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
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
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
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;