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The Challenge of Artisan Bread
BakeMag.com, April 13, 2010
by By Tod Bramble, National Sales Manager – Bakery Food Service, King Arthur Flour

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With this issue of Baking Buyer dedicated to artisan baking, I thought it might be nice to travel to Montreal, Quebec, and have a conversation with my friend and longtime baker, James MacGuire. James was born in the United States but has lived in Montreal on and off since he was a child. He started baking around 1980.

For this conversation we spoke over the course of an afternoon and morning but we’ve had many conversations like this. During one such late-night conversation last summer, James suddenly rose and excused himself to pull a sheet pan of perfectly proofed croissants out of a large plastic bag (his “proof box”) and then baked them off for breakfast the next morning.  His restaurant/bakery closed in 2004 after 23 years. Now he consults for bakeries in the US and Canada, but mostly makes his bread in his home kitchen - bread that we have taken to the best restaurants in Montreal to have with our dinner. I’m not sure James would appreciate the label: but he is in fact, a true artisan.

Even though I have known James a long time I really never knew his story of becoming a baker. So I asked:

Tod: I was reading your article (Pain au Levain, The Art of Eating, #83, 2009) and in it you said that the first time you visited Poilane (the celebrated bakery on the Rue de Cherche Midi in Paris) you were a cook and not a baker and sometime between then and when you went back several years later you were a baker. So what happened?

James: In 1980 I met Raymond Calvel. I was in Tour, in France and this restaurant [where I was working] was making its own bread and the boss wasn’t happy with the results. In fact, he was set up like a commercial bakery to make bread for a maximum of 60 people at lunch and 60 people at dinner. So this old guy showed up with a battered school bag and shook hands with everybody and said: "show me the bread you made today, show me the flour, show me the formula."  He went in and had lunch with the boss and left and got right back on the train to Paris leaving a little piece of paper, where, in his tiny hand writing it said, and I don’t remember exactly, "put an extra 200g of water into the dough, and let it ferment 15 minutes more before you divide it." Things which seemed to me to be pretty minor.  So, it was only the next day when they made more bread that they put those changes in and the difference was absolute. And I thought, well, that’s something I need to know more about.

I was in and out of the bake shop because I was the pastry guy and a cook. And I knew of Calvel. I had already read one of his books, because I took everything seriously then, and read every book I could find. And I would go back to that same restaurant on trips back to France. And eventually after one of those trips, around 1983, even though I had always said I would never make bread; there are too many other things that cooks should be doing, making bread is a waste of time, it took specialized equipment, there are more important things, etc. But in spite of that, after one of those trips I went to the health food store, bought some flour and made some bread.  And got bit by the bug!

At this point I asked James how, after he "got bit by the bug", he pursued his baking education, because remember, in 1983, unlike today, there weren't a lot of books written on this subject, there was no Bread Bakers Guild of America.

James: I called up millers. I had friends in the bread business. I had customers in the bread business (James had a highly regarded restaurant in Montreal at this time). I had one who owned the 3rd largest bakery in Quebec.  He brought in the guy who worked for a large Canadian mill…

I think most of us would not consider this the traditional way to go about learning to bake: by talking to flour millers.  But, it makes wonderful sense, especially in the absence of other small scale craft bakers. It got me to thinking about the relationship between millers and bakers.

Tod: As I understand it, the relationship between millers and bakers in France is somewhat different than what is typical here in North America. Can you describe this relationship and how it came about?

James:  According to Hubert Chiron (a friend of James' and a researcher at the French National Agricultural Research Institute) baguettes began appearing on price lists about 1927. Calvel arrived in Paris around 1930-31. And the formula he saw was minimal mix and a 3 or 4 hour fermentation, divided and shaped.

There was a baker in Paris by the name of Gerard Meunier who, in 1987, was making this Calvel style baguette and was having trouble finding flour without fava bean flour in it. (Fava bean flour is a traditional oxidizer that is allowed by French law.)  Anyways, Meunier was making this traditional recipe and was having trouble finding flour without fava, and he called up the Viron Flour Mill in Chartres. And Philippe Viron said, "you want flour without fava in it? You’re going to make pancakes." And Meunier told him to, "Come see what I am making in my bakery."

And Philippe Viron, the father of the current owner [of the mill] showed up and he was floored at what he saw and he took the recipe and worked it out so that it could be pretty fool proof and that is how they invented the "Retrodor" baguette,where, if you buy the flour (milled by Viron) you are also buying yourself into the recipe, and they will let you come to the mill and they'll teach you how to make it and then you can use that recipe and they have their own bag and stuff like that. They do all the promotional stuff. So bakeries can have the "Retrodor" [logo] on the outside [of their bakery].

Tod: So are there other mills that have this relationship with their customers?

James: I think there must be 10 - 15 of them by now. There has always been this much closer relationship between millers and bakers than here. A miller like Viron can set you up in business.

At this point, and for the next several hours, the discussion turned to flour, a subject that James has been spending a lot time thinking about lately. While the conversation on flour took many twists and turns, common themes emerged: the longer temper times found in France, and one particular mill in Montreal (tempering is where wheat is wetted; it may be upwards of 24 hours prior to milling in France versus a standard 8 hours here in the US); the higher extraction rates of French flours; and, what James considers the perfect flour for his pain au levain: a stone ground, sifted, Type 80 flour.

The French system of flour nomenclature involves identifying a class of flours by its ash content.  Examples include Type 55 (the traditional flour for baguettes), Type 110 (a dark flour used in rustic ‘miche’-style loaves, and Type 150 (whole wheat) among others. The French calculate ash (and protein) based on a dry matter basis whereas here in the US we calculate using a 14% moisture basis. For comparison a French Type 55 flour would have a 0.48% ash and 9.4% protein as calculated here in the US.

James writes extensively about Type 80 flour in his Pain au Levain article in the Art of Eating (reference earlier) and I encourage you to seek it out. A typical method for approximating a Type 80 would be to blend about 33% of whole wheat with white flour. Another method James uses is to sift whole wheat flour on a fairly fine mesh sieve but even this is an approximation as most whole wheat flours here in the US are primarily roller milled.  James has managed to find a small miller in Quebec who is making a stone ground, sifted flour that, while he is not certain what the ash content is, appears to be a pretty good approximation for a Type 80 flour.
By late the next morning I knew our conversation had to conclude as it was time for me to go.  I was curious about his thoughts on the future of artisan baking.

Tod: You started baking pretty much as this movement was getting underway in the early 1980s, and you having been baking ever since. So where do you think artisan baking in North America is going from here? Where does it need to go from here to keep the momentum going?

James: I don't know. I find that very tough to know. I just hope that people keep at it, and don't become too jaded or cynical.

Tod: Of course bakery automation will continue to do a better and better job at making this style of bread, which, I suppose, is inevitable, and my fear is that this will lead to fewer and fewer truly skilled craftspeople: it takes fewer bakers to make these high quality breads when some degree of automation is employed.

James: I think that only the very best bakers will survive. Certainly there will be people around making bread using automation that will be surprisingly good. I have seen that many times: 80% hydration, for example.  There are certain equipment companies that have the technical expertise, they have listened to Calvel, and they are doing everything right.  And more and more that will be the case.  Years ago I saw some of the early attempts to make artisan breads using automation and the results weren't very good. And I said to myself, we can survive this. But it is going to be tougher to survive the quality of bread the current equipment is producing.

Often during our conversations about baking James exhibits this profound concern for the artisan baker. He knows how hard a job it is and to execute it at the level that he feels is befitting the craft is certainly a challenge even for the most dedicated. But I also come away from these conversations with an awareness of what is possible and how much is left to accomplish. 

I knew James was cooking for a private party the next night and, as he often does, he was bringing his bread.  As he finished answering my questions he was weighing out the flour, and adjusting the temperature of the water. Now, he was gently kneading his levain into to the flour and water patiently explaining to me his methods. 


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