la caneles de Bordeaux.

One gains calories just looking. But that can happen at thousands of other French pastry counters. What make this place so unique is found a few steps past the cash register and a few more past a long communal table.

Under a ceiling of arches black with smoke, racks of wood peek from an open door, linens for the baguettes hang from lines, and old, scarred wood pieces are missing their pulls. It’s a bit of a mess, frankly, and the only thing not burdened with bread or supplies or discarded equipment is — oh, l’ironie — a metal French bakery rack.

Details. One is now in the presence.

“It’s a bit like going into church,” as one food critic reverently put it, “with an ancient wood-burning oven for an altar at the far end.”

“Give us this day our daily bread....”

It’s been there since King Louis XV, the powder-wigged guy who lost Canada to the Brits and Marie Antoinette’s father-in-law. Marie, by the way, did not say when the poor had no bread, “Let them eat cake.” Someone may or may not have remarked, “Let them eat brioche,” but that’s actually a higher quality of bread made with eggs and butter. And if those words were uttered, was it in arrogance or sympathy?

But one loses one’s heart to the little wooden “trundle” heaped with footballs of baked sourdough, each as distinctly shaped as a fingerprint.

Anyway, the scene trundles the bakery’s customers back to another age, when neighborhood merchants sat at a table, chewing the thick crust and sharing rumors along with the warmth. Here, a coffee and pastry costs about 8.

The oven has no dials or heat indicators. The baking process just requires hard yeast, salt, water, flour and fire along with wooden paddles and iron hooks that seemingly belong in a blacksmith shop.

If you’re wondering how those sweet viennoiseries could come out of this beast, don’t. In other back rooms are the two modern commercial stainless steel ovens — one electric, one bio-mass — their temperatures more finely tuned for a delicate flour of a mille-feuille.

But it’s the old-oven loaves of le pain Gascon, forged at up to 280°C, that are distributed to 30 central-city restaurants, such as La Brasserie Bordelaise, Le Chapon Fin, La Grande Maison, for each night’s repast.

“I’ve been 33 years without changing the recipe,” Mr. Combarieu said. His family boasts more than a baker’s dozen of bakers, 14.

He has another place southeast in Moissac, “the most beautiful town in the France,” but 14 years ago set up in Bordeaux, a much bigger market — and burgeoning tourist haven. He was 12 when he first got his hands into the flour.

Mr. Combarieu provides few details of his production; he will say he’s been using a blend of hard, soft and new French wheats from the same mill for 30 years.

He employs three other bakers, one who gives the monster oven its first feeding of dry wood at 9 p.m. Mr. Combarieu doesn’t count how many loaves emerge from the oven, three to six times a day. In this Gueulard set-up, with its cast-iron cone funneling the flames, they bake around an hour and a half to acquire that thick crust.

Instead of offering varieties with added ingredients to his bread, he simply offers different shapes and sizes, some sold by Isabelle, his wife, to customers drawn through his front door.

Meager home menus were once planned around the loaves like calendars. Fresh slices were placed on the table early; later in the week — or the next — came the soupier dishes that could be soaked up with the by-now-stale viande (meat), that is, the inside of the bread. One last detail about the place. Up front, above a wooden trough of breads hang black-and-white photographs, one of the actor Raimu. They’re from the 1938 “La Femme du Boulanger.” 

The film is about a baker’s wife who runs off with a shepherd. Heartbroken and adrift, the baker no longer fires up his oven. Crestfallen and hungry, the villagers take matters into their own hands and get her back to him.

We understand completely. Give us our daily bread.

For more on this bakery, see http://www.au-petrin-moissagais.info/

Editor’s Note: Darryl Levings spent more than 40 years as an editor and writer for The Kansas City Star and contributed to the Pulitzer Prize awarded for the Hyatt Regency Hotel disaster. Specializing today in history, he has written "Saddle the Pale Horse,” a book on the Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas border.
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