Baking History

 
In the pulsing heart of the French wine trade in Bordeaux, France, 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-pound bombs. Though the Reich did not survive its promised thousand years, these thick-walled monoliths just might. 
 
On the other hand, the bread oven inside Au Petrin Moissagais was installed in 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 wrought-iron doors, fed by staves of high-resin woods, it still belches out daily cartloads of its heavy loaves. 
 
Yes, 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 Griondes, the heavy 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 Serge Combarieu’s boulangerie. At least three dozen different kinds of jewels of baking are arrayed up front in old wood bins, on bare boards atop saw horses and rustic tables.
 
One gains calories just looking. But that can happen at thousands of 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 to cover the dough hang from lines, and old, scarred wooden 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. 
 
“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.”
   
The scene trundles you back to another age, when neighborhood hogs snuffled outside the back door and neighborhood merchants sat at a table like that, chewing the thick crust and sharing rumors along with the warmth. No dials or heat indicators here. Just hard yeast, salt, flour, and fire. Wooden paddles, iron hooks that belong in a blacksmith shop.
 
It’s the old-oven Gascons, forged at up to 280 degrees Celsius, that are distributed to 30 central-city restaurants, such as La Brasserie Bordelaise, Le Chapon Fin, La Grande Maison, for each night’s repast. 
 
Our happy crowd -- on the annual Global Culinary Escapades tour of the Bordeaux region conducted by Cathy Denis of Overland Park -- shared his smaller version, the pavés (cobblestones) that night. This was at the Le Quatrieme Mur, located in the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, the city’s opera house. 
 
“I’ve been 33 years without changing the recipe,” Combarieu says, one of the few times something is not lost in the translation. We learn 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.
 
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. 
 
To one question, he humorously replies -- unshaven, wearing shorts to withstand the temperature, but donning his beret and striking a pose -- “I’m handsome!” Yes, this is hardly the first time he and his ancient oven have attracted a journalist.
 
He employs three other bakers there, one who gives the monster its first feeding of dry wood at 9 p.m. 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 to 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 petite wife, to customers drawn through his front door.
  
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.
 
 
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.