Delicious Friendship

A French baker, his sourdough starter, and a predawn rendezvous

| May / June 2006

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.

6/23/2014 12:50:28 PM

There are several things you can usually add to the baking to the different (chocolate chips and chocolate powder for chocolate bread).