At 3 a.m., I pulled down the single-lane main street and parked in front of the bakery. Sarlat, a small town in the south of France, was still dark, shutters closed, the odd street lamp flickering in the predawn gray. I couldn't help but imagine the town fathers slumbering in their beds. All, that is, but the village baker. The Boulangerie-Patisserie storefront may have been dark, but behind the shuttered facade of the building, something was definitely happening. A wisp of smoke curled out of the chimney. The distinctive odor of burning pine hung heavy in the air. Master baker Amedee Humeau was already hard at work. A knock at the back door went unanswered. I walked in to find him in his mitron (the traditional white baker's hat). As he greeted me, he took a quick peek at his rising loaves before turning on the coffeepot. The arrival of a young American intent on learning the mysteries of French bread was quite out of the ordinary, and in Sarlat, out of the ordinary is an excuse to sit down and celebrate. At 3 a.m., a warm pain au chocolat and a bowl of coffee was just the ticket.
The wood-fired oven, still hot from the previous day's baking, needed a quick burst of heat to come up to temperature. The gueulard (a cast-iron cone) fed flames directly into the baking chamber, and Adee, as he invited me to call him while we sipped our coffee, skillfully directed the heat from the firebox, first to one side of the oven and then to the other, so it was evenly dispersed. By the time we reached the coffee grounds at the bottom of our bowls, I was wrapped in a white apron, well caffeinated (which doubles for hydrated in France), and ready for the day to come. Or so I thought.
The next four hours were filled with a flurry of activity. Adee set me first to one task and then to another in quick succession. The sourdough loaves had been rising for 12 hours and were ready to be baked from the residual heat of this firing. Each successive ovenload required another faggot of wood (an armload of inch-thick branches) and a half hour for the heat to evenly distribute. There were no dials, no steam injectors, no fancy equipment or machinery. Ad?e tested the temperature with a closed fist, which he insisted was far more accurate than any thermometer.
Batches of bread were held overnight in the cool temperatures that prevailed by the back door. This helped ensure a slow, steady rise and gave the sourdough a chance to fully develop the flavor of the flour. Ad?e wheeled more loaves into the baking room for the final rise, giving them a chance to proof in the warm glow of the wood-fired oven.
The bread was baked to golden brown perfection one batch after another. As the loaves came out of the oven on a wooden peel, they were deftly turned into wicker baskets placed helter-skelter around the bakery. The sourdough crackled and popped as it cooled, and its subtle odor permeated the warm air.
From somewhere under the counter, Adee pulled out a large plastic pail with a tight-fitting cover. 'I'd like to introduce you to Popine,' he said. Like a farmer who names his cows, Adee had named his sourdough starter, passed down from generation to generation.
Popine was worthy of her name. She was an old girl with attitude, a bubbling mass of sour-smelling, naturally occurring wild yeast, which needed to be built (fed) each day in preparation for making the next day's bread. He mixed in a carefully measured amount of water, transforming her into a runny mess, reminiscent of cream-colored Elmer's glue. Then he added flour, first mixing it and then kneading it, as if it were already bread dough. When he was done, he gave her a slap, and Popine, now a large, flaccid, loaf-shaped pile of dough, jiggled like a baby's bottom. She had grown by twice her original size and would be given a chance to digest her latest feeding before it was repeated.
By 7 a.m., the bakery was open for business. Baskets of loaves were stacked on shelves behind the counter, around the shop, and anywhere else there was room. A table in the center of the shop was piled high with golden croissants. Multiple tiers of pains au chocolat topped the pile like the crenulations of a French chateau. Madame Humeau ran the counter. Adee and I loaded bread into his small blue Citroen to be delivered to local inns, restaurants, and cafes.
A break for lunch and a short nap broke up the day, and by 3 p.m. we were back in the bakery, where Popine had expanded to fill her pail. Carefully divided, she provided enough raw material for several batches of bread in a large p?trin, a commercial mixer large enough to bathe several children in at once.
The starter was combined with flour, salt, and water to form the dough, which was made in batches. Each batch was carefully measured, and as the afternoon progressed, I noticed that Ad?e used less starter with each. He explained: 'Popine,' whom he insisted on referring to by name, 'gets more and more sour as the day goes by, so I use less of her in each batch and the bread has the same flavor.' The batches were timed to a two-hour interval, to allow the oven to be reheated and the loaves to finish rising in rapid succession the next morning.
The process seemed simple, albeit long, arduous, and somewhat tedious. But the resulting bread was worth the effort -- a crisp crust, a hint of sour (French sourdough is much less sour than its American counterpart), and an irregular crumb. As for me, I thought I had the process down pretty well. In less than 12 hours, I reasoned, I had learned what students of French bakery schools spend months studying. Any vestige of self-doubt evaporated when Adee handed me a small jar containing a piece of Popine -- a parting gift and my personal connection to the history of bread.
Charles Capaldi has three children with bellies full of crusty, whole-grain bread. Excerpted from the Small Farmer's Journal (Winter 2006), winner of the 2005 Utne Independent Press Award for Best Environmental Coverage. Subscriptions: $30/yr. (4 issues) from Box 1627, Sisters, OR 97759; www.smallfarmersjournal.com.